Days That Are Awful—Or Awe-Filled

Yamim Nora’im usually means Days of Awe. The forgiveness-seeker in Yehuda Amichai’s poem hears the phrase differently; for him, they are awful days.

Forgive me already now, three months
before the awful days of forgiveness.
I fear that I won’t get there.
I scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year.

Grapes ripen in their season.
So how will sins and their atonement ripen in one day?

(Click here for Amichai poem in Hebrew and English)

The seeker is eager for the atonement work of The Day—but not when it is condensed into only one day! For him, the Day of Atonement together with the nine preceding Days of Awe are an artificial season—awful, and too far away! Perhaps he staggers under the weighty personal burden of sin too great to bear for three more months. Perhaps he feels fragile and mortal. In either case, his worry is clear: I fear that I won’t get there.

He argues that grapes ripen in their season. Sins and atonement should have growing seasons as well; watered and warmed by personal climates and rhythms, ripening in their own time. Ripe sins and atonement are homegrown, not imported. Atonement out of season is chalky, tasteless, and artificial.

To scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year is to seed every day with the work of The Day, and to be ready for its harvests.

Amichai’s forgiveness-seeker might draw the admiration of the 2nd century sage, Rabbi Eliezer, who encouraged his own students to pursue the work of The Day every day and not to wait for the season of forgiveness and atonement. The sage might speak across the centuries to Amichai’s modern seeker:

I wish that my students could conceive of sins ripening into awareness; producing fruits of atonement, each in its own season. But they, like most of us, are not inclined to spread the Day of Atonement over the whole year! Listen to how I tried to draw my students to understand what you already know. The conversation has been preserved in the Talmud: Repent one day before you die, I said. They asked me: But does one know the day before one is to die? This was the response that I had hoped for! It allowed me to say: All the more so, one should repent each day for perhaps he will die tomorrow. That way, one spends each day in repentance! Solomon, in his wisdom, said it: At all times let your garments be white… (Ecclesiastes 9:8).

(Click here for the Talmud passage in Hebrew and English)

I firmly believe what I told my students. While I agree that sins have their own seasons, I am also certain that mortality is the hothouse that quickly ripens awareness; and there is one ripening mortal moment equal to them all. However, uncertainty makes each moment into The Moment.

Unlike you, Rabbi Eliezer might continue, most people are unable to live each day in the ripening environment of mortality. Individuals distance themselves each day from the fear that I won’t get there. In my language, they are unable to engage in the work that is best done on the day before you die… 

I understand your impatience with certain days marked for forgiveness and atonement. But to call them awful days shows impatience—even disrespect—for that which the community needs: a season for frailty and ripening, a time to let your garments be white… Most of us do not scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year. Rather, we rely on those days that bring the entire community into a season of ripening-through-mortality.

For individuals who live in the world like Amichai’s seeker, or like Rabbi Eliezer, those days might be out-of-season and, perhaps, awful. But for the community that collectively recognizes the life changing power of mortality, the days are awesome. It is for the sake and honor of the community that the days are called Days of Awe.

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2 Responses to Days That Are Awful—Or Awe-Filled

  1. irwin weiss says:

    A beautiful drash and beautiful thoughts.

    “Most of us do not scatter the Day of Atonement over the surface of the whole year.” Quite true.
    Though, for those who choose to recite it, the daily Amidah does contain “s’lach lanu…..”, thus at least referencing atonement on a daily basis, morning and evening. Of course, the rapid recitation and mindless mumbling of these words during the Amidah is insufficient to really achieve atonement when not accompanied by behavioral change.

    Best to all for a Shana Tova U’Metukah.
    Irwin Weiss

  2. Raoul Weinstein says:

    Steve, an eloquent and thought-provoking essay on your part, as usual. I would like to add my thoughts today, the day after Yom Kippur:

    I, too, find the Day of Atonement to be a Day of Awe. I find that any day of the year, when I choose to pray to G-d, whenever and wherever it may be, there is a feeling of Awe in my heart. I always ask G-d to forgive me for “any bad and evil” things I have done in the past and to also forgive me for the same in the future. Those are ALWAYS the first words in my prayer. What is of awe to me is to feel that G-d hears me and can judge me in THAT moment. So what is it about Yom Kippur, a single day of the year, that draws Awe and fear into my being as I sit in services and ask G-d for the same things that I do often throughout the year? Is it knowing that it is on THIS day that he will close the book, or the gates, for the coming year? Does it make my prayers on THIS day more important than on any other day? Is my atonement any greater on THIS day? I don’t know. But the expression “G-d-fearing man” applies to me, and it is on the Day of Atonement, THIS day, that fear and awe are known to me more so that on any other day of the year. I guess I don’t see THIS day as an aw-ful day but as an AWE-full day. The day I want to be aware of G-d (and him of me) like no other day of the year.

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