Torah | Experiencing sense of awe at universe transcends all belief

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Exodus 1:1–6:1

Isaiah 27:6–28:13, 29:22–23

“There are two ways to live: You can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.” These   words were written by history’s

perhaps most famous Jewish agnostic, Albert Einstein.

This week’s parashah, the opening chapters of Exodus, presents one of the most intensely mystical experiences of the Torah, the burning bush. When God speaks directly to Moses through the fire, Moses becomes overwhelmed and tries to shield himself from the intensity of the moment. God tells him, “Take off your shoes from your feet because the place where you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

Most translations of the Torah tell us that as God speaks to him, Moses hides his face, “for he was afraid to look at God” (3:6). But the word translated as “afraid” is yarei — whose root is yod-resh-alef. This root can connote not only fear, but also a sense of awe. In fact, the phrase we use to describe the High Holy Days, “yamim noraim,” uses the same root. We speak of those as the “Days of Awe,” not the “Days of Fear.”

In my reading, Moses is overwhelmed by a powerful experience of awe, what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “radical amazement.” Sometimes we are privileged to experience something that mystics would say lifts the veil, exposing something deeper, clearer or more intense about the universe and our place in it. At those moments, like Moses at the burning bush, we are overcome by a sense of the grandeur of life that is hard to describe. Some people may label such an experience “holy,” “a miracle” or even “God,” while others would not. Does it matter what we call it?

Richard Dawkins, the famous contemporary atheist, scientist and author of “The God Delusion,” imagines himself as a child lying under the stars, “dazzled by Orion, Cassiopeia and Ursa Major, tearful with the unheard music of the Milky Way.” For him, a feeling of “becoming one with the universe” is eventually tied to his reverence for science.

The 20th-century Jewish thinker Aaron Zeitlin warns us in a poem that if we look at the stars and yawn, then we have been created in vain. I would argue that although Dawkins rejects any religious explanation of his experience, he doesn’t look at the stars and yawn. The feeling of interconnectedness and awe in the face of the vastness of the universe Dawkins describes is the same as the mystic’s, the same as Moses’. Even Einstein might have called such moments miraculous without discounting the scientific knowledge behind them.

Yirah, awe, can arise when we feel that all of existence is interconnected. Amid the busyness of our everyday lives, from time to time we slow down long enough to glimpse something deeper: the magnificence, the terrifying immensity of it all. The experience, not what we call it, is what matters. More importantly, for Moses, Dawkins and the rest of us, those moments of clarity can influence the way we live our lives.

In “God in Search of Man,” Heschel wrote about radical amazement: “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living. What we lack is not a will to believe but a will to wonder.”

He acknowledges that we could choose to be bored as we learn more and more about the world: the regularity and pattern of things, the laws that regulate the course of natural processes. Instead, the more we learn, the more miraculous the inner workings of the universe appear.

Living with a sense of awe or radical amazement is not about turning off the intellect in favor of blind fascination, or merely saying that everything in its infinite complexity must be attributed to God. It is cultivating an awareness of the raw wonder we witness every day.

Believe that God can speak through fire or don’t. It doesn’t matter. What does is living life in radical amazement, living life in awe.

Rabbi Mychal Copeland
is a rabbi and senior Jewish educator at Hillel at Stanford. She can be reached at [email protected].

Rabbi Mychal Copeland

Rabbi Mychal Copeland is spiritual leader at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco and author of "Struggling in Good Faith: LGBTQI Inclusion from 13 American Religious Perspectives."