Awe, Reconciliation and The Magic of Stars

Diversity-tree-wooden-hands.  iStock by Getty images. 482879503. Used with permission.
Cienpies. Maldonado, Uruguay 

September 22, 2023

One morning in our daily crossword puzzle I was reminded of the Perry Como song “Catch a falling star”.  My memory continued in my mother’s voice, “put it in your pocket and save it for a rainy day.” My grandson says the only real magic is wishing on a star. There’s some truth in that, depending on how you understand magic.

Anything that takes our breath away in wonder has the magic of mystery, inspiring the awe of being part of Something bigger than we are. I am awed by the greatness of the universe.

The modern use of “awesome” doesn’t capture the older meaning of the word. A century ago when people described something as “awe-full,” (awful,) the word communicated, “dread mixed with admiration or veneration and was related to biblical use with reference to the Supreme Being.”  (1)

This week Jews are celebrating Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a solemn examination of conscience to acknowledge and turn from personal and societal living that has hurt others. Rabbi Rick Jacobs wrote: “In the Hebrew – “Yirah” – the root of the word “Nora-im” means “awe” but also “fear.” For Jacobs, fear is not connected with the Divine but with our broken human relationships. (2)

In 2019 on the Eve of the Jewish New Year Rosh Hashanah, Jacobs noted that “a real fear grips too many of us.” He was referring to fear for personal safety in a racist and antisemitic climate. Jacobs wrote about “the awe that awaits us if we can conquer our fears. We yearn deeply for holy communities that embrace us fully – including our doubts and our commitments. (2)

How human is it when fears cause us to hurt others and keeps us from finding relationships where we are accepted and affirmed. Sometimes we fear rejection or criticism from those who are near us so we mount a defensive attack before we need it. For example, I imagine from people’s expressions or in their silence that for some reason they don’t like me. I could be totally wrong but my fear of being unaccepted makes me relate to them in a defensive, aloof way.

In a larger context, whether through fear of having not enough ourselves, or fear of the “other” or fear of speaking up, we collude with others in exploiting and oppressing whole groups and nations of people. The historical and present relationship of non-Indigenous people with North American Indigenous peoples is an example of this oppression that is remembered on September 30, Canada’s National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.  

At first, I was puzzled that “Days of Awe,” is another way for Jews to refer to “Days of Repentance.” Like Rabbi Jacobs, I don’t connect “fear of God” with awe and I was trying to make sense of what awe has to do with repentance, that is, with making peace by mending broken relationships. The connection was made for me by Black Elk, an Oglala Sioux Spiritual leader.

Black Elk wrote: “The True Peace, the first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness, with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells Wakan-Taka (the Great Spirit), and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us. This is the real peace, and peace between individuals and nations are but reflections of the True Peace.” That sounds like “Awe” to me. (3)

We feel awe when we recognize the presence of Something much greater and vaster than we are. When we recognize that we belong and are a part of this great universe, then we do not feel diminished in the shadow of Greatness, nor do we see ourselves as better or more important than others. Accepting ourselves and accepting others is a formula for right relationships with others.

Jews have Days of Awe to impel them towards restoring right relationships. Indigenous wisdom calls us to develop a habit of being Awed by the greatness and diversity of the world in which we live. My grandson reminded me that stars are the real magic. As the days grow shorter, and darkness arrives sooner, may I take the time to notice the stars and be awed. People have been wowed by stars for millenia. May I be one of this ageless community that is awed by Mystery of the universe in which we live.

Gratitude Prompt: Give thanks for the moments that take my breath away in awe.

  1. https://www.etymonline.com/word/awe
  2. https://urj.org/blog/days-fear-or-days-awe
  3. https://www.inspirationforthespirit.com/native-american-wisdom/
  4. Some readers might relate to this perspective on the Days of Awe: https://aish.com/the-days-of-awe-some/
  5. On Rosh Hashanah, Days of Awe and Yom Kipper: https://onbeing.org/programs/sharon-brous-days-of-awe/