Bob Schwartz

Tag: Days of Awe

Yom Kippur Lesser Hits

I see that a few of my older posts about the Days of Awe/High Holy Days are being read now. This is a gratifying, considering that when I read them myself, I am not all that happy with them (the writer’s curse).

It gave me the idea that maybe instead of writing something new about this Yom Kippur, which begins this evening, I would instead include links to some of the past posts.

For those who are Jewish and fasting, may you have an easy fast. For those who are not Jewish or not fasting, no worries. The opportunity to contemplate our lives is open every day to everyone, no matter who you are, no matter what you eat, or don’t.

Yom Kippur and Job

“Whether this is a day of reflection and fasting, reciting centuries-old prayers, or an ordinary day of work or study, managing others or being managed; whether you are Job beset by unexplained misfortune, or Job’s wife, ready to kill him if he doesn’t kill himself, or Job’s friends so quick with advice; whether you are being punished by God, Satan, or whatever other forces you believe are working against you; whether you are the smartest person in the room or not; this is what we can do, even if there is seemingly no comfort in it: Be awed. Be humble.”

Yom Kippur: A Serious Day for a Serious Man

“The movie closes with a note taken straight from the Book of Job. A tornado approaches. Will it be the voice of God out of the whirlwind? Or will it just be one more inexplicable disaster, one more serious touch of uncertainty? Who knows? Yom Kippur and every day, listen to Rabbi Marshak: Be a good girl or boy.”

Yom Kippur: Beyond the Self

“The tradition says that the Book of Life is open during the Ten Days of Awe. When the holy days end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the shofar sounds, the book closes and our lives will have been written for the next year. But the book is always open.”

Jonah, Yom Kippur, Iran and Irony

“Last week, Iranian psychotherapist Mohsen Amir-Aslani was hanged for, among other things, insulting the prophet Jonah.”

Why I Read the Qur’an This Yom Kippur

“You may believe in many respects besides religious—historical, social, cultural—that the Bible is one of the most important books in the world. You may also have to admit that in its impact, the Qur’an is its equal.”

Days of Random Awe – Day 4: Koheleth/Ecclesiastes 11

Utter futility!—said Koheleth—
Utter futility! All is futile!
Koheleth/Ecclesiastes 1:2 (New Jewish Publication Society translation)

The random chapter of Tanakh for this Day 4 of the Days of Awe is from the Book of Ecclesiastes, known in Hebrew by the name of the sage it is attributed to, Koheleth.

This book is unique in the Tanakh and uniquely troublesome for some rabbis and biblical interpreters. The conventional system of rewards and punishments seems, to a certain extent, to have been thrown out the window. Or at least put in perspective.

Here is Chapter 11:

Send your bread forth upon the waters; for after many days you will find it. Distribute portions to seven or even to eight, for you cannot know what misfortune may occur on earth.

If the clouds are filled, they will pour down rain on the earth; and *if a tree falls to the south or to the north, the tree will stay where it falls. If one watches the wind, he will never sow; and if one observes the clouds, he will never reap. Just as you do not know how the lifebreath passes into the limbs within the womb of the pregnant woman, so you cannot foresee the actions of God, who causes all things to happen. Sow your seed in the morning, and don’t hold back your hand in the evening, since you don’t know which is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good.

How sweet is the light, what a delight for the eyes to behold the sun! Even if a man lives many years, let him enjoy himself in all of them, remembering how many the days of darkness are going to be. The only future is nothingness!

O youth, enjoy yourself while you are young! Let your heart lead you to enjoyment in the days of your youth. Follow the desires of your heart and the glances of your eyes—but know well that God will call you to account for all such things—1and banish care from your mind, and pluck sorrow out of your flesh! For youth and black hair are fleeting.

The Jewish Study Bible explains:

His [Koheleth’s] observations are bound together by certain fundamental themes. The first is expressed by the term “futility” (hevel). For Koheleth, this is foremost the inability of humans to make sense of the world around them—to see a coherent pattern, a plan to their lives and to nature, in the sense of a movement toward lasting goals, a line of development or progress….

But the human ability to discern what these all are is frustrated, he argues, again and again, as evident by the fact that the traditional doctrine of reward and punishment for the good and the wicked does not appear to work. In this regard, Koheleth is arguing against the sort of position evident in the book of Deuteronomy or the bulk of Proverbs, for which the covenant tradition and experience provide certainty about what God demands of humans and so about His reward and punishment justice.

