The following scenario is probably familiar to many of us: Summer was great, but with a couple of weeks between the end of camp and the first day of school, we find our kids becoming restless and ready to return to routine. They miss the structured days and the company of classmates.
Finally, the much-awaited first day of school day arrives. With backpacks ready and new shoes shining, the drive to school is filled with anticipation. But as the school gates approach the hesitation sets in. The familiarity of home seems far more appealing than the daunting school corridors.
What changes in those few moments between leaving home and arriving at school, transforming eagerness into hesitation?
“A lion has roared, Who can but fear?” (Amos 3:8)
The prophet Amos declares that there is no one who wouldn’t fear a lion’s roar. Clearly, Amos is talking about the roar of a lion in the wild. We laugh and eat lunch while we watch the lions behind the glass at the zoo, but without a separation between us and the lion, we would be terrified!
Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz taught that on a deeper level, the letters of the Hebrew word for lion, אַ-ר-ְי-ֵה (aryeh), stand for Elul (אלול), Rosh Hashana (ראש השנה), Yom Kippur (יום כיפור) and the last day of Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) known as Hoshana Rabba (הושענא רבה) – the Days of Awe and the month leading up to them. According to Rabbi Horowitz, Amos was really saying, “who does not fear and tremble during this time of year?” Just as everyone fears the roar of a lion, we fear the Days of Awe.
This insight is the key to experiencing the High Holidays. Just as we only fear the lion’s roar if there are no barriers between us and the lion, if we really want to experience these days in a way that will make us different people, we have to remove the wall that is separating us, emotionally, from experiencing them properly!
The Days of Awe are days dedicated to the biggest questions of life. We are asking God for life, for health, for happiness and for meaning. These are days when we confront, head-on, our mortality, human weakness, life and death – the big stuff!
Our gut reaction, when confronted with this kind of heaviness, is to evade the intensity. Human nature makes us uncomfortable with the intensity of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, so we do everything we can to distract ourselves from the fundamental themes of the High Holidays. We create walls between ourselves and these holy days, between us and God.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes: “Disregard of the ultimate dimension of human existence is a possible state of mind as long as man finds tranquility in his dedication to partial objectives.” Meaning, all year long we occupy ourselves with partial objectives. “I’m going to nail down that new client”; “I’m going to lose 20 pounds”; or even spiritual objectives like “I’m going to study the Bible for half an hour every day.” All of these are good goals, but at the end of the day they are only partial objectives that allow us to evade the biggest questions of life: What is my life really about? What am I here for?
Heschel explains that we human beings can successfully avoid the big issues most of the time. But inevitably, something drastic happens in our lives and evasion is no longer a possibility. Maybe, God forbid, someone we love is taken from us, or we are struck with a health problem. When things like this happen, the walls that we set up come crashing down. All of our partial objectives, all of our goals and projects that we get so immersed in – all of it seems vapid and small compared to the big issues of life.
During the month of Elul and the High Holiday season, our goal has to be to think about the big issues. To lift the veil that stands between our hearts and the essential questions of life. To remove the separation between us and God.
Why do kids beg you to take them to school one day, and then, the moment they get there, they freeze in fear? Because in the weeks before school starts there is a separation between them and school. School is just an idea – just like “judgment,” “repentance,” and “life and death” are only ideas for us all year long.
But when they pull up in front of the building and they see the teachers, the big yellow school buses, kids with backpacks – all of a sudden school is no longer just an idea – it is real. The wall of separation between the reality of school and the children is gone. The idea becomes a reality and in that moment they are struck with fear – they hear the lion roar!
The month of Elul, leading up to the Days of Awe, is about removing the separation and tearing down the barriers. During this month we shove aside all of our “partial objectives” and we think about the big questions of life, so that we can tremble when we hear the lion roar on the High Holidays.
If we are successful, the lion’s roar will foster a fear that is not paralyzing, but exhilarating; a fear that compels us to live more passionately, more purposefully and more connected to the Divine. We pray that the lion’s roar awakens us to the real purpose of the High Holidays and serves as a call to live every day with purpose, passion, and genuine connection.
In the selichot prayers recited on the days leading up to the Days of Awe we say: “Everyone wants to fear Your name!” Everybody wants to feel, to be in awe of God during these incredible days. But will we remove the separation? Will we lift the veil? That is up to us.