This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
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This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation

by Alan Lew

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There are moments in life when one is caught utterly unprepared. Drawing on both his rabbinical training and his scholarship in Buddhism, Lew leads readers on a journey from confusion to clarity, from doubt to belief, as he opens a path to self-discovery that is accessible to readers of all faiths.


There are moments in life when one is caught utterly unprepared. Drawing on both his rabbinical training and his scholarship in Buddhism, Lew leads readers on a journey from confusion to clarity, from doubt to belief, as he opens a path to self-discovery that is accessible to readers of all faiths.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Lew's exploration of the Days of Awe begins not with Rosh Hashanah-which is not featured until chapter six-but with Tisha B'Av and the month of Elul. These observances, Lew feels, set a tone of rigorous introspection in the Jewish calendar. He follows the story through Yom Kippur and Sukkot, drawing on Jewish tradition, his own experiences and a few Buddhist stories (Lew is a self-described "Zen rabbi") to take the reader on a journey of spiritual transformation-"from birth to death and back to renewal again." Lew is far more concerned with inner motivations and awareness than with external rituals, a refreshing and sometimes startling perspective. He is a perceptive thinker and a highly skilled writer, making this book a hard-hitting yet compassionate cry for spiritual renewal during the High Holy Days as well as the rest of the year. (Sept.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Has the title got your attention? Indeed, Lew (One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi), spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, conveys a sense of urgency about the Jewish High Holidays, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as the key holidays and rituals that surround them: Tisha B'Av, Elul, Selichot, Teshuvah, Ne'ilah, and Sukkot. Taken together, they constitute a journey from birth to death to renewal, a journey of self-discovery, spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution: "This is the longest journey we will ever make, and we must complete it in that brief instant before the gates of heaven clang shut." In order to help us prepare for the journey, Lew draws from Talmudic text, lore and commentary, Kabbala, some Zen Buddhism, psychology, and literature, as well as his own personal experiences. He is a patient and compassionate guide as he conveys the message that we must take our holy tasks seriously, but if we don't make it this year we can try again next year. A fresh look at a more than 2000-year-old mandate, highly recommended for collections of Judaica.-Marcia Welsh, Dartmouth Coll., Hanover, NH Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.

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Read an Excerpt

This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared

By Rabbi Alan Lew

Time Warner

Copyright © 2003

Alan Lew
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-316-73908-1

Chapter One

The Soul Stretches Out to Contain Itself


you don't know who you are and that you don't know how or why you
got here. It's worse than that; these questions never even arise. It
is as if you are in a dream.

Then the walls of the great house that surrounds you crumble and
fall. You tumble out onto a strange street, suddenly conscious of
your estrangement and your homelessness.

A great horn sounds, calling you to remembrance, but all you can
remember is how much you have forgotten. Every day for a month, you
sit and try to remember who you are and where you are going. By the
last week of this month, your need to know these things weighs upon
you. Your prayers become urgent.

Then the great horn sounds in earnest one hundred times. The time of
transformation is upon you. The world is once again cracking through
the shell of its egg to be born. The gate between heaven and earth
creaks open. The Book of Life and the Book of Death are opened once
again, and your name is written in one of them.

But you don't know which one.

The ten days that follow are fraught with meaning and dread. They
are days when it is perfectly clear every second that you live in
the midst of a chain of ineluctable consequence, that everything you
do, every prayer you utter, every intention you form, every act of
compassion you perform, ripples out from the center of your being to
the end of time. Anger and its terrible cost lie naked before you.
Grievance gives way to forgiveness. At the same time, you become
aware that you also stand at the end of a long chain of
consequences. Many things are beyond your control. They are part of
a process that was set in motion long ago. You find the idea of this

Then, just when you think you can't tolerate this one moment more,
you are called to gather with a multitude in a great hall. A court
has convened high up on the altar in the front of the hall. Make
way! Make way! the judges of the court proclaim, for everyone must
be included in the proceeding. No one, not even the usual outcasts,
may be excluded. You are told that you are in possession of a great
power, the power of speech, and that you will certainly abuse it-you
are already forgiven for having abused it in the past-but in the end
it will save you.

For the next twenty-four hours you rehearse your own death. You wear
a shroud and, like a dead person, you neither eat nor drink nor
fornicate. You summon the desperate strength of life's last moments.
A great wall of speech is hurled against your heart again and again;
a fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly until you
are brokenhearted and confess to your great crime. You are a human
being, guilty of every crime imaginable. Your heart is cracking
through its shell to be reborn. Then a chill grips you. The gate
between heaven and earth has suddenly begun to close. The multitude
has swollen. It is almost as if the great hall has magically
expanded to include an infinity of desperate souls. This is your
last chance. Everyone has run out of time. Every heart has broken.
The gate clangs shut, the great horn sounds one last time. You feel
curiously lighthearted and clean.

