Rosh Hashanah 5774: Ahavah and Yir’ah: The Purpose of our Lives

Let’s get this out in the open. The holidays have come way too early this year. We haven’t had a moment to breathe between the end of summer and the onset of the Jewish holidays. Road construction is still blocking the roads, schools are just beginning to open. There are so many reasons to be somewhere else, so many obstacles to getting here for Rosh Hashanah.

Yet, you have decided to be here. Why? What is you purpose in coming here for the Jewish holy days?

You might say tradition—this is what we do. We come for the melodies, the drama, the recognition of what it means to be a Jew.

You might say community—we long to be with friends, acquaintances. We want to be part of this big event. We don’t want to miss out. Or someone made us come—a parent, a friend. Perhaps a deceased relative is speaking to us, insisting that we keep this annual ritual.

Underlying all of these reasons, is a purpose that unites us all. One purpose in coming on the Days of Awe is to take time to reflect. To look back on the past year. We change, we evolve. Our cells are always changing, bodies growing stronger at one end of the spectrum, and aging at the other. So too our minds. Reflection helps us recognize the direction we have taken as well as the one we have not. It helps us celebrate the achievements, and learn from the failures.

Also a time to make change, to set an intention for the coming year, to create modest goals for ourselves, to direct the change and not just respond to it.

I’d like to share this teaching by R. David Shlomo Eybeshuetz of Soroka (1756 – 1814), knows as Arvei Nachal. It is based on a passage from the prophet Ezekiel:

Say to them, “As I live—declares the Lord—it is not My desire that the wicked shall die, but that the wicked turn from evil ways and live. Shuvu, shuvu,Turn back, turn back from your evil ways, that you may not die! (Ezekiel 33:11)”1

Our teacher asks, why does it say “turn back” shuvu, twice?

He explains that there are two motivations for doing teshuvah, for turning from one’s ways—from evil and destructive behavior, or simply poor judgment and bad habits. One does teshuvah out of ahava, love, and one does teshuvah out of yir’a, meaning awe or fear. If one does teshuvah out of love, that is exemplary and will lead to positive behavior. When one does teshuvah out of fear, then one must engage in teshuvah twice, first to recognize one’s behavior, and only afterward, to turn it into positive action.

In Jewish tradition, we are motivated to act, whether doing mitzvot or turning in teshuvah, whether bettering ourselves or repairing our world, through these two goads: Ahavah v’yir’ah. Love and awe.

We would all like to improve ourselves, to change our behavior out of love. That is, out of pure desire, before we are forced to change. Like changing our diet and exercise regime before the doctor tells us it’s a matter of life and death. Like changing the way we treat those we love before they tell us they’ve had enough. That is the way of teshuva mi-ahava. The rabbis of old taught that (Yoma 86b):

“Great is repentance out of love, for it turns sins into merits.”

Even so, sometimes, we are motivated to change, not through ahava, but as a result of yir’a. Yir’a  can mean fear, and it’s often only in the most dire circumstances, when we hit bottom, when we can’t see any other way out, that we feel compelled to change. As the Arvei Nachal teaches, this kind of change only goes so far. The fear motivates us to notice our behavior, but fear cannot ensure lasting change.

Anyone familiar with the twelve steps knows that eventually, fear has to give way to love. This kind of teshuvah has to happen twice, first admitting our wrongs and afterward, seeking to improve our behavior. Our sins then turn into merits.

Like the musician we heard this past spring in New Orleans, Glen David Andrews, who recently performed in Boston. We went to hear him again, not at a large venue or in a popular club, but at the Sober Café at Right Turn, a center for helping musicians overcome addiction. He sang to a smallish crowd, mostly clients, staff and board members, and a few assorted fans. We all danced and sang along and generally had a great time. It was his way of giving back to the people who had helped him when nothing else helped. Following Hurricane Katrina, this budding artist spiraled down until he nearly ended his career and destroyed his life. Glen David Andrews came from New Orleans to Right Turn in Watertown out of fear, but he left with love. And this concert was one way of turning his sins into merits, replacing self-destructive behavior with generosity.

I would like to explore the power of ahava and yir’ah to change our lives. Given that these are the Yamim Nora’im, the Days of Awe, a time of ritual drama that brings us face to face with our own mortality, let’s consider the meaning of yir’a.

