Erev Rosh Hashana Sermon

(By Rabbi Esther Reed)

Rabbi Esther Reed

What do a natural event such as a thunderstorm; a personal transition, such as childbirth; and unfathomable structures, like the grand canyon, have in common?  All three of these experiences make us pause and reflect, and they all have an actual impact on how we perceive a variety of elements in our lives.  Think about a time when you’ve experienced even one of these—have you witnessed an extraordinary moment in nature?  Have you lived through a miracle in medicine or biology?  Have you encountered a structure so vast that it took your breath away?

If you have experienced any of these things, think about how it affected you.  Try to remember your feelings as it happened, and in recalling that moment think about how you feel right now.  Moments like these have a huge impact on who you are and how you see things in life, even if only temporarily.

There was a study recently done on this very issue. Melanie Rudd and Jennifer Aaker of Stanford University Graduate School of Business and Kathleen Vohs of the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management devised a way to study these feelings in the laboratory.  Across three different experiments, they found that jaw-dropping moments made participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, more willing to volunteer time to help others, and participants experienced a boost in life satisfaction. This study will be published in Psychological Science[1], a journal of the Association for Psychological Science[2].

Wow. More time available—how great would it be to feel like you had more time, rather than less and less each day?  More patient?  I’d love to be more patient, with my children, my husband, and those I work with every day.  Less materialistic, more willing to volunteer time to help others, and experiencing satisfaction in life?—these are values I strive for! Sign me up!  How did these researchers do this study and how could it work for you and me?

There were three experiments performed, and in all three, the jaw-dropping moments were experienced in comparison to moments of happiness.  Happiness was chosen for comparison because it is also a positive emotion, that can broaden one’s perspective, but differs in the perception of vastness and the impact it has on you.

In the first experiment, participants were randomly assigned to watch 60 second commercials.  One set were shown moments of happiness, like people in city streets and parks encountering rainbow confetti falling through the air and a parade of smiling people, waving flags, wearing face paint and brightly colored outfits. The second set watched a commercial with vast, mentally overwhelming, beautiful and realistic images of waterfalls, whales, and astronauts in space. Afterwards, the participants from both sets answered questions about their feelings, and those in the second set described feeling that they had more time to get things done. Statements like “Time is expanded” and “time is boundless” were indicated by the second set.

In the next experiment, participants were divided into two groups and had to write narratives about a randomly assigned personal experience.  The first group wrote about an experience that made them feel happiness, as defined as “contentment or joy.”  The second group wrote about “a response to things perceived as vast and overwhelming that alters the way you understand the world.” These included being in nature, exposure to art or music, personal accomplishments, others’ accomplishments, and social interactions.  At the end, both groups filled out surveys reporting their feelings of patience or impatience and their likelihood of and willingness to volunteer time to support a worthy cause and help a charity. Afterwards, survey results showed the second group had reduced impatience and increased willingness to volunteer one’s time.

In the third experiment, participants read a story and were told to try to feel as the character in the story would have felt. Those in the first group read about climbing a tower and seeing a plain landscape from on high.  Those in the second group read about ascending the Eiffel Tower and seeing Paris from on high. Afterwards, they filled out a survey about perceived time availability, and those in the second group wrote “I have lots of time in which I can get things done” and “time is boundless.” They were also asked “All things considered, how satisfied are you with your life as a whole, right now?” Participants made hypothetical choices between purchasing material goods and experiential opportunities worth the same amount, such as a $10 gas card versus a $10 movie pass, a new jacket versus a restaurant dinner, a new watch versus a Broadway show. This experiment showed that the second group had expanded perceptions of time. People in this group would prefer experiences over material goods, and they viewed their lives as more satisfying.

In all three cases, the second group characterized their experiences using the term “awe.”  The experiment was designed to help participants experience awe, even in limited doses, and compare that to happiness.  In every case, awe beat out happiness in helping participants feel like they had more time available and made them more patient, less materialistic, more willing to volunteer time to help others, and experienced a boost in life satisfaction. All that came from awe.

The researchers found that the effects that awe has on decision-making and well-being can be explained by awe’s ability to actually change our subjective experience of time by slowing it down. Experiences of awe help to bring us into the present moment which, in turn, adjusts our perception of time, influences our decisions, and makes life feel more satisfying than it would otherwise.

