Days of Awe, Days of Love

Yoni A. Dahlen
September 22, 2014
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I first fell in love when I was twelve years old. Until then, I had used the word to represent some concept of permanence. I loved my parents, because they loved me, they took care of me, they consoled me when I was hurting, they supported me when I succeeded, and they supported me when I failed. I loved my friends, because they were my source of laughter and affection. When it wasn’t cool to love your mother and father, it was somehow socially appropriate to place those embraces, those thank you’s and I miss you’s on those with whom you shared moments of frivolity and light heartedness, where the most serious insights into life and the world came from carefully constructed rooms in tree-houses or in front of a videogame console. Before I fell in love, love was a silly word. It just meant hello, or goodbye.

But when I fell in love, that silly word took on properties that shook the sun from its course. Her name was Sarah. She was in my sixth grade class, and though it would be possible to go into the biological and physiological inevitability of puberty here, mine was (at least according to my new-found romantic self) a pure and sacred love.  Like the great courtly loves of medieval Europe, Dante and Beatrice, Chaucer and his Canterbury Tale heroes, my love was free from lust or sexual desire. Why would I want to profane something so holy with the ugliness of real life?

Passing one another in the hallway was filled with uncertainty. If by some chance we made eye contact, would I be able to move? If, God forbid, she would say something to me, invite me into some interaction where both of us would have to be real and present at the same time, would I survive? No, definitely not. Every day at school, every evening in the neighborhood with games of baseball or street hockey (where she and her friends would come to play or watch) became existential moments of life or death. Where once dropping a fly ball or missing an easy open net shot would have been a laughable mistake, these errors were now unthinkable. They would be worse than humiliating, they would, without a doubt, kill me.

Many years have passed since those days. And for those who just couldn’t handle the suspense, rest assured, I did drop fly balls, I was a rubbish hockey player, and yet, despite the odds, I am alive.  And though Sarah and I have long since parted ways, and my love for her far before our physical parting, I think about that time in my life every year around this time.

There is no better parallel in my life for experiencing the Days of Awe than those days of such fragile love. Throughout the year, my Judaism sometimes feels close and sometimes feels distant. There are days when I am so in love with my tradition, so taken with its beauty and profundity that I want to embrace it like a lover, to sing to it like the poet in Shir HaShirim, the Song of Songs. And yet, there are also days when my tradition feels alien and bitter, like she has forgotten me or has found somebody else to love, I having lost favor or appeal in her eyes.

But when the shofar blasts its cry to signal the advent of Elul, I am brought back to the starting place of love, where my Judaism stands in front of me and I am frozen with fear and longing. As Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur approach, I once again see life and death in my great love for this tradition. I can’t drop a fly ball. I wouldn’t dare.

These days are love at its purest and most sacred. It is taught that throughout the year, we make appointments to see the King in His palace, but during the Days of Awe, the King comes into the field to greet us where we are, in all of our frailty and lowliness, our hands covered with dirt from our labors and from our falls. When I see the days coming, they pass in front of me like those days in the hallways of my middle school. I can see them getting closer. Each step making my heart race, and I am certain that death is right around the corner. What if these days make eye contact? What if they ask me a question? And, God forbid, what if they stop me where I am, take my dirty hands in theirs, so clean and perfect, and talk to me in a moment that exists only for us?

Before I fell in love, love was a silly word. It just meant hello or goodbye. Far too often in my life, this beautiful word returns to its old definition. The monotony of life, the stress of work and deadlines, the frustration that comes with the complex reality of relationships; all of these things muddy that pure word. But when I think of these approaching days, I can’t help but stand frozen in wonder. This is the day that the world was made. This is the day when everything begins. The shofar is blowing, and I am so deeply in love.

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Yoni A. Dahlen is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York City. He attended Brandeis University where he received a Masters of Arts in Jewish Philosophy. Pursuing a career in academia, his topics of interest include Jewish mysticism, political theology, and the religiosity of Labor Zionism. He currently lives in Jerusalem.

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