 Yir’ah is not only fear. I know that the threat of punishment is often a reason NOT to change. When someone threatens me, I am less likely to comply. We resist being compelled or threatened. Just as love is not limited to romance, so yir’ah is not limited to mortal fear.

Yir’ah  can mean fear, reverence, or awe. The problem is “awe” is not a word that carries much weight in our culture. Its power has been diminished by the overuse of the adjective “awesome” to refer to the most fleeting phenomena.

Think of an occasion when you stand in awe:

You might think of natural phenomena:  great mountains or vast oceans. My favorite is Niagara Falls. I could watch the water for hours.

Standing at the Grand Canyon one wonders: how many millennia it has been there, slowly changing regardless of the onset of human history. Hikers, park rangers, explorers come and go, but the rocks do not seem to notice.

We may feel awe when human beings mass together to make change in the world, like the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, whose 50th anniversary we recalled last week. Our tradition also preserves mythical images of people gathering that inspire awe:  crossing the Red Sea, standing at Sinai.

On a more personal scale, many of us, when asked have you ever experienced awe in your life, will recall the birth of a child.

What unites all of these experiences? How do we recognize awe?

Yir’ah  in Hebrew yod-resh-aleph  is also related to the root for seeing: resh-aleph-hay.

When we truly see something, when our “eyes are opened” we may be jolted into action. Our Torah portions for Rosh Hashanah speak of moments of seeing what we had not noticed before. Like Hagar, who has given up all hope based on her perceived experience that her son is going to die of thirst, and then “her eyes are opened” to notice the well of water nearby. Or Abraham, who raises the knife in his hand to fulfill what he believes is an order to slaughter his son as a sacrifice, and then “sees” the ram in the thicket, and offers it instead of his son.

Last December, I underwent eye surgery, followed by seven days in a face-down position. I was forced to see the world in a different way. That was a week of tremendous awe: first that a doctor could cut into my eye and repair a miniscule hole in the retina, then that he could insert a gas bubble in my eyeball to enable the hole to close. On top of that, the medical equipment that allowed me to see the world, even while facing the floor, so that I could have conversations and watch videos using mirrors. And that led to having time to watch all twelve hours of Ken Burns’ documentary series: The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (which is re-airing this week). Imagine sitting in the living room of your house, limited to facing one position, and yet able to take in vast landscapes in time and space!

To experience yir’a, awe, requires taking time.

Moses could only see the burning bush by taking time to really look at it and notice that it was not being consumed. To experience yir’a requires looking directly at the truth, and being willing to dig deeper, not to look away so quickly.

In a recent book, Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past, scholar Yehuda Kurtzer explores the ways we can reframe ancient Jewish ideas to become meaningful in our 21st century. He writes,

“Awe is a stance, a voluntary decision to act with compassion upon seeing exposed that which we cherish and value.”  

The question is not what is happening in that moment, but how we respond to it. Kurtzer suggests that for those of us today who are skeptical of the experience of awe, we consider yir’a as a practice of inquiry and discernment.

He explains, “I want us to imagine a new reality for Jewish identity…that precariously demands of us two critical imperatives: one, that we live a life of inquiry, eyes wide open, regardless of where it leads and what truths it unmasks; and two, that we maintain a stance of awe, regardless of what our eyes see. More exalted than the experience of awe that comes from seeing awesome things is the possibility of living an awe-inspired life because we choose to do so.” (p.58)

Awe makes time slow down to allow us to make thoughtful choices. We look beyond the obvious and encounter a deeper truth within our own consciousness. When we do that, we are moved to behave differently, with more reverence for life and truth.

What is the place of awe in your life? How do we make more room to experience that moment of opening our eyes to the burning bush?

When we chant the unetaneh tokef prayer, and are confronted with the question “who shall live and who shall die,” that is a moment for yir’a, intended to spur us to reflect on the purpose of our lives and to act accordingly.

But is yir’a enough to make us change?  Arvei Nachal told us that when we change out of yir’a, it takes two steps. The second step is ahava, love.

Many people who talk about changing behaviors, from civil servants who step down from a high-powered job, to everyday people who decide to lose weight and get in shape, add that they want to be around for their families. They don’t just want to live, they want to live for others.

That is teshuvah me’ahava. It is a love of life, not a self-serving love, but also not selfless love.  What type of love can sustain us and sustain the changes we seek?