The research quoted another study that showed that being in the present moment elongates time perception, so this Stanford study confirmed that experiencing awe, relative to other states, caused people to perceive that they have more time available and lessened their impatience.  By altering time perception, feeling awe, compared to happiness, led participants to more strongly desire to spend time helping others and partake in experiential goods over material goods. Even a small dose of awe gave participants a momentary boost in life satisfaction. The researchers said it is important to cultivate awe in everyday life.

So why am I focusing for so terribly long about some random psychological study? Why is awe so very important?  Well, as many of you already know, we are beginning a period known as the “days of awe” in the Jewish calendar. The term “Yamim Noraim” or “days of awe” was first used as a designation for the High Holiday period by the Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov Levi Ben Moshe Moellin, during the early 15th century[3]. He is called the Maharil for the Hebrew acronym “Moreinu harav Yaakov Levi” Our teacher, the rabbi Yaakov Levi. He, in early 15th century Germany, first started calling the time of Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, and the days in between as “the days of awe.” By giving us this term, the Maharil was trying to show us that the High Holiday season underscores the awe of wonder and amazement we should feel, both because of these holidays, and in our lives in general. Life is to be celebrated and cherished.

The poet Emerson once wrote that if the sunset occurred once every ten years, we would be so awed by it that it would appear to be a miracle. But since it happens every day, we pay scant attention to it. Rabbi Jeffrey Kaye says “The soul of the religious or spiritual person is geared to see miracles in the daily occurrences of nature.” I would add that we have moments of awe all around us—all we have to do is open our eyes to see them.

Albert Einstein talks about this as well when he says “the most beautiful and deepest experience a [person] can have is the sense of the mysterious. It is the underlying principle of religion.” Behind every mystery, he says “there is something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly.  …This is religiousness…to me it suffices to wonder at these secrets and to attempt humbly to grasp with my mind a mere image of the lofty structure of all that there is.”[4] For Einstein the scientist, we can experience awe by realizing there are things beyond our mind’s grasp—and that connects us with a sense of mystery and to a religious feeling.

The twentieth century philosopher and theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel also spoke of awe. He said “Awe…is the sense of wonder and humility inspired by the sublime or felt in the presence of mystery.”[5] Heschel is describing those feelings when we encounter awe.  He talked about a philosophy of “Radical Amazement” where one is so in awe of every aspect of the world and its creator that one cannot help but do one’s part to make it the best it can be.

This seems to be similar to the results of the Stanford study. We feel moments of awe, and it makes us want to volunteer, it makes us feel good about the world, and about our lives. I am indebted to Rabbi Rachel Bat-Or, who shared this study with me, and also remarked that “the most exciting part of this study is knowing that we can recreate that feeling of timelessness even when we are not in nature. We can do it by looking at videos or photos of awe-inspiring places. We can even do so by remembering our time in those places. With just 60 seconds of looking at or remembering awesome images, we can bring back that feeling of time standing still. This is so important for each of us….All we need is 60 seconds, and all of us have 60 seconds at least once a day.”[6]

So as we embark upon the Days of Awe—days that give us ample time to experience moments of transcendence in music and meditation and memory. Whether you are thinking about a natural event within God’s creation such as a thunderstorm, the growth of fruit and flowers, the rolling of streams, and the power of the seas, whether you are thinking about a person transition, such as childbirth or a particular occurrence of genuine human interaction, whether you are thinking of the breathtaking scope of the Grand Canyon, the ethereal beauty of the Aurora Borealis, the “northern lights,” or the exhilarating view from the top of the Eiffel Tower, at some point in our lives we’ve all had the feeling of being in a complete and overwhelming sense of awe.

May these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe, give us the power and courage to open up our eyes and find awe in our heart. May we be receptive to our everyday miracles, for these are the joys and pleasures and wonders of life. May we be enriched and nurtured by them and our ability to experience radical amazement. May we experience the expandedness of time and the satisfaction in life, as we pray to be entered into the book of life, on these Yamim Noraim, these Days of Awe.

[3] 1360 -1427 CE

[4] My Credo 1932

[5] God in Search of Man: A philosophy of Judaism, p. 76