Sometimes I wish I were an atheist. What I know and believe would then be limited to what I could see, touch and understand with this human mind of mine. It would be so comfortable and reassuring to be able to ignore and even deny that there are realities at work in the universe beyond what I, myself a created being, can grasp. How sweet it would be to bring the vastness, complexity and mystery of all that is down to such a known plane and human scale.
But it is just not possible for me to be an atheist because that would require that I deny a whole dimension of my own experience. There are many things that can be understood perfectly well with the mind, like how viruses cause disease and the temperature at which water boils or freezes. But there are things that I experience that ring of truth, or that drop heavy hints about realities that exist beyond my intellectual understanding, that I’d have to dismiss in order to accord reality only to what I can explain with logic and scientific proof. Though I can’t catch those experiences in a box, weigh them or dissect them with a scalpel, they are very real to me, and they tell me things about the universe and my existence that are profound
I took my 18-month-old granddaughter to the park for the first time recently. She sat in the grass and studied it for a few minutes, absorbing its texture, color, fragility and perhaps even that smell of freshness. It occurs to me now that what she experienced in those moments was awe in a pure form, unbridled curiosity about our vast world as received through all her senses.
Watching a child attempt to understand our universe can be an experience of awe in and of itself. Further, it reminds me of how much we adults take for granted. Yet upon conscious reflection, we can still go back and recall the amazement in discovering these wonders for the first time. When was the last time you stared at a flower, a spider’s web, the moon or even the lines on your own palm?
I came to this country in May 1963 at the age of ten. My background with Judaism was going to High Holidays at a synagogue where women sat upstairs and my wonderful grandfather Salomon would look up and mouth to us, “Shhhhhh.” I knew he was someone important in the shul since he was always banging on a table to make the congregation stop talking. I knew it was very important that we were Jewish, but it was something I was not allowed to talk about outside the family. Argentina was not friendly to Jews, my mom used to say.
When we arrived in Brooklyn, my father handed me a Jewish star and said, “Here we can be true Jews!” I think I spent the past 50 years trying to figure out what that meant. During the rebellious 1970s I used to call us “Hallmark Jews” because we celebrated the holidays. I studied all kinds of religions, traditions, EST, inner child, and I even went to live and study in Israel for two years in a program called Sherut La’am. I loved the country and the language, and I became a very conscientious Zionist.
Having always been a “new age” child on the path of personal growth, I found Mussar to be a breath of Jewish fresh air. I was at Yom Limmud in Houston taking a Jewish meditation class with Dr. Sam Axelrad. When it was over, I heard him tell a man about the Mussar group he was starting. My left ear grew like Minnie Mouse’s, as I closed in to hear where I needed to enroll. It was like a conversion. I inquired of Sam three times where to come. I think he perhaps had it in his mind that it would be all doctors or men.
My higher power convinced Sam I should be in the group. From that moment on, I was transformed. Mussar was just what I had been looking for. I could let go of all the other searching and wanting. I could use the skills I had learned in other venues to really take that leap to my personal growth, moreso in a Jewish way.
Let me begin with my wishes to you for a healthy, happy, and uplifting High Holiday season. With Yom Kippur fast approaching, our thoughts turn quickly to the Days of Awe and what we need to do to make the most of them. This is the time when Awe truly contains the extra element of Fear that is most effectively conveyed in the Hebrew word Yirah.
Yet if we just pay attention, we can be in awe daily, throughout the day. Whether it’s awe of nature, awe of our responsibility in the world, or awe of the people in our lives, we just need to wake up and take notice.
A verse from Psalm 16 shows up in many synagogues inscribed over the ark. It reads:
:שִׁוִּיתִי יְהוָה לְנֶגְדִּי תָמִיד
(Shiviti Adonai L'negdi Tamid)
“I place God before me always.” –Psalms 16:8
Subsequent generations have recognized that this is a practice. In fact, the holy is in front of our eyes and nose with every breath we take, but do we see? It takes a conscious act of practice to renew the fresh awareness that the Holy One is in every moment. And the outcome is awe.
The practice of calling attention to the divine presence has led to the creation of a tradition of artworks known as the shiviti (the first word of the line from the Psalm). Shivitis are often complex and beautiful images that are drawn or painted as objects of meditative contemplation. In the 18th and 19th centuries many elaborately decorated contemplative paintings were made to be hung on the eastern wall of synagogues, where they served as a reminder that at every moment we are standing in the presence of God.
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