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Twinkle, twinkle, burnt-out star

The Days of Awe force us to seek balance between wonderment at God’s universe and finding a meaningful place within it
Space many light years far from the Earth. (via iStock -- Elements of this image furnished by NASA images)
Space many light years far from the Earth. (via iStock -- Elements of this image furnished by NASA images)

Planetariums can be depressing.
So can Rosh Hashanah.
That’s where God’s nose comes in.

Since 1590, the human species has been looking through the lenses of microscopes and probing the secrets of this universe in ever-increasing detail and precision. We are able today to map and manipulate the human genome, identify infinitesimal gut bacteria that regulate our physical and mental well-being, and design nanotechnology that is transforming the way we interact with the physical matter around us. The deeper we delve, the more puzzles we solve, the more the delusion of man’s supremacy in this universe seems to take hold.

But on a dark, clear night, when we stare up at the stars, far from the city lights, and the smoggy by-products of the inventions upon which we now depend, our perspective is recalibrated. Face-to-face with other planets, we are reminded that what we call home is a but a rock soaring through space, and our own relative worth smacks us as ludicrous. We watch stars twinkle lightyears away, knowing full well that they may have burned out long ago, and our sense of reality, particularly as it pertains to our conception of time, becomes unhinged.

* * *

The telescope and microscope seem to exert opposite effects on the human psyche.  Through one magnification we imagine that we can gain control, that we can in fact, “master the universe,” and through the other, our sense of negligibility seems to overwhelm any sense of purpose we may have once held.

If the liturgy of the Days of Awe is any indication, then the Jewish New Year appears to evoke the telescopic experience. The prayers draw our attention, not to the creations as we experience them, but to The Creator as we comprehend Him, and we feel small. We sing in unison of the God “who hangs the world on nothing,” and we imagine the “multitude of mysteries since the beginning of creation” revealed to Him. We ponder the meaning of an “eternal memory” and struggle to fathom what it means to “live in all worlds.” Our bewilderment bespeaks the sincerity of our prayers.

But humility in a vacuum is futile. And overwhelming humility that breeds a sense of inconsequentiality, can be paralyzing. It is also unwarranted. Humanity, we are told in Genesis, was created in the image of God. Ontologically speaking then, we are meant to contribute to this world by imitating the creativity of God, not be awed into a state of impotence. The Days of Awe force us to confront the delicate balance between wonderment at God’s universe and finding a meaningful place within it. It is about figuring out a way to cull from the reverence generated by the primordial sounds of the shofar, to breed righteous initiatives that impact the present. Our efforts on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are spent straining towards that equilibrium.

Metaphors may hold the key.

Metaphors, as cognitive linguists have come to understand, are the building blocks of any language system. They enable us to speak about abstract concepts and experiences, by drawing on tangible, observable stimuli. One couple may speak of “growing in love,” while another may claim to have “fallen in love.” Nothing in either case physically fell down, or grew in size, but the metaphors manage to capture two ostensibly different relationship models. We utilize, for example, our experience of movement to speak of time “passing,” of construction to speak of theories with “solid foundations,” of gastronomy to speak of books being “devoured,” and of geography to talk about interpersonal “boundaries.” And in that way, metaphors simultaneously expand our expressive and perceptive capabilities.

For this very reason, the Bible employs metaphors to speak about God. God who transcends time, space, and dimensions we aren’t even aware of, is spoken of in terms that resonate with our concrete, corporeal experiences. Anthropomorphisms abound, as anyone who’s ever read about God’s “outstretched arm,” “nose of fury,” or “footstool” knows well. But the Bible, and Jewish thought wholesale, are under no pretences that with ample metaphors we will ever fully comprehend the Deity we subscribe to. His inscrutability is taken as a given, as is the endurance of theodicy. Divine metaphors are effective in their ability to communicate to humanity, what God expects of us, on the terrestrial plane. The metaphors employed in the Bible speak more to our position vis-à-vis God, than they do of His essence. The “attributes” revealed at Sinai, that sit ready on our lips throughout the Days of Awe, don’t disclose, (contra Moses’ request,) the entirety of God’s glory — but they do clue us in to how those facets of God, that He reveals to us, inform the human experience.

Building on the biblical convention of metaphor, the authors of our prayers utilized a series of divine metaphors, that serve to anchor the meaning of our existence in our construed relationship with God. If God is our father, we believe that His love for us is unconditional, but we also know that it is incumbent upon us to display unwavering paternal fidelity. If He is our shepherd, we are confident that He will guide us, and ward off assailants; but as His sheep, we must follow His lead.  If God is depicted as a moral book-keeper of sorts, then we become acutely aware of our accountability, even for those acts that we imagine went undetected. Most prominently, if God is our king, and we are his subjects, then our lives must be spent endeavouring to bring honor to His kingdom through adherence to, and the perpetuation of, His laws.

The metaphors that adorn our prayers synchronize the telescopic and microscopic experiences. While the New Year, with its reflections on God and the origins of the world, has us feeling minuscule in scope, the imagined relationships we utter throughout the day, amplify us. They remind us that the God we will never fully understand outlined the precepts by which we can forge a meaningful and ongoing relationship with Him. God whose “right hand measured out the powerful heavens,” is the very God that “chose a downtrodden nation to expound upon His power day after day.” Implied in our relationship with the Omnipotent are unimaginable possibilities, His guiding principles harness that potential.

Belief in the God of the Bible, the God of our prayers, entails the belief in a purpose embedded in the unfurling of history. Appreciating our import within that purpose, requires attuning ourselves to God’s metaphorical voice. May we listen well this year, and may God inscribe us all “in the book of life, blessing, and peace.”

About the Author
Prior to making aliyah in 2014, Yael was a member of the Judaic Studies faculty at Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She has taught continuing education courses at Drisha Institute for Jewish Education and served as resident scholar at the Jewish Center Of Manhattan. She is currently teaching at Matan Women’s Institute for Torah Learning, and lectures widely on topics in Jewish biblical thought.
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