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August 4, 2023

The Imperative of Awe

Angela W. Buchdahl

This transcript was edited and formatted by a third party and may vary from the live sermon delivered at Shabbat.

Fear and Awe
Rabbi Angela Buchdahl

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of the Israelites’ wandering, hitting the highlights and lowlights of their last 40 years, but this time with Moses as the first-person narrator. 

In our parashah this week, Ekev, Moses relays a new, very important message from God: “​​And now, O Israel, what does Adonai your God demand of you? Only this…”

Before I say, “What do you think is the one thing that God demands of us?” 

To do justice? To be compassionate? To keep Shabbat?

No. Moses says, “Only this: That you fear Adonai your God.”

Fear God? Of all the things, only this? Wouldn’t we all be more comfortable if we could just love God, not fear God?

In ancient times, there was no higher praise than to be “God-fearing.” The quintessential example were the Hebrew midwives. When they were given the command by Pharaoh to kill all Hebrew males, the midwives refused, because—the text said—“They feared God.”  

Had they acted out of their own interests, or fear of Pharaoh, they would have followed his command. Instead, they were God-fearing and risked their lives to spare the babies. They understood that they were beholden to a higher authority, a transcendent morality.  

Now you might argue that the midwives just feared God’s punishment more than Pharaoh’s. But many commentators help us understand that this isn’t the kind of fear we think of as “being afraid.” There is a word for that kind of fear, pachad.  

Rather, the word used here in the Hebrew is Yirah, which is fear that is more like trembling, reverent awe. In Hebrew, Yirah means both fear and awe. They are one and the same.

So we could actually translate this verse as, “What does God command of you? Only this, to feel awe for Adonai your God.”

Maimonides reinforces this understanding of Yirah, in the beginning of Mishneh Torah: “And what is the way of fearing God? When a man reflects upon God’s wondrous great works and creatures and perceives from them God’s inestimable and infinite wisdom, he at once loves, praises, glorifies, and yearns greatly to know the Great Name…”

Maimonides describes how “fearing” God is actually about feeling awe. He then goes on to say what this awe makes us feel: “And when man meditates on these things, he…will fear and tremble and know that he is a small, lowly, dark creature standing with slight insignificant understanding before [God who is] perfect in understanding.” (Laws of the Foundations of the Torah, 2:2)

We don’t usually seek out that feeling of being a small, dark, lowly creature before God, but the humility that arises from this yirah is an important religious stance. And it’s not so bad to feel this way at times. Judaism teaches us that this kind of smallness does not make us insignificant; but rather, it inspires us to serve something much bigger than ourselves—as the midwives did.  

And now there is scientific research to back up this ancient understanding. In the past, awe has been one of the least studied emotions by science, in part, because there is no easy facial expression for awe. But the first landmark study was done around 20 years ago by none other than our Central congregant Dr. Jonathan Haidt together with Dr. Dacher Keltner, who recently wrote a book on Awe and with which I have been a little obsessed with lately. 

Their studies showed that an awe encounter was the experience of feeling small in the face of vastness which defied our comprehension. And accommodation—which is the scientific term for how a person expands their understanding of the world as they attempt to include this new information.  

Keltner in his book on the science of awe, studies thousands of people from 26 cultures and creates a taxonomy of the 8 wonders that most inspire awe in all humans. As you might guess, they include music, nature, visual beauty, birth and death, religious experiences, and intellectual epiphanies. And more surprising sources of awe like “collective effervescence,” which is masses of people moving together with shared attention, like the way we bowed to the Sabbath Bride tonight.  

And the number one source of awe Keltner found? Moral beauty, which is the extraordinary acts of kindness, sacrifice, grit, courage, and transcendence that ordinary humans do. The greatest source of awe in the world are other people. 

I feel grateful that I am in the awe business and that creating these experiences and being inspired by the awe from this community is at the heart of our work.  

But the experience of awe is not always positive—it takes us out of our comfort zone. And if we can’t make sense of this vastness that awe opens up, it can be terrifying or destabilizing. Which is why our ancestors were wise when they made the word fear and awe one and the same. 

It’s hard to feel small. 

It’s uncomfortable to be in the presence of something beyond our understanding. But when we do accommodate or incorporate this experience of awe into our worldview, it is nothing short of revelation. The proverbs affirms this saying: 

“The beginning of wisdom is yirat haShem—fear of the Lord.” (Prov 9:10) 

Subsequent studies by Haidt and Keltner and others have shown that experiences of awe reduce our ego and turn our attention outwards, instead of toward the self. It makes us want to connect to that bigger presence we are sensing. One study shows that if someone looks up into a tree for even a minute or two–we become more generous, more willing to sacrifice for others.

So I am now convinced by this verse, perhaps you are too, that if God commands only one thing—yirat haShem, reverential awe—that maybe it is indeed the key to a meaningful, purposeful life. For with yirah—we experience humility and ego-reduction. We feel more connected to others, more willing to sacrifice and be generous, and, ultimately, more able to come to new understandings of the world, to gain wisdom. 

But you have to take the first step. You have to be willing to start with the sometimes destabilizing, sometimes fearsome experience of trembling awe to get there. And no one can make you feel that. In fact, the Rashi commentary on this verse reads: “Everything is in the hands of heaven, except for the fear of heaven.”—Berachot 33b

It’s in your hands. Will you observe what God demands? Only this, to seek yirah, and reclaim what it means to be a God-fearing person. 

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.