Days of Awe challenge us to be fully ourselves


Deuteronomy 29:9-31:30

Isaiah 61:10-63:9

This Elul, on the eve of the High Holy Days, I find myself returning to an oft-repeated, deceptively simple Chassidic story. It is the story of Reb Zusya on his deathbed, weeping about what he was about to face. His students, puzzled, asked him what he could possibly be afraid of, certain that his virtuous life would surely win him reward in the World to Come.

Reb Zusya replied, “In the next world, I will not be asked, ‘Why were you not Moshe Rabbenu?’ I will be asked, ‘Why were you not Zusya?’ And in this, I have fallen short.”

The Yom Kippur liturgy directs us in an accounting of our sins in the year gone by. But the liturgy for Rosh Hashanah focuses on the boundless grandeur of the Divine, and, by contrast, the very small place each of us occupies in the universe. Yet, to consider our place in the world also requires that we ask ourselves positive questions like: Why am I here? What is my unique work to do in this world? What role am I meant to play to contribute to the ongoing perfection of the world? It is Reb Zusya’s haunting question, which each of us must address: “Were you fully yourself in this life?”

This week’s parashah, full of grand oratory, includes the following evocative statement: “I call heaven and earth to witness to you this day: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life — that you and your offspring may live.” (Deut. 30:19)

Rashi offers two explanations of why heaven and earth are metaphorically called as witnesses when God instructs Israel about how to live. His first explanation is that heaven and earth are everlasting; if the children of Israel are someday punished for their misdeeds, heaven and earth will testify that God had warned the people of the consequences of such actions.

Rashi’s second explanation, taken from an ancient midrash, imagines that, in these words, God is really saying to the people, “Look at the sky, which I created to serve you. Has it changed its nature? Has the sun stopped rising in the east and bringing light to all the world? Look at the earth, which I created to serve you. Has it changed its nature, failing to give forth produce after you cultivated it, or giving forth barley when you planted wheat? If heaven and earth — which neither receive reward nor incur punishment for their actions — have not betrayed their nature, you — how much the more so [should you be scrupulously true to the work that you were created to do].”

In the midrash, God challenges Israel to be as true to its life purpose as heaven and earth are steadfast in doing the work that is theirs to do. I suggest that the Days of Awe poignantly offer to each of us the same challenge — to be faithful to the reason we were created.

In a related teaching, the Sefat Emet gives the following extraordinary commentary on the oft-repeated prayer Kotveinu lachayim, “Inscribe us for life.”

“There is a holy point,” says the rebbe, “in each Jewish person’s [we might say, in every person’s] heart. This is the living soul, of which it says: ‘God has implanted eternal life within us.’ But over the course of each year, as we become accustomed to sinning, the material self overpowers and hides that holy point. We then have to seek compassion from the Blessed Holy One, asking that this imprint in our heart be renewed on Rosh Hashanah. This is what we mean when we say: ‘Inscribe us for life.”‘ (“The Language of Truth,” edited by Arthur Green, page 343)

In his explanation, Green explains, “The Book of Life is within you…. God needs to write ‘Life!’ on the tablets of your heart each year. Your task is to keep those inner tablets free enough from the insanely fast pace at which we live, and all the rest, so that you have time to read (and follow!) that holy word.” (Green, page 344)

During these awe-filled days, may we each be inscribed in the Book of Life within our own hearts. And may this inscription guide us to fill this year with blessing.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg, a Conservatve rabbi, is a spiritual counselor in private practice.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at