As the days get shorter and the air quality goes from “walking in a fish tank” to normal humidity, we see the coming of the fall Jewish holidays. Of course, we start these holidays with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, known by many collectively as the High Holy Days. I’ve always wondered why Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur have been put in the exclusive category of High Holy Days. There are many holidays mentioned in almost the same format in the Torah, which are holy and are holidays, as the words infer. But, why “High Holy Days?” I did not find the answer in either the Written or Oral Torah. It seems the phrase Yamim Noraim was first used in the medieval period. A more direct translation of this phrase may be Awesome Days, or less direct, Days of Awe. I have even seen it called Awful Days, which is an archaic form of the word awesome or inspiring. Perhaps over time this phrase made the time seem ominous and therefore excluded the average person from connecting to it. Perhaps, that is why we use the phrase High Holy Days.
However, the powerful Hebrew word Noraim still has an importance and usage today. At the core of this word is the root, Yei-rah, ירא. This word came up in the Torah portion, Ki Titzei. We are told to take our rebellious son out in front of the community to stone him. We learn from the rabbis of the Talmud that this never actually happened; however, we are told in the text that we bring him to public areas and pelt him with stones so that we should “clear out the evil from among you, and all Israel will listen and fear.” (Deut 21:21). The translation of fear, in this verse, comes from this same word, Yei-rah.
In fact, the common translation of this word is to fear. A popular ethos in many Jewish communities is Yei-rat Shmayim, fear of Heaven or fear of God. When I was in the yeshivah we spent many hours honing our connection to God through lens of fearing Him. The value was to experience the world while always knowing that God is judging us and potentially punishing us.
This lifestyle is certainly virtuous, and I admit there are times I do and do not do because I believe God is present. However, there is more depth in this word Yei-rah. A very close root to Yei-rah is Roeh, ראה, to see. Therefore, the day of Yei-rah is a more profound way of seeing not by using our eyes and seeing something, but with ourselves becoming aware of something. According to the Dictionary of Biblical Old Testament Hebrew, “the more fundamental meaning of this verb has to do with the observing of an external force, which is about to change the observer to the core.”
Therefore this value of Yei-rat Shmayim, a fear of God, is really about the value of being aware, perhaps even as aware of God as if we could see Him right in front of our eyes. As we move into these powerful Days of Awe, let us use this as a chance to become aware of God being all around us as we start the new year with blessings.