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Awe Second Day of Rosh Hashana

The 5th symphony, the 9th symphony, Moonlight Sonata, Fidelio, those are just a smattering of the avalanche of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s musical output. In total, he wrote nine symphonies, 32 piano sonatas, one opera, five piano concertos, and many chamber works. But it wasn’t the volume that set him apart. Beethoven was one of the most influential of composers, acting as a bridge in guiding the West from the Classical era of music to the Romantic.

His home, in Bonn, Germany, has been preserved and serves as a museum. The crown gem of the museum is the piano upon which Beethoven composed most of his renowned works. The almost 200 year-old piano is estimated to be worth more than $50 million and is understandably roped off and out of the reach of the thousands of visitors who pass it by each day.

Years ago, a group of students from Vassar College visited the museum. One of the students, upon entering the room that held the piano couldn’t resist the temptation to ask a museum guard if she could play it for just a moment. The guard allowed himself to be influenced by her rather generous tip and let the young woman beyond the ropes for a few moments. She sat at the famed piano and knocked out several bars of Moonlight Sonata, and when she finished, her classmates broke into applause.

As she stepped back through the ropes, the young woman asked the guard, “I suppose over the years, all the great pianists that have come here have played the piano?”

“No, miss,” the guard replied. “In fact, just two years ago I was standing in this very place when Ignacy Paderewski, the famous pianist and composer, visited the museum. He was accompanied by the director of the museum and the international press, who had all come in the hope that he would play Beethoven’s piano.

“When he entered the room he stood over there, where your friends are standing, and gazed at the piano in silent contemplation for almost fifteen minutes. The director of the museum then invited him to play the piano, but with tears welling in his eyes Paderewski declined, saying that he was not worthy of even touching it.”

About a month ago, the shul secretary left a card from the Yom Kippur appeal on my desk (show). It said, “High Holy Days Appeal Card” and she had circled the word “holy” and added a question mark. She was wondering if we should edit the cards so that they would say, High Holidays.

I thought about for a few moments and I realized that no, High Holy Days was actually the correct term, because these ten days, from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur are not holidays. The nature of these ten days is radically different than Sukkot, Chanukkah, Pesach, or Purim. Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, are holy days. In Hebrew they are the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe.

And awe, like the student who played on Beethoven’s piano, is something that we, as a society, are terribly lacking.

Awe, according to the Webster dictionary is defined as a strong feeling of fear or respect, or wonder.

When was the last time we felt fear, respect, or wonder?

When was the last time we couldn’t find our breath?

When was the last time we were truly amazed?

There is an old Yiddish poem about an orange that was brought to a small, poor shtettel somewhere in Eastern Europe. The town-folk had never tasted, let alone seen an orange in their lives. And so when the orange was brought to town, everyone left work early that day. They gathered at the market place, and each and every person had a chance to hold and smell the orange. They admired its radiant color, they took in its powerful citrusy-sweet smell, and allowed their fingers to caress the smooth grooves of the fruit before passing it on to their friend.

The next day, they gathered again as the orange was peeled. They crowded together so they could catch the burst of juice as the peel was punctured for the very first time. Some of the peel was grated and a lucky few were able to go home with some orange zest. The remaining peels were chopped and then distributed among the community members so they could each make a tiny little batch of marmalade.

The next day, they gathered again. This was the grand finale. They all stood in silence as one woman delicately peeled apart each segment of the orange. The people admired the ingenuity and uniqueness of a fruit that needs no chopping or dividing, a fruit that’s readily available for sharing. They oohed and aahd as the sections were separated and a chosen few were given an orange piece of their own to eat, to savor and to enjoy.


Now let me tell you how I eat an orange. I absentmindedly peel it while talking to three of my children at once. The only thing I’m focusing on is to not get what I consider orange guck stuck in my fingernails. I toss the peels into the trash, and finish the orange before you could say, Tropicana. That’s it.

It’s not just oranges that I don’t pay attention to, that I’m not awed by, it’s everything. Despite, or perhaps because of the fact that I am surrounded by so much sophisticated technology, the cellphones, appliances, and gadgets that have changed our lives so dramatically, I don’t think I can really experience awe at any new invention. Iphone22? Yawn. Personal tours to space? No big deal.

I, and I think many of us, are awe-deprived.

And that’s a pity. Because awe is actually healthy. A recent study cited in the journal, Psychological Science, found that participants, who self-reported experiencing awe in their lives, felt that they had more time available, they were less impatient, they were more willing to volunteer their time to help others, and they more strongly preferred experiences over material goods. That’s powerful.

But awe is not only healthy. In Judaism, we see being able to experience awe as a value, and the resulting ability to properly bestow kavod, respect as the highest of aspirations. But tragically, respect and awe are art forms that are no longer in vogue. Take Jimmy Fallon’s Late Night Show interview with presidential candidate, Donald Trump, as an example.