The one thing that is clear for Koheleth is death. It is the final point in each one’s maʿaseh, the one immutable event in life that every human, animal, and other organism must succumb to, and that cuts across, therefore, all categories of morality, class and being. If there is any survival beyond death, either physically or in terms of memory and influence, humans cannot know this, and so cannot rely on it. What is left to humans, then, as Koheleth sees it—though he does raise an occasional doubt—is principally to enjoy their toil while they are alive….

The capacity to discern all of this—to understand what can be known and what cannot—is for Koheleth the task of wisdom. Wisdom, therefore, is most effective when it is used to clarify its own limits.

This does not suggest some sort of libertine, hedonistic nihilism. In this respect, Koheleth reflects a very modern perspective that, as with the Book of Job, offers something like divine existentialism. Just because you stop trying to make sense, there is still meaning. But that meaning may be inherently hidden in the phenomena, and very different from the external order and programs others try to impose on that meaning—and on us. Compassion and generosity may be required of us, and we may seemingly be rewarded for their doing and punished for their lack, but it is ultimately the facts of life and death, and of futility, that are their source.

Days of Awesome: Day 1 (Rosh Hashanah)


I brought them out of the land of Egypt and I led them into the wilderness. I gave them My laws and taught them My rules, by the pursuit of which a man shall live. Moreover, I gave them My sabbaths to serve as a sign between Me and them, that they might know that it is I the Lord who sanctify them.
Ezekiel 20:10-12 (New Jewish Publication Society translation)

Note from The Jewish Study Bible:

The Sabbath is the foundational sign of the covenant (Exod. 20.8–11; 31.12–17). Scholars have suggested that the Sabbath became particularly significant in the exile, as holy time replaced the vacuum of holy space (the Temple); this might explain why the Sabbath plays such a significant role here. As in Exod. 31.13, 17 (from the Priestly tradition), it is viewed as a sign, namely a symbol acknowledging God as Creator.

Here we are confronted with the phenomenon at the heart of this holiday. At the heart of every holiday. At the heart of religion and reality itself. We are concerned with space. We are concerned with being. We are concerned with time too. But we may not be properly concerned, in a balanced way that accounts for time, space and being.

We can rule space, or at least pretend to. If you visit New York or other great cities, you see how people have shaped space to their liking and purposes. But where in New York or elsewhere have even the richest and most powerful ultimately shaped time? We can mark time, but do we understand? To help us understand, time is set aside. It may be by God, it may be by our society or community, it may be by and for those close to us.

The Sabbath each week, and the Days of Awe each year, are set aside to be different than the other days of the week or of the year. Different in fact than any other days of eternity. In part to remind us of present eternity.

For more, see The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel and The Time-Being by Zen Master Dogen, which can be found in Enlightenment Unfolds.

This is the first post in a very small project/experiment in random wisdom I call The Days of Awesome. In addition to the standard and traditional forms of worship and contemplation associated with the Jewish High Holy Days (also known as Days of Awe), each day of the holiday I will be studying a randomly selected chapter of the Tanakh (also known as the Jewish Bible or the Old Testament), which has 39 books containing a total of 929 chapters.

Among other things, this is inspired by the I Ching and by social theorist and philosopher Gregory Bateson, who is quoted as saying “I am going to build a church someday. It will have a holy of holies and a holy of holy of holies, and in that ultimate box will be a random number table.”

Rosh Hashanah: God Is Busy Writing

Hebrew Alphabet

This week begins the Jewish Days of Awe, starting with Rosh Hashanah, the New Year. Shana Tova – a good year.

A tale about Hasidic master Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (1740-1809):

It was Yom Kippur. The faithful, weak from fasting, were waiting for the Rebbe to begin the Mussaf prayer, but he too was waiting. An hour went by, and another. Impatience turned into anguish. This time the Rebbe was really going too far. It was late. Why was he waiting?

When he finally emerged from his meditation, he explained: “There is in our midst someone who cannot read. It is not his fault; he has been too busy providing for his family to go to school or study with a teacher. But he wishes to sing. And so he allows his heart to speak: ‘You are God; I am but a man. You are Almighty and know everything; I am weak and ignorant. All I can do is decipher the twenty-two letters of the sacred tongue; let me give them to You to make into prayers for me and they will be more beautiful than mine.’ ” The Rebbe raised his voice: “And that, brethren, is why we had to wait. God was busy writing.”

From Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters by Elie Wiesel