If we assigned a word that’s been overused and undervalued to each letter of the alphabet, A” would have to be for “awesome.” This superlative is commonly used to express ordinary enthusiasm over just about anything: a favorite song, band, book or even a piece of clothing.
The Bible normally reserves the word “awesome” to describe God or something God has done. For example, “He has sent redemption to His people; He has commanded His covenant forever: Holy and awesome is His name” (Psalm 111:9). The Jewish High Holidays are meant to reflect some of that “biblical grade” awe.
Right now, according to the Jewish calendar, we are in the midst of the Days of Awe, or “yomim noraim” as they are known in Hebrew: the ten days between Rosh Hashanah (the feast of Trumpets) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). These days are intended to be an opportunity to reflect, contemplate our sin and realize our need for atonement before God.
According to Jewish tradition, at the sound of the shofar (ram’s horn) on Rosh Hashanah (which began this year at sundown on September 12) the Book of Life in heaven was opened. This same tradition says the book will close once again with the final sounding of the shofar at the conclusion of Yom Kippur (which begins at sundown on September 21). A traditional greeting among Jews at this season is “L’shanah tova tikatevu,” which means, “May your name be inscribed for another good year.” The greeting is really a hope–and sometimes a prayer–that one’s name will be written once again in the Book of Life, signifying that appropriate reflection and repentance have occurred, insuring atonement from God for the sins of the past year.
Yet these days have lost most of their meaning in so many segments of the Jewish community. When I was leading our Chicago branch, actually located in the suburb of Skokie, Illinois, our offices were just down the street from the office of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League. Each year at this season as I would walk past their office door I was amazed to see a poster announcing their annual Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur cocktail party. Every year, they sponsored this event as a fund-raiser during the Days of Awe!
The sad fact is that a minority of Jewish people today take the Days of Awe seriously—and those who do have no assurance that their hopes and prayers for atonement will be answered. How I long for this to be a season of true awe and genuine awakening for Jewish people around the world. Those of us who know Y’shua realize that His finished work on the cross and the power of His resurrected life bring assurance of forgiveness for all our sins, not only for this past year, but for all time. We long for the salvation of those who don’t yet know this good news.
This does not mean that once we receive Jesus we no longer need days of awe. In fact, we need a lot more than ten a year! I don’t mean that our forgiveness or relationship with God in any way hinges on these days. But properly understood, all the days of our lives ought to be “yomim noraim,” days of awe. If we lived with a proper sense of awe toward God we might find ourselves living very differently than we currently do.
Proverbs tells us, “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge,” (Proverbs 1:7a). If we believe that God is as awesome as we say He is, our response should be to fear the Lord. Not the kind of fear that would scare us away from Him, but godly fear in which we realize that every moment of every day we are to live in the knowledge that He is the supreme Creator, the ever present Holy One. We are all responsible before Him for all we say and do each and every day of the year.
Unfortunately, most of us have many moments that add up to many days, even weeks or months in which we do not act as though God knows and cares about our thoughts, words and actions. It becomes easy to ignore or fail to take into consideration God’s standards in our day-to-day lives, in the decisions we make and in the way we relate to those around us. I remember once telling my mother about some problems I was facing with a brother in the Lord who was behaving badly toward me and toward Jews for Jesus. My mom was becoming increasingly upset about all of this, not just because she’s one of my biggest fans, but because she is one of God’s biggest fans. Finally, in frustration and disappointment she exclaimed, “Where is the fear of God in all of this? Where is the fear of God?” In other words, this perplexing conflict was simple to her: Why would this brother not examine his actions in light of proper awe of God? If he did, he would change and behave rightly towards me and towards Jews for Jesus.
Mom got it right, not only for this disappointing brother, but for me, too, and for you, and for all of us. Fear of the Lord is a fantastic corrective to sin and relationships in need of repair. It straightens out our skewed views and creates a context for holiness, repentance and reconciliation. It makes us so aware of our own shortcomings and so grateful that God has forgiven us, that we have no heart for holding on to bitterness and anger over the sins of others. It floods our hearts with power, enabling us to let go of the pride that cherishes perceived hurts, disappointments and dreams of making others pay. Genuine awe of God brings us face-to-face with His amazing grace that not only covers our sins, but also the sins of those sisters and brothers who have offended us.
The fear of the Lord is also a great deterrent to all kinds of sin and temptations. Once I was checking into a hotel with a colleague. As we got into an elevator two women, obviously inebriated, expressed an interest in following us up to our room. My colleague politely informed them that we were both married, which didn’t seem to bother them, but at least they recognized that we were not accepting their invitation. When the elevator door closed behind them, I remembered a similar story told by an evangelical leader. He had been alone when approached by a woman in a hotel elevator with a similar invitation. He told her, “No, thank you. I believe that God is watching me all the time and He wouldn’t want me to do what you are asking me to do.” I liked that leader’s answer. While it is good to let people know we intend to honor our marriages, I think it is even better to let people know that we fear the Lord.
The fear of the Lord, to be in awe of Him, is the beginning of knowledge, but it is also the beginning of a blessed and holy life. I want to live that way each and every day, don’t you? Let’s choose to make each day a day of awe and allow the fear of the Lord to guide our steps. Let’s also take this time to pray for so many Jewish people who are aware of this holy season, but don’t yet know God’s provision of atonement in Jesus, nor how to live a life of forgiveness through the fear of the Lord and the power of His resurrected Messiah.