The ten days between Rosh HaShanah (September 19 in 2009) and Yom Kippur (September 28 in 2009) are sometimes called the Days of Awe. This is understandable. The period starts with a day on which people blow the shofar, the trumpet made from the horn of a kosher animal, over a hundred times. (Anyone who has tried to blow one of those things is in awe of anyone who can make it sound impressive even once, much less a hundred times.) The period ends with a day of fasting. In between are days of introspection. People think of what they have done wrong over the past year. They seek out others that they may have wronged and ask forgiveness. After all, God will not forgive a person who is not willing to ask his fellow man for forgiveness; if you don’t make it right with your brother you can’t make it right with God. Unlike many human holidays, this is not a time for thanksgiving, or for giving. This was a time for the Jewish people to correct their relationship with their God. This is not something we normally do often, or well.
Ten days of retrospection, and introspection. While that might explain the other appellation for these days, Days of Repentance, that does not explain the awe. When we look at ourselves deeply, awe is often one of the least of emotions. We are more like a giant in a story by Patricia McKillip who got hit in the eye with a stone, which turned his eye inward and “he died of what he saw there.” When we look at ourselves we are more in fear or disgust than in awe.
When we consider, though, the purpose of the introspection we can understand the awe. We look at ourselves to see what God sees. Ten days of thinking about God, his judgement and his provision, should be days of awe. Consider the God with whom we have to deal. He created everything we can see, and much that we cannot, with just a word from his mouth. (Genesis 1) He is our judge. And not just any judge. “And he shall judge the world in righteousness, he shall minister judgment to the people in uprightness.” (Ps 9:8) He is the only truly righteous judge, because he is not influenced by our greed. He is a God beyond understanding. (Read Job 38-41)
In today’s world, though, we seem to have lost awe for God. In fact, we seem to have lost a true sense of awe entirely. Take, for example, the word “awful.” From the 13th century, the word meant “inspiring awe.” Beginning in the 19th century it began to lose any connection with the concept of awe, and has now even taken the opposite meaning from its origins. Today people would wonder at one who said we have an “awful God,” even though it still has the same dictionary definition as “awesome.”
But then, even awesome has lost its meaning. The word is used to describe dudes, sports catches, waves, and even drugs. Even in the first paragraph of this article it was used to describe trumpet-playing. A person who can leap high in the air and snatch a baseball from the far side of a fence may display exceptional skill (or may be exceptionally lucky). Even if he does it on a regular basis, though, he is not deserving of the awe that we should have for God. That catch will be forgotten in a week. Our truly awesome God is ever before us. We cannot look around without being aware of him, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Let all the earth fear the LORD: let all the inhabitants of the world stand in awe of him. (Ps 33:8)