"Fear has such power that it makes great sense to me to funnel that energy into spiritual endeavor. And yet I still join our generation in finding much more motivation for myself in the positive message that awe transforms the heart. Of awe, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, 'Awe is more than an emotion; it is a way of understanding. Awe is itself an act of insight into a meaning greater than ourselves. Awe is a way of being in rapport with the mystery of all reality.'
"He goes on:
" 'The meaning of awe is to realize that life takes place under wide horizons, horizons that range beyond the span of an individual life or even the life of a nation, a generation, or an era. Awe enables us to perceive in the world intimations of the divine, to sense in small things the beginning of infinite significance, to sense the ultimate in the simple; to feel in the rush of the passing the stillness of the eternal.'
"These are lofty and enticing words, and they are undoubtedly true. They challenge us, though, because we need to know how to put the guidance into practice. We need to know the relationship between the experience of awe and doing good or bad so we can put that guidance to work in our own lives. Rabbis Luzzatto and Heschel come at this question from two different sides.
"Rabbi Luzzatto says that the awe of God's grandeur 'holds sway when you keep away from transgressions and do not commit them.' In other words, awe is the goal, and keeping our actions pure and clean is the pathway that leads to that goal.
"Rabbi Heschel sees awe differently, not as a goal but more specifically as a means to an end:
" 'The question, therefore, where shall wisdom be found? is answered by the Psalmist: the awe of God is the beginning of wisdom. The Bible does not preach awe as a form of intellectual resignation; it does not say, awe is the end of wisdom. Its intention seems to be that awe is a way to wisdom.'
"Of course, there is no conflict between these two views of awe they are just focused on different points along a pathway. Keeping away from sin is a precondition for awe, and awe is the gateway to wisdom. This gate is opened and closed by transgression, and it is because spiritual life depends on this passage that Rabbi Luzzatto emphasizes the 'fear' of causing the gate to swing shut on us.
"Our experience of living delivers up instances of awe without any effort on our part. It is the experiential reward that comes over us when we visit dramatic stands of trees, like redwoods, or closer to where I live, giant cedars, or seeing whales, or being in stillness while a great sunset unrolls its rich tapestry of shades, or hearing wonderful music. Awe arises when we encounter life and the world in ways that breach the ordinary. The ordinary can bring on awe as well though only if we don't see it as ordinary.
"Walt Whitman calls on us to have eyes to see 'the glories strung like beads on my smallest sights and hearings.' The tide of his poem 'Crossing Brooklyn Ferry' sets a mundane scene. Do you commute? Do you sometimes jump into the car and drive to the supermarket? Don't you walk under the sky a dozen times a day? But do you have the eyes to see the glories? Whitman sees deeply:
" 'I too many and many a time cross'd the river, the sun half an
I watched the Twelfth-month sea-gulls I saw them high in the
air, floating with motionless wings, oscillating their bodies,
I saw how the glistening yellow lit up parts of their bodies, and
left the rest in strong shadow,
I saw the slow-wheeling circles, and the gradual edging toward the
"Do you have the eyes to see the glories? The answer, of course, is yes. We are all equipped to have this experience because it is one of the basic, built-in features of consciousness. We only need to turn and look and allow what we see to register, because 'all truths wait in all things,' or, in Blake's famous lines, the glory of the world is everywhere:
" 'To see a world in a grain of sand,
And heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.'
"The reality, however, is that we mostly allow ourselves to be so thick, crass, and dull that it requires the axe blade of a dazzling sunset or the drama of a birth or a death to cut through the callous rind of our hearts, so that we see and breathe once again as if for the first time. But it doesn't need to be so. The glory that triggers awe is everywhere.
"In the Shabbat liturgy the words of Isaiah are paraphrased to have the angels asking, 'Where is the place of God's glory?' This question is repeated every week, and it needs to be our constant question as well. Where is the place of God's glory? Even if you have no answer, even if you have no belief, or even if you do have faith, you must continue to ask the question, because certainty is the end of faith, and questioning is the pathway of spiritual ascent.
"In that same prayer we get the answer (though, curiously, before the question is asked): 'God's Glory fills the world.'
"This is the vision of Isaiah: 'Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of Hosts; the whole world is full of His Glory.' This teaching is repeated over and over, day after day in the prayers, in the hopes that we will open and reopen our eyes to see that the entire world in its infinite diversity, the great and the small is filled with God's glory, majesty, and dignity.
"A group of learned men once came to visit the Kotzker Rebbe. He asked them the question we have been considering: 'What is the place of God's Glory?' The men responded by quoting the answer from liturgy: 'The whole world is full of God's glory.' Rabbi Menachem Mendel gave a different answer: 'God's glory is found wherever we let God in.'
"This is the vision of the poet and the prophet. See the seagull and see more than the seagull. See the grass and perceive time. Look into the forest and know eternity.”