Jimmy Fallon, in my opinion, happens to be one of the better late night show hosts out there. He is funny, he is relatively clean, and he’s nice. The start of the interview with Trump was rather typical; he asked Trump some basic questions, lightly joked about some things Trump may have said or done, and so and so forth. But then for the grand finale, he asked Mr. Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s presidential candidate, if he could mess up his signature hair. And he did.

Funny, it was, but it was also a very sad commentary on the respect that we as a society have for public office. We all know how terrible the political rhetoric is right now; the vicious comments from the candidates, the terrible statements by their supporters, I don’t have to get into that. But by November 9th there will be only one candidate standing, and whoever that candidate is, some of you will be extremely upset, angry, even scared.

And while you’re entitled to your political opinion, you’re entitled to your vote, however, in Judaism you are mandated to respect the man or woman who assumes command at the Oval Office.    

Respect means that we can disagree, even strongly, but we do so with deference. Respect means that we don’t disparage them needlessly. Respect means that if we were to see the President, we would even make a blessing! Baruch ata, shenosan mikvodo l’basar v’dam. Blessed are you, who gives of His kavod, His respect to flesh and blood.

I know that most people in this country will not. There will be people who will refuse to meet the next President of the United States, there will be people who will use pejoratives every time they speak about the next Commander-in-Chief. So I suppose that would make us iconoclasts, but as Jews, regardless of our political leaning, we need to give respect. Admittedly, I too have probably been to frivolous about the candidates from this pulpit. But this is not only about public conversations, it’s about private ones as well. All of us need to tone it down; we need to be a little less hateful and a little more civil. We need to stand when the prayer for the President is made and we need to say Amen when it’s done. Because that’s what we do as Jews, we exhibit and model awe and respect.

In 1977, when Menachem Begin took office, after being in the opposition for twenty years, just as he was about to enter the Prime minister’s office, he was asked the following question by a Jerusalem Post reporter: “Mr. Begin, what is it like to walk into the Prime Ministers’ office after so many years in the opposition?”

Begin paused, pushed his bottom lip forward in thought and with much gravity said, “It is a compelling moment of extraordinary opposites. On the one hand it is a terrifying feeling and on the other it is an exhilarating one. It is a feeling of the highest privilege and it is a feeling of the deepest humility. It is a feeling of grave responsibility and it is a feeling of wonderful hopefulness. It is a feeling of sisterhood and of brotherhood and it is a feeling of solitude.”

“I have the feeling,” he said, “of the Chazzan, the cantor on the High Holy Days when he stands alone before the Holy Ark and appeals to the Almighty in the name of the whole congregation, and he says to G-d, I have come before you on behalf of the people of Israel who have made me their messenger, even though I am unworthy of the task. Therefore I beseech you, O, Lord to make my mission successful.”

There is no more awesome position than being a head of state, be it a president or a prime minister. Begin appreciated it, and we as Jews, must appreciate it as well. But Begin also directs us to something that is supposed to inspire even more awe than being the Prime Minister of Israel, and that is the high Holy Days, that is now.

The Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, is a time to ask ourselves if we’re filled with awe or are we awe-deprived? Are we indifferent or are we capable of wonder.

Do we stand in awe at a sunrise or sunset, watching the brilliant colors as they merge with the blueness of the sky? Do we stand in wonder at the lush greenery that we pass by every day and get lost in the myriad of shades? Do we stand in amazement of G-d’s world or do we just walk by; self-absorbed and unaware?

Do we stand in awe in the presence of an infant as it learns to touch and see? Do we stand in humility in the presence of powerful human emotion that has the capacity to break the hardest of hearts? Do we stand in awe at the thought of the complexity of the human mind, the plethora of human perspectives, and how within our heart and mind, we each possess a universe onto our own?  Do we stand in wonder at G-d’s crowning creation, ourselves, or are we too busy just trying to get by to even notice how complex and beautiful we really are?

And lastly, do we stand in awe in a house of worship? Do we tremble when we speak in prayer? Are we frightened by the thought of judgment? Or are we just happy to see our old friends and too distracted to engage in the moment?

Over these next ten days, the Yomim Noraim, the Days of Awe, I beg you, I plead with you to bring more awe into your life. Awe is not cool or hip, but the world needs it now more than ever.

And so,

During these Ten Days of Awe, let’s try to think twice before speaking about someone who may be our next President. Let’s speak with conviction but also with kavod.

During these Ten Days of Awe, let’s put our phones down, and lift our eyes up, and see the beautiful and awe-inspiring world that we live in.

During these Ten Days of Awe, let’s interact with people and appreciate their uniqueness, their potential, their divine spark, and treat them accordingly.

During these Ten Days of Awe, let’s treat our house of worship, our shul, with the reverence it deserves. Let’s speak lovingly to G-d, let’s sing passionately, but let’s do so with respect.

I wish you all a year filled with joy, filled with happiness, filled with health, and filled with the most beautiful feeling of all, a year filled with awe.


Much thanks to Rabbi Efrem Goldberg for the wonderful story about Beethoven and for the general theme. 

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