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Prayerbook Vocabulary Studies
January 30, 2007
© Rabbi Jack Moline

The prefix "ha" means "the" in Hebrew, so the question is "what does `nora' mean?

The more familiar form of this word is "yir'ah," which has two legitimate translations, related but not identical. Yir'ah can mean either "fear" or "awe." Those words are farther apart in English than in Hebrew because the former implies a perception of danger and the second an appreciation of majesty. In Hebrew, especially as related to things divine, the word carries a connotation of sacred anxiety or, as Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel translated it, "radical amazement."

Heschel's 100th birthday occurred earlier this month, so it is a good time to renew an appreciation of his work. He identifies "yir'ah" as the midpoint between wonder and wisdom. Wonder, that combination of curiosity and delight, is what draws us to the mystery inherent in our existence. Awe is the response to our appreciation of the nature of that mystery. Wisdom is a sense of the place of that mystery in the world.

Heschel distinguishes between wisdom and intellect. The intellectual, says Heschel, seeks to break down the object of curiosity into component parts in order to reassemble it. In a sense, the intellectual seeks to own (that is, master) the world. Wisdom impels a human being to appreciate the wholeness of the object of curiosity. In that sense, the wise person seeks to become one with the world and its fullness. There is a place for each in the world, of course. Neither substitutes for the other, even as they struggle with each other for preeminence.

Wonder, says Heschel, is the beginning of awe. And awe, he says, quoting the Bible, is the beginning of wisdom. Yir'ah can mean fear or awe; "nora" means an embodiment of yir'ah, that is, fearsome or awesome. While awe may be the beginning of wisdom, the unfortunate appropriation of the word "awesome" into American slang has resulted in "Awesome!" being the end of conversation.

So when encountering the word "Hanora" as a descriptor of God, it is helpful to keep in mind the purpose of awe the expression of radical amazement at the mystery before us, and the beginning of a voyage into intimate knowledge, one-ness with The One. God who is Nora is the one who takes our world that we have broken down into its component parts and leads us to an appreciation of its wholeness and fullness, and a sense that we are a part of it as well.


Special note: On Thursday and Friday, Jan 25 & 26, Yahoo experienced technical difficulties that resulted in delayed distribution of most postings to various groups. As a result, "P23 -- Hagibor" did not reach most of you until Monday, Janaury 29. My apologies! I don't always have the time to write earlier in the week, but I am pretty diligent about posting before Shabbat. It is a relief to discover that, occasionally, I am more dependable than the Internet!

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