Some days later you find yourself building a house; a curious house,
an incomplete house, a house that suggests the idea of a house
without actually being one. This house has no roof. There are a few
twigs and branches on top, but you can see the stars and feel the
wind through them. And the walls of this house don't go all the way
around it either. Yet as you sit in this house eating the bounty of
the earth, you feel a deep sense of security and joy. Here in this
mere idea of a house, you finally feel as if you are home. The
journey is over.

At precisely this moment, the journey begins again. The curious
house is dismantled. The King calls you in for a last intimate meal,
and then you set out on your way again.

This may all sound like a dream-a nightmare-and it is. It is a deep
dream of human existence. It is also a description of the round of
Jewish rituals that are observed every year between midsummer and
midfall-roughly early August to mid-October, although this varies
slightly from year to year. It is a gesture-by-gesture description
of the stages of the Days of Awe, each one constituting a passage in
this ancient journey of transformation:

* Tisha B'Av, the day of mourning for the destruction of the Temple
in Jerusalem, the day of the crumbling of the great walls.

* Elul, the last month of the year, when the great horn of
remembrance is sounded to begin the month of introspection that
precedes the Days of Awe.

* Selichot, the last week of fervent prayer that precedes Rosh

* Rosh Hashanah itself, the head of the year, the day of
remembrance; the day of the one hundred blasts and the two books.

* The Ten Days of Teshuvah, the Days of Awe proper; the period of
intense spiritual transformation that begins with Rosh Hashanah and
ends with Yom Kippur, ten days fraught with meaning and dread.

* Kol Nidre, the eve of Yom Kippur, when the great court is convened
above and below.

* Yom Kippur itself, the Day of Atonement, the day we rehearse our
own death, the day that comes to a close with the clanging shut of
the great gates.

* And finally Sukkot, a joyous coda to the journey, the autumnal
harvest festival, during which we build and inhabit the sukkah, a
booth, the barest outline of a house.

R. Buckminster Fuller's students once asked him to name the most
important figure of the twentieth century. Sigmund Freud, he said
without a moment's hesitation. They were shocked. Why Freud? Why not
Einstein, about whom Fuller had written extensively, or some other
figure from the world of science or economics or architecture, to
which he had devoted his considerable energy? So Fuller explained
himself. Sigmund Freud, he said, was the one who had introduced the
single great idea upon which all the significant developments of the
twentieth century had rested: the invisible is more important than
the visible. You would never have had Einstein if Freud hadn't
convinced the world of this first. You would never have had nuclear

For all Freud's animus against Judaism, his idea was an extremely
Jewish one. In fact it may not be too much to suggest that it is the
Jewish idea. Judaism came into the world to bring the news that the
invisible is more important than the visible. From the beginning of
time, humans had seen the world as a play of competing forces, which
they had personified as gods. The sea struggled against the earth,
the rain either overwhelmed the forests and fields or famished them,
men and beasts hunted each other, hatred and vengeance, love and
compassion, struggled for hegemony in the human heart. But Judaism
came to say that beneath this appearance of conflict, multiplicity,
and caprice there was a oneness, a singularity, all-powerful and
endlessly compassionate, endlessly just.

In the visible world, we live out our routine and sometimes messy
lives. We have jobs, families, and houses. Our lives seem quite
ordinary and undramatic. It is only beneath the surface of this
world that the real and unseen drama of our lives is unfolding, only
there that the walls of the house crumble and fall, that the horn
sounds one hundred times, that the gate between heaven and earth
opens and the great books of life and death open as well. It is
there that the court is convened, that we rehearse our own death,
that the gate closes again, and that we finally come home to the
mere idea of the very house that crumbled and fell in the first
place. If the purpose of ritual is to render the invisible visible,
then what is the profound, universal, unseen, and unspoken reality
that all of this ritual reflects? What journey of the soul, what
invisible journey of transformation, does all of this make visible?

On this journey our soul will awaken to itself. We will venture from
innocence to sin and back to innocence again. This is a journey from
denial to awareness, from self-deception to judgment. We will learn
our Divine Name. We will move from self-hatred to self-forgiveness,
from anger to healing, from hard-heartedness to brokenheartedness.
This is the journey the soul takes to transform itself and to
evolve, the journey from boredom and staleness-from deadness-to
renewal. It is on the course of this journey that we confront our
shadow and come to embrace it, that we come to know our deepest
desires and catch a glimpse of where they come from, that we express
the paradoxical miracle of our own being and the infinite power of
simply being present, simply being who we are. It is the journey
from little mind to big mind, from confinement in the ego to a sense
of ourselves as a part of something larger. It is the journey from
isolation to a sense of our intimate connection to all being. This
is the journey on which we discover ourselves to be part of an
inevitable chain of circumstances, the journey beyond death, the
journey home. This is the longest journey we will ever make, and we
must complete it in that brief instant before the gates of heaven
clang shut.

