There will be many terms that you will hear and read in the tributes to Queen Elizabeth II. Words like stability, dignity, tradition, unifier of her country, and grace. Those are all special terms in that they are hard to find in this day and age. As one columnist put it, “As I sit down to write about her life, I cry, realizing that all that she stood for is no longer.”
In addition to all that she stood for, there was something that surrounded her that is also ‘no longer’, something that would be worth spending some time contemplating and appreciating this morning, and that is awe.
In April 2009, President Barak Obama and his wife Michelle, visited the Queen of England. It was a disaster. The gift the first family presented the monarch was an iPod – which was derided as tacky. But far more controversial was the way the First Lady greeted the Queen. She gave Queen Elizabeth the Second a hug.
Now for most of you here that means absolutely nothing. What’s the big deal? None of the papers in the US picked this up as anything special. But across the Commonwealth, they were losing their minds…
You do not hug the queen. It is not just against royal protocol. It’s just unfathomable. The queen is sacred. The queen is literally untouchable. When in the Queen’s presence, if you are lucky enough to be there, you don’t breathe unless it fits with royal protocol. Like the big-hatted soldiers outside Buckingham Palace, in the Queen’s presence, you stand at attention. You stand in awe.
The concept of awe, the notion of something being sacred, is quaint, it’s old-fashioned. It is, to us democratic and egalitarian Americans, backward. And that’s a pity. Awe is the most… awesome emotion we can experience, but our culture, its speed, its tone, its self-centeredness all precludes us from experiencing true awe.
A few years ago, a group of students from Vassar College visited the home of Ludwig van Beethoven. His home is preserved as a museum in Bonn, Germany. The centerpiece of the museum is the room in which Beethoven’s piano is found. It’s the piano on which he composed most of his incredible musical pieces. The 200-year-old piano, valued at an estimated 200 million dollars, is of course, roped off.
However, one of the students came to the room that held the piano and just 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 generous tip and he 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. 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, right?”
“No, miss,” the guard replied. “In fact, just two years ago I was standing in this very place when 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. But when he entered the room, he stood over there, where your friends are standing, he gazed at the piano in silent contemplation for almost fifteen minutes. Finally, the director of the museum gently 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.” (h/t R. Efrem Goldberg)
That, my friends, is awe.
What would you do in that room? Would you play that piano, or would you stand in silent and awe-inspired contemplation?
The last passage of this week’s portion speaks of the archenemy of the Jewish People, the nation of Amaleik. We know they attacked us as we left Egypt. But they weren’t the only ones who did so. Why is the Torah so dead set against this nation?
If you look closely at the Chumash, it does not say they attacked us, it writes, asher karcha baderech, literally, this means they encountered you on the way. It’s a strange term, asher karcha. And so, our Sages, with their exquisite and sensitive ear, understand the term karcha not to mean encounter, but rather, from the word, kar, cold. They cooled you off.
You see, the nation of Amaleik is the anti-awe. The Jewish People, after the ten plagues, after the splitting of the sea, were revered, they were untouchable, they were seen as special by all. Amaleik could not stand this. They believed that there is nothing sacred. There is nothing called holiness. There is nothing that is worth an iota of awe. And so they attacked us to demonstrate that we are not that hot, that nothing is that hot.
Had they lived in 2022, they would have just tweeted a cynical tweet. Maybe they would have created a silly meme of the Jewish People. Or they would have written a hit piece. The Amaleiki people with their anti-awe philosophy would fit right in with our modern society. Amaleik would scorn the notion of an untouchable queen. Amaleik would sit down and play ‘Mary had a little lamb’ at the piano of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Amaleik is no longer. But what they represent – anti-awe – is all around us. The quick pace of life precludes us from ever allowing ourselves to be swept up in a magical experience. Fashionable cynicism precludes us from admiring anything or anyone. Leon Kass once said, “Shallow are the souls that have forgotten to shudder.” We, our generation, has forgotten to shudder.
So how do we develop this ability to shudder? How do we overcome the cynicism, the pace of life, and develop a sense of awe?
It starts here, in shul. One of the prime objectives in the institution of the synagogue was to instill within the Jewish People a sense of awe. According to Jewish Law, it is forbidden to kiss a child in a shul. Judaism is all about family, but in shul, we are meant to develop a sense of awe. This is why we have separate seating. Sitting with family is comfortable. But we are supposed be a little uncomfortable in the presence of G-d.
When I first joined the shul, I remember how David Greenfeld would get so worked up about making sure the people taking the Torah out of the ark all stood in the right place and all walked in formation following the Torah. My initial reaction was, who cares. But he was right.
We come to shul, especially during the days of awe, and we stand in silence, we bow, we listen, we have processions, we have pomp, we have ceremony. It’s slow. And you know what, it’s supposed to be slow. It’s meant to slow us down.
And then we open the siddur, and we start reading about things that we know and see all the time, but we ignore them or even worse, dismiss them. “Thank you, G-d, for giving me sight… for enabling me to stand… to walk.” We thank G-d for the cosmos, for light, for darkness, for Jewish history. Shul is one long exercise in developing a sense of sophistication and a sense of awe.
The goal is to then take that sense of awe and bring it to every part of life. I’ve shared this poem with you before but it’s worth sharing again. It’s an old Yiddish poem about an orange that was brought to a small, poor shtetl 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 marketplace, 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, after work 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 first time. The peel was first 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.
We don’t need to go to Buckingham Palace to feel this way. We live in a magical world, we’re surrounded by incredible people, we are the recipients of endless gifts from Hashem. Can we use our time here to slow down, to open ourselves up, and to experience a true sense of awe?