At the heart of Jewish liturgy is the Shema, a statement of commitment. It is immediately followed by v’ahavta, you shall love. But when we moderns recite v’ahavta et Adonai elohecha, you shall love the Lord your God, we are confronted with the challenge: how can one be commanded to feel love?

Likewise, when our tradition commands us v’ahavta le’reyacha kamocha, you shall love your fellow as yourself, we may struggle with the challenge: how can I love those I do not know, or even more challenging, those whom I have come to despise? What is that love anyway? Can we love the stranger with the ardor we reserve for our spouses, our partners? Can we love God unconditionally in the way we love our children?

What if we approach ahava, love, differently. What if, to open our hearts in love, whether to a higher power or to our next door neighbor, is about how we act, rather than how we feel? Through acts of love, of commitment, through the act of seeking to love others, we may come to actually feel love.

Kurtzer says, “For ahavah to be a defining characteristic of contemporary Jewishness, it should mean purposefulness—the pursuit of the good and ethical stemming from an underlying sense of obligation …” (p. 74) When love includes a level of obligation and purposefulness, we become committed. When we commit ourselves to love another, we feel, in Kurtzer’s words, “the willingness to read charitably, to love despite flaws, and more important, to be moved and taken in by those things that have already shown us their vulnerability.” (p.76)

This past year, I found my love tested when I had a serious disagreement with a very old friend. I had known this person for decades, been through hard times and good times, shared experiences that were risky, and embarrassing, as well as moments of deep generosity. But when a disagreement surfaced that exposed a deep chasm between us, I spent many hours asking, is it over? Have we become so different that we can no longer be friends?

This moment of truth can happen to friends, spouses, lovers, even parents, children, siblings. People who have become intimate observers of each other’s vulnerability are privy to uncomfortable truths. Some truths cannot be forgiven: violence, abuse, or self-destructive behavior.

But most of the time, what we learn is perhaps offensive but is mostly discomforting,. I had to ask myself, is this revelation worth losing this friend?

My answer was a somewhat reluctant, but sincere no. I determined that I could get past the disagreement and return to the essence of our relationship: mutual support, patient and attentive listening, shared memories and a love for one another that has grown over the years.

I’m reminded of the song “One” by U-2, a ballad of love’s disappointments.

One love
One life
You got to do what you should
One life
With each other
Sisters, brothers
One life
But we're not the same
We get to
Carry each other
Carry each other


Ahava, the abiding love of unflagging commitment arises when we recognize that we can still love, even when the object of our affection is flawed, even when they say no, even when we are angry or disappointed or frustrated. We continue to love. We can even learn to love the flaws, in others and also in ourselves. We open our hearts with a sense of obligation that arises from intimate understanding of the other. Though we’re not the same, we’ve got to carry each other. Carry each other.

If we can do that with those we know and love the best, imagine the power of ahava to help us carry a fellow human being who is a stranger to us. We might even imagine loving God, despite the disappointment we may feel.

What is our purpose here today? What is it that you expect during these holy days? What do you want from me to help you make changes in your life? There is nothing I can say or do that will make your life better or more meaningful. I cannot do that for you. I can only suggest a path, and that is: to open your eyes to awe and to open your hearts to feel love.  That is the goal. That is what gives our life meaning, meaning that bears meanings.

And then, as the Arvai Nachal taught, when we open our hearts to love and open our eyes to awe, ahavah and yir’ah, we are motivated to act. In Jewish terms, they lead us do mitzvot. To apologize with remorse, to say thank you with sincerity, to give generously, to work toward justice, and to humbly accept our place in the world. To change. Ahava and yir’a are the basis for change, and they are the change we seek. Ahava and yir’a : a cycle that will continue until we breathe our last, and can fill each day with purpose and meaning.

Where do you seek yir’a?

Where do you risk ahava?

Can you make a pledge to use these aseret yemei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance from today until Yom Kippur, to pause and take notice and bring yir’a into your life?

Can you make a pledge to use these aseret yemei teshuvah, the ten days of repentance, to open your heart to love fully, accepting the flaws of those around you?

 Are you willing and are you committed to change your life?

 May we each find our own answers and may this New Year bring us the blessings that come from a life filled with ahava and yir’a, with love and with awe.




Posted on May 25, 2014 .