Vermont’s Queechee Gorge, formed by glaciers 13,000 years ago, cuts into the earth for nearly a mile, a roaring cascade of water that ends amidst the Ottauqueechee River. If you are 20 or so, as my two sons are, and you trust that the slippery rocks will hold you, you can walk out upon the river itself, stepping from stone to stone until you make it to a large boulder at the river’s center, sitting there with the bending yews before you, water rushing all around.
If you are the boys’ mother, you sit, barely breathing at the river’s edge, knowing you must watch them do this. When they make it to the middle, you exhale, taking in the breathtaking bend of water, light, children. Wonder.
Abraham Joshua Heschel lived his life in service of wonder, or as he called it, “radical amazement.” His words seem ever more crucial now, in our contemporary landscape — the rush and frenzy of our “sound bite” lives, the techno-clamor we navigate daily. In his seminal work, “The Sabbath,” Heschel mounts a clear protest against the tumult, our grasping mentality for things and all the digital chatter. He says that one day a week we can shut it all down, and begin to remind ourselves of the Eternal.
For Heschel, the Eternal is not only there in nature’s cathedral, at the bank of the Ottauqueechee. The gifts of the world are offered up to us in any given moment, and all we have to do is to respond, to receive, to awaken. Shabbat is a one-day-a-week immersion in learning how to sanctify, to build a life of sacred moments.
The challenge is that most of us find it difficult to recognize the awe of those things that are familiar to us, so Heschel’s works elucidate a spiritual project that is creative, and often counterintuitive. He tells us that faith is built out of our encounters with awe, our “higher incomprehension,” and says that “our greatest hindrance to awareness of the Divine is our adjustment to conventional notions and mental clichés. Wonder, or radical amazement, is a state of maladjustment to words and notions.”
Maladjustment. That’s the artist’s angle, the writer’s vision. Looking at the world slightly askew, so that we might encounter something innately extraordinary — Emily Dickinson’s slant of light and Rilke’s “shelter nailed up out of our darkest longing.”
Heschel beckons us to become artists of the soul. On Shabbat, we are to live in total contrast to our regular days, calling a referendum on our growing attention deficit disorder and our worship of things. Instead, he suggests, the Sabbath is nothing more than a love affair with the Divine. It’s a relationship. A love “carried to the extreme,” and a reminder that we live, ultimately, in service of the Eternal.
The service of the Sabbath makes it “a day for praise. Not for petitions.” We are to live, if only for one day a week, as if the world were perfect. For some of us, that is a tremendous leap, especially given the real-time state of our world. But the idea is to step back, to gain a crucial distance we lack, in order to see more deeply into the nature of things. Then, to use the day itself as an inspiration that infuses the other six days of the week.
The Sabbath is a day of humility. We recognize an Ultimate Reality or Mystery that exists above and beyond what we can achieve with our bare hands. And yet, for Heschel, the love of the seventh day does not emphasize piety or excessive adherence to laws. Instead, we are to “paint on the canvas of time the mysterious grandeur of the climax of creation.” As God sanctified the seventh day in all of its wonder and glory, so should we. Heschel sings, like the lonely prophets he admired, in a deeply poetic language, always reaching beyond itself, beyond the very limits of language to crack open our complacency, to spur us, ultimately, to action.
Heschel speaks out of a deeply personal relationship with God. He reminds us that we have a soul. And he wants to summon something in us that seems to be increasingly buried beneath the weight of all of our “stuff,” all the beautiful things beckoning on Madison and Columbus, all of the technology we once thought would save us time.
If the eyes are the windows to the soul, as Blake held, then the portal, perhaps, is the voice. We live in an increasingly voiceless culture — e-mails, text messages, Twitter — all without voice. Without timbre, rhythm, tone, and all too often, style. It is easy to forget we have a soul. Heschel’s is a legacy of wonder. “Give me wonder,” he whispers. What’s more, he tells us how to go about cultivating it.
For the prophets, wonder was a form of thinking, an “attitude.” Ecclesiastes said, “God has implanted in the hearts of men the mystery.” Shabbat is a day for the mystery. But it’s a mystery we “get at” in the most brass-tack of ways — through deeds. Heschel spoke of definite actions and abstentions — the “saying no” part — that create his infamous “palace in time,” the idea of living within a realm of existence bound up with the Infinite. When I bless the wine, my hands, the children on Friday nights, an expansive set of moments open, time itself lengthens out in a gorgeous way. When I do this Friday night after Friday night, I begin to experience a tapestry of moments that holds me and sustains me as it has the Jewish people for millennia.
Always, for Heschel, there is the danger of “merely” fulfilling a commandment. A Van Gogh of the spirit, Heschel wants us, always, to “experience commonplace deeds as spiritual adventures.” He wants to train us, not unlike the Olympian athletes I was obsessed by this winter, perfecting their triple axels in Vancouver — in maintaining our sense of awe. A mere blessing over wine becomes an opportunity to remind ourselves of “the eternal mystery of Creation.” A mundane act is linked with the Miraculous.
What would our Sabbaths look like if they were born in wonder? What would our religious observance need to be if wonder and radical amazement lay at the core? What would a life conceived in wonder look like? Who would be our prophets, our poets, our queens?
I am writing these words as spring breaks in New York City. The driving winds and rains of March have given way to tulips nodding at the Korean market, bright green stalks of broccoli and yellow roses spilling onto the sidewalks of Broadway. It is easy to be in wonder now, but Heschel reminds us that it was always there. Olam, the Hebrew word for world, comes from alam, to hide, to conceal. The world’s essence, he says, is Mystery.
And his project goes way beyond the traditional Shabbat concept of rest, way beyond the infamous Shabbat afternoon nap. Menucha, which can be translated as “to give pleasure, to allow, to be released,” was created on the Sabbath, Heschel says. Menucha suggests joy, stillness and harmony. It is that which is left when we let go of everything we don’t need.
My first Shabbats were lived in the house of a rebelling Orthodox young man. His wife had just died when I met him, and though I was newly in love with the rituals, the only commandment he wanted to tell me about was the one that says it is a mitzvah for a man and woman to make love on Friday night.
Now, some 25 years later, we — that same, no-longer-young man and I — live a traditional yet hodgepodge version of Judaism. But on Friday nights, as I light those twin candles, I can feel my soul calling out to me. That small dying of myself to the world of commerce and busy-ness. And a welcoming, an awakening — angel’s wings beating — into the Cathedral of light, into the Palace beyond time.
Shelly R. Fredman teaches writing at Barnard and at the Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning. Her work has appeared in “Best Jewish Writing 2002” (Jossey-Bass), the Chicago Tribune Magazine and a number of anthologies and literary journals.