Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

Approaching the High Holy Days with Awe, Part I

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

As we approach Rosh HaShana 5779, endeavoring to wipe our slates clean before the mandated behavioral change deadline, Yom Kippur, I find myself turning to the first pages of the Torah, Bere’shit, the beginning, the creation of the world we know.

In Bere’shit, the first chapter of the Torah, creation seems so awesomely simple, so beautiful. An all-powerful, omnipotent, omniscient, Divine force, whom we Jews call Adonai or HaShem, simply “speaks” our world into being from the vast nothingness of the tohu va bohu, the watery void. In a timeframe of only six “days”(on the seventh day, God sees that the creation is good – tov—and thus rests), the first thing God does is to create light, separating it from darkness, so that Day and Night became new concepts. Then God separates the waters so that we have both dry land (“Earth”) and “Sky.” The next step is to create vegetation on the earth, seed-bearing plants and fruit-bearing trees. And then comes the creation of the sun and moon, which brings set times of light and darkness (as well as years) into what is to become our world.

“God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day, and the lesser light to dominate the night and the stars” (Genesis 1:16).[1]

Told biblically in prose, this cosmic story of the world’s creation is echoed so movingly in poetry in Psalm 136. 

Who made the heavens with wisdom

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who spread the earth over the water,

His steadfast love is eternal;

Who made the great lights,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The sun to dominate the day,

His steadfast love is eternal;

The moon and the stars to dominate the night,

His steadfast love is eternal.” [2]

Now this beautiful world needs living creatures, so fish (even including great sea monsters) are brought forth to swim in the waters and birds to fly in the sky. Next come all kinds of animals ranging from creeping things to wild beasts to roam in the land — and finally Man. Adam, made in God’s image.

“And God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”(Genesis 1:26).

Modern science has supplemented the Torah in showing that we all descend from one progenitorall living creatures start from the same basic cell. But what about Eve, the first woman? Was she really created at the same time as Adam, as Chapter 1 tells us, or, in Chapter 2’s differing account, was she made instead from Adam’s rib, which would make her the world’s first clone? Some biblical scholars think that the two accounts were written by different authors in different time periods and pieced together by skillful editors. Others believe that both accounts are true and simply augment one another, the first concentrating on the cosmos and the second on humanity. I prefer to think that man and woman were created equal from the get-go. In any case, whether we choose Chapter 1 or Chapter 2 as our preferred account (or a combo of both), once males and females were created, the divine goal of populating the world proceeded. [3]

There is also the question of how long a period a day actually was before the set times were created. So, if we consider the biblical account as occurring in indeterminate stages of time (rather than 24-hour days), it actually coincides with the much later developed scientific time frame of our world’s evolution. While our modern society craves scientific proof for something so mystical, so infinite, so powerful as creation itself, surely that process goes beyond being “proven” to the satisfaction of our limited human intellects. Certainly, our earthly mathematicians know that numbers are infinite; why not the limitless energy of the Divine? What we call God. To wax kabbalistic, underneath every letter of the Hebrew Torah is a number. Ironically, we speak in numbers.

Like the once ubiquitous slates in the schoolroom, our ideas about creation have moved light years from from the world we earthlings know into infinite territories. We no longer think about earth as unique among the planets and stars, although it is unique to us. We explore the concept of many universes. We search for other planets where life may be possible. Surely, as humans, we are not alone in a universe so large our human minds strain to encompass it.  

Traveling to the moon has already been accomplished. Now we talk about terraforming Mars so that human beings can live there, and already, as I write this D’var Torah, we are sending a probe to the Sun to better understand its energy. Unlike the mythical Icarus, who flew so dangerously close to the sun that his wings melted, today’s astro-scientists are unafraid, even as they speculate about multiple universes. For civilians, space tourism is becoming a possibility, provided they have the large pockets to afford it. For those who dare, will space settling become a reality? I am awed by what might be.

Awe, of course, is not a monopoly of religion nor of creative artists. Scientists experience awe too, as “a motivation to push them further,” explains Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) in a recent interview with Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman on the website “Sinai and Synapses”:

Awe is traditionally seen as our reaction to things that cannot be reduced or explained…

[T]he  process of accommodation, in which we adjust our beliefs in light of surprising new information, is felt just as often by scientists as by people who experience awe in other situations. [4]

Of course. Scientists are human beings with wide-ranging human reactions. It is religion’s job to interpret.  In the awe-inspiring Torah account of creation, according to Richard Elliott Friedman, “the divine bond with Israel is ultimately tied to the divine relationship with all of humankind.”[5]. On a more mundane, current earthly level, we have do more than worry about over-population and feeding the planet in an era of climate change, we have to do, we have to work to make things better, all the while we continue to strive for an elusive peace between nations. I believe that, with God’s help and our own efforts, we will make progress, although it may take at least a couple of generations or more to see the results.

[1] Stein, David E. (ed.).  JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh: The Traditional Hebrew Text and the New JPS Translation, 2nd ed.,  (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1999), 1-3.

[2] Psalm 136. Quoted in Gunther Plaut, Ed. “Essays,”The Torah: A Modern Commentary, 2100.

[3] “The Torah begins with two pictures of the creation. The first (Gen1:1 – 2:3) is a universal conception. The second (2:4-25) is more down-to earth. The first has a cosmic feeling about it. Few other passages in the Hebrew Bible generate this feeling. The concern of the Hebrew Bible generally is history, not the cosmos, but Genesis I is an exception. There is a power about this portrait of a transcendent God constructing the skies and earth in an ordered seven-day series. In it, the stages of the fashioning of the heavenly bodies above are mixed with the fashioning of the land and seas below.”– Richard Elliott Friedman, Commentary on the Torah: With a New English Translation and the Hebrew Text. (New York: HarperOne, 2001) 5.

[4] Sara Gottlieb (working with Dacher Keltner and Tania Lombrozo) and Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman, Interview. “Awe As A Scientific Emotion,”

[5] Friedman, Commentary on the Torah.

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.