The journey I will describe in these pages is one of self-discovery,
spiritual discipline, self-forgiveness, and spiritual evolution. It
is the snapshot the Jewish people pull out every autumn of the great
journey all human beings must make across this world: the journey
from Tisha B'Av to Sukkot, from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, from
birth to death and back to renewal again. Seeing yourself in this
snapshot will help you chart the course of your own spiritual
evolution. Every soul needs to express itself. Every heart needs to
crack itself open. Every one of us needs to move from anger to
healing, from denial to consciousness, from boredom to renewal.
These needs did not arise yesterday. They are among the most ancient
of human yearnings, and they are fully expressed in the pageantry
and ritual of the Days of Awe, in the great journey we make between
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

In ancient Israel the seventh month of the year was an anxious time.
All the other civilizations of the ancient Near East were sustained
by great rivers. The Egyptians had the Nile, the Babylonians had the
Tigris and the Euphrates; but Israel was completely dependent on
rain. The rains came in the eighth month. So the seventh month was a
time when the nation of Israel felt its life hanging in the balance.
This utter dependence on the heavens seems to have given the ancient
Israelites an intense sense of their dependence on God. It may very
well have been this dependence that sensitized the Israelites to the
existence of God in the first place. The ancient Israelites felt
themselves to be part of a vast interpenetrating whole, a cosmos in
which the weather and their own moral condition were active and
interdependent constituents. The round of holidays we now call the
Days of Awe gave form to this sense.

Rosh Hashanah is never mentioned in the Torah. Rosh Hashanah means
"the head of the year," and it marks the start of the New Year in
today's Jewish calendar. But in biblical times, the New Year began
exactly six months before, in Nisan, the month in which Passover
occurs. The Day of Atonement-Yom Kippur-is mentioned in the Torah.
It appears along with Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot, the New Moon, and
the Sabbath in the recitations of the sacred calendar which appear
in the Books of Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

And the Lord spoke to Moses saying also on the tenth day of this
the seventh month, there will be a day of atonement. It will be a
holy gathering to you and you will afflict your souls and offer an
offering made by fire to the Lord. And you will do no work on that
very same day, for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement for
you before the Lord your God.

While there is no mention of Rosh Hashanah in these calendars, there
is a special day mentioned ten days before Yom Kippur, on the first
day of the seventh month, precisely the day that would later become
Rosh Hashanah. In biblical times, however, this day was called Yom
Ha-Zikaron, the Day of Remembrance, or Yom Zikaron Truah, the Day of
the Blowing of the Horn for Remembrance. But who was to remember
what? Was it a day when God was supposed to remember us? Were we
supposed to remember God? Or was it a day when we were to begin to
become mindful of our moral circumstances in preparation for the Day
of Atonement that would soon be upon us? Was the sound of the ram's
horn (the shofar) a mystical nexus between heaven and earth or, as
suggested by the Rambam (Maimonides, a medieval philosopher and
legal authority and a towering figure in the world of Jewish
thought), was it a wake-up call for us? Was it crying out to us,
"Awake, awake, you sleepers from your sleep; examine your deeds,
return in repentance, remember your Creator; those of you who forget
the truth and go astray the whole year in vanity and emptiness that
neither profits nor saves, look to your souls"?

Examining the length and breadth of the tradition that would
follow-following the tradition through its biblical, talmudic,
medieval, and modern periods-the answer is, clearly, all of the
above. God's mindfulness of us is the sine qua non of this holiday
season. If there were no consciousness out there aware of us,
responding to us, this whole round of holidays would make no sense
at all. Neither would life. The rains would fall at random, the
heavens would shut themselves up, and we would live and die without
meaning. Equally important is our awareness of God. We shouldn't
imagine that this was any less problematic for the ancient
Israelites than it is for us. If they found it easy, they wouldn't
have needed one hundred blasts of the great shofar to bring them
back to an awareness of the Supernal Oneness or its inescapable
sovereignty over all creation. But what seems to have been most
clearly true of this Day of the Blowing of the Horn for Remembrance
is that it was both connected with and preparatory to Yom
Ha-Kippurim, the Day of Atonement.

But what was atonement in biblical times, and how did the ancient
Israelites prepare for it? Atonement was a moral and spiritual
purification, and the ancient Israelites believed that there were
three ritual occasions that possessed an almost magical capacity to
effect atonement: (1) the propitiatory sacrifices one made at the
Great Temple, (2) the day of Yom Kippur, and (3) death itself. But
as powerful as these occasions were, none of them could bring about
atonement without the prerequisite of a verbal confession-an
acknowledgment of the precise nature of our impurity spoken out
loud. A Vidui-a confession of sin-had to be recited as we offered
the propitiatory sacrifices; it had to be recited on Yom Kippur; and
it had to be recited on the deathbed as well. This recitation
activated the considerable power each of these moments possessed.

Excerpted from This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared
by Rabbi Alan Lew
Copyright © 2003 by Alan Lew.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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