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These Days of Awe
Steven Schnur. A reflection on entering the synagogue on the High Holy Days and "staring at the undeniable alteration a single year has wrought upon the familiar landscape of family and friends." Fall 2004.

THESE DAYS OF AWE

by Steven Schnur

t's the children, at first, that inspire awe, the infants now walking, the toddlers talking, the grade schoolers freshly combed and pressed, the high schoolers immense, the college students all but unrecognizable in their newfound sophistication. The brief span of twelve months has metamorphosed them all. They enter the sanctuary this Rosh Hashanah morning with an eye to audience and reunion, conscious, as at few other times, of their own growth and maturity, the oldest children flanking their parents with an air of independence, the slick-haired sons towering over balding fathers, the bejeweled daughters as carefully coifed and clothed as their mothers, all proud of what they have become.

Change is everywhere: new siblings sit wedged between the old, once-single adults arrive partnered, young wives enter expectant, older couples return fractured, cleaved in twain by death or divorce. Gravity exerts its inexorable pull upon the bowed backs of the oldest congregants; the cast of many a head has grown silver; chins have sprouted beards, foreheads become more deeply furrowed, eyes less acute.

I sit among my own altered children marveling at this tidal wave of transformation passing through our midst, hoisting some as it submerges others, bearing all of us, inexorably, toward eternity. From day to day the alchemy of aging goes unremarked, even as our children molt before our eyes. We are not meant to be conscious of every instant of change, preferring not to be reminded of the mortality and uncertainty it implies. We seek instead a reassuring constancy, a routine that grounds and sustains us, though we know our time here is all too finite, that even as we feel most anchored, we are slowly, imperceptibly, drifting out to sea. The image in today's mirror looks no different than the one that greeted us yesterday. But a snapshot of that face a year hence tells a very different tale.

And those snapshots are what we carry with us as we enter the synagogue these High Holy Days and stare in amazement at the undeniable alteration a single year has wrought upon the familiar landscape of family and friends. It is both exhilarating and alarming, and it, more than the prayers we have come together to recite, prepares us for these Days of Awe, this personal accounting of conduct and intention, impulse and resolve.

The prospect is daunting as we join our kinsfolk and face squarely into the probing light of conscience. There is no interlocutor but the self, and perhaps no other judge. We arraign ourselves before a court of inquiry, concede doubt and weakness, ask for certainty and strength, then render judgment, emerging chastened, cleansed, perhaps annealed. We give thanks for blessings and acknowledge the fragility of our contentments, knowing that tomorrow may challenge our every conviction, undermine our serenity, rob us of everything we hold dear.

And as we sit side by side, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, parents and children, we discover portals to conciliation where perhaps only provocation and resistance prevailed. We rediscover tenderness and vulnerability and the myriad contradictions of our humanness. Against a backdrop of responsive prayer, we reflect upon the great challenges of parenting, on marriage's call to remain emotionally committed, on the biblical injunction to honor our aging and increasingly infirm parents. We recite the liturgy of awe--admissions of frailty and failure, entreaties for greater understanding, for strength, for forgiveness. The gnawing hunger of Yom Kippur afternoon begins in the murmuring mouth of Rosh Hashanah, as we empty the casks of self-justification, discarding great stores of blind self-interest, and live for a time consuming nothing but the thought of our own imperfection.

And yet...while these Days of Awe clarify and distill us, they cannot sustain us. We are not cloistered contemplatives; we require a richer diet, one free of the astringent bite of continuous self-scrutiny. We need to live, to test our resolve. The gates will close, the great accounting will conclude for another year, and we will turn back to life renewed by these days of honest soul searching, passing from assessment to action.

As the final song is sung, I turn to my family, wondering what has passed through their hearts during these hours of prayer. My son seems wrung out by so much stasis, eager to shed his confining clothes, grab a basketball, and burst back into the light. My daughters yearn for the disembodied voices of friends, silver cell phones shimmering in their restless hands. My wife looks upon them with gratitude, awakening anew to the miracle of their presence in our lives, their youth, their beauty, their remarkable growth. She kisses each cheek, then takes my face in her hands and murmurs, "L'shana tova."

May it be so for us all.

Steven Schnur, a member of Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, New York, teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College.

Commemorating The High Holy Days:

A Selection of Union Resources

  • Reaching for Holiness: A Study Guide for S'lichot, the High Holy Days, & Sukkot (download at http://urj.org/holidays/sukkot)
  • The Jewish Parent Page, Volume VII, No 1 (http://urj.org/educate/parent/) offers guidance on the meaning and observances of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as a holiday schedule.
  • A Faithful Heart: Preparing for the High Holidays, by Benjamin Levy, presents a midrashic character study of Abraham as a means of examining such High Holy Day themes as teshuvah, belief in God, and the efficacy of prayer. Please contact the URJ Press at 888-489-8242, e-mail press@urj.org, or visit http://urjpress.com.
  • Sophie and the Shofar, by Fran Manushkin, teaches readers ages 4-8 the lessons of forgiveness and teshuvah (repentance). Contact the URJ Press (see above).
  • The High Holy Days, a board book by Camille Kress, introduces young children to High Holiday symbols and themes (URJ Press).
  • Rosh Hashanah: A Holiday Funtext, by Judy Bin-Nun and Franne Einhorn, involves readers ages 5-10 in holiday activities (URJ Press).
  • The New Beginning: Highlights of the Jewish High Holy Days, a video by Rita Rosen, discusses the holidays' evolution, symbols, and traditions (URJ Press).
  • Shirei T'shuvah: Songs of Repentance (book) presents 300+ pieces for solo voice and accompaniment (URJ Press).
  • Shirei T'shuvah: Songs of Repentance includes 5 CDs of High Holy Day solo voice music (URJ Press).
  • Yamim Noraim Vol. 1 offers a comprehensive collection of 79 choral pieces for Rosh Hashanah; Vol. 2 includes 81 pieces for Yom Kippur (URJ Press).
  • Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) includes 5 CDs of High Holy Day choral music; Yamim Noraim Highlights presents highlights of the 5-CD set (URJ Press).


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