Days of Awe: A Gentile Discovers Jewish Poetry

As a Gentile, I learned several years ago that September is the time of the Days of Awe, or the 10 days in between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement, and the holiest day in the Jewish calendar). In seminary I learned about the ancient practices of Yom Kippur, which was the one day when the high priest could enter the Holy of Holies in the Temple and offer a sacrifice on behalf of all of the people. And I’ve known that the Days of Awe had something to do with blowing a shofar, or a ram’s horn. Yet much of my knowledge of these high Jewish holy days is based on what happened millennia ago—I’ve had very little contemporary exposure to the Days of Awe.

During a contemplative prayer call in which I participated last week, in a year filled with pandemic, economic crisis, racial injustice, and a stormy US election, my colleagues and I lamented our shared sense of darkness. One colleague named Deborah Michel noted how we find darkness not only in the tomb, but also in the womb. Another colleague, a Jewish rabbi named Mark Novak, highlighted how Judaism has long associated the shape of the shofar with that of the birth canal.

Photo credit: slgckgc on Visual Hunt / CC BY

The comparison certainly grabbed my attention as a poet. After reading this article on the symbolic significance of Rosh Hashanah, I found myself almost drunk on metaphor. How have I never seen these poetic possibilities in the Hebrew Bible before?!

As Rabbi Novak explained to me, the Days of Awe have a long poetic history, from ancient Hebrew liturgical poems called piyyuttim, to verse from more contemporary poets like Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Since 2003, Barenblat has written a poem during Elul, or the month leading up to the Days of Awe (check out her impressive collection of Elul poems here). Her poem from 2018, “As Days Are Waning,” particularly resonates as Rabbi Barenblat has the last word today:

The new year starts as days are waning.
I’m never ready when the first leaves turn.
Every Jewish day begins with evening:
darkness before light, since the beginning.

I’m never ready when the first leaves turn.
Roll the scroll toward the end of our story:
darkness before light since the beginning.
Am I ready to turn and face what’s coming?

Roll the scroll toward the end of our story —
can I open my hands and let go of the summer?
Am I ready to turn and face what’s coming?
You know what they say about endings.

I open my hands and let go of the summer,
paint every cracked and broken place with gold.
You know what they say about endings:
turn the page, start a chapter, begin again.

Paint every cracked and broken place with gold!
Every Jewish day begins with evening:
turn the page, start a chapter, begin again.
The new year starts as days are waning.

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