At this moment of writing I sit in my home-study, the early morning quiet contoured by impending rain clouds that promise a wet Atlanta morning.
The clock on the wall, set above my ordination degree bearing signatures of my teachers before me, softly ticks and tocks with each second. The sound both soothes and beckons me with potential and with challenge. And in front of me, a blank page stares back, demanding words to share that are ripe with inspiration, aspiration and meaning.
Perhaps in the space between the ticking seconds, and through the glaring white page, the metaphor calls out to us, “Yes, it is right here. Open your eyes and be awake!”
The high holidays are around the corner. Each year the weeks leading up to them are heavy with a certain weighted intensity that our Jewish tradition fosters as a positive and necessary experience. The backdrop of the harvest (yesteryear), the new semester, an uncertain economy, and the shifting sands that come with COVID-19 are all part of the atmosphere. But the real pressure that Judaism prescribes is the proverbial tick of the clock and glaring white pages of our lives still to be lived. There is a spiritual urgency that stirs in us.
This year especially we ask the question: What will we do with our time to make the very most of the days that we have left? (tick … tock)
In the Book of Life (Sefer HaChayim) where we implore God to inscribe us each new year, what will we choose to write on that glaring blank page? For the pen is in our hands, as are the stories, words and deeds…
These questions form the backbone not only of our high holidays, but of synagogue life, and of our collective lives. The stakes presented in these existential questions are far from hypothetical, but rather are intensely personal.
For this reason, the high holidays are often referred to as the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, for it is with “awe” that we are cautioned to approach the honest assessment we are asked to make of ourselves and our lives. Our liturgy calls this a Heshbone HaNefesh, an Accounting of the Soul.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel helps us understand the concept of “awe,” and our approach to it, by asking us how we might approach the Grand Canyon. Perhaps you have been there. Imagine standing right on the edge, looking out and down. It is vast. It is truly incredible. It makes us simultaneously feel insignificant and luminous. With our toes on the edge of the precipice, we gaze into the abyss, all the while knowing that our feet rest on firm and unshakable ground. That is “awe,” a mixture of elation and fear. Elation for what we could yet achieve with our lives, our relationships, and our ability to appreciate the invaluable worth of each moment. Fear of falling far short of our potential, squandering our relationships, and closing our eyes to the beauty and meaning that permeates our precious days.
On Rosh HaShanah when we pray to be inscribed in the book of life, we are not just praying for more time on earth, but we are jolting ourselves awake to really, truly live!
א Avinu Maleinu, kotveinu b’sefer chayim tovim.
Our benevolent God, inscribe us (and may we have the courage to inscribe ourselves) in the Book of Lives Well Lived. May our people, and good people everywhere, be blessed; and in turn, bless one another. And may this year be a sweet year for us all.
Rabbi Spike Anderson is senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El.