In the Space of the Days of Awe

Sharon September 17th, 2009

I realize that there are a number of readers of mine who think that my tendency to G-d-bother, as a friend of mine puts it, is one of my literary weaknesses.  I’ve had the emails “you’d be such a good writer if you’d just leave that archaic religious stuff out” one person put it.  That’s ok with me - I annoy the humorless with the comic posts, the people opposed to soppiness with the moving ones, the left, the right, the middle, Jews who don’t think I’m religious enough or hate my politics on Israel, Christians who think I’m too Jewish and should shut about about it already…and so I’d feel rather bad if I never got so much as an eye-roll out of my athiest readers ;-)

I write what I write, whether silly or serious, practical or analytic, simply because I want to write it.  I’ve never claimed otherwise - this blog is, as the sidebar says, a synthesis of all things of interest to me.  And the question of where we go - in our inner and outer lives - when there seems to be little hope for change is of a great deal of interest to me.

This post comes from an email I got from a reader, who asked that I give a friend of hers who is worried things aren’t changing fast enough a reason for hope.  At first I wasn’t going to do it - I know people need to feel hope, but I get impatient hope sometimes, since it seems to be more about comforting people than getting work done.  But I wanted to write something for the new year, and I thought perhaps there was a way to write about hope that might be useful.  It seemed, at least, an interested exercise.  So here goes.

The first talk I ever did was at the Community Solutions Peak Oil Conference in 2006.  Pat Murphy, director of The Community Solution had read my writings and called me up and asked “do you give talks.”  Now as everyone knows, the answer to that question is “yes” whether it is true or not, and so I did.  The conference took place on Rosh Hashana, and I almost said I couldn’t go because of that, but I figured I’d never be asked again.

I’ve told this story before, in _A Nation of Farmers_ and elsewhere, but I’m going to repeat it anyway.  I had spent several months laboriously constructing a talk about food and agriculture for the conference.  Peter Bane, editor in chief of _Permaculture Activist_ magazine was up before me on the Sunday morning that I spoke, and his talk, also on food and agriculture, covered pretty much every single thing that I’d planned to say in my talk.  I had allotted myself 5 minutes at the end of the talk to a. throw up in panic and b. make sure that my breasts didn’t leak milk all over my shirt, since it was the first time I’d been away from Asher who was 10 months old at the time.

Instead, I had to construct an entirely new talk in that five minutes, while panicking in the rest room.  I had one or two ideas that hadn’t been covered, a nice quote from Thomas Paine, and not much else.  So, when I got up the stage, I did what everyone who needs to buy time and can’t do soft-shoe routines does - I told a story, one about precisely the question of how much hope we have. 

You see, Jewish tradition teaches that at the New Year, G-d inscribes the fate of all the world.  At that time, who will live and who will die, and the future of each person is written down for the year to come.  At that moment, all that will be is decided.

Except, that it isn’t.  Because we are taught that only for two groups of people are the inscriptions final.  The truly righteous, the saints and the best of all human beings are inscribed in the book of life with their fate written down.  And the evil, the truly bad have the same.  But the vast majority of us, the ordinary, incomplete, imperfect, turbulent mass of the rest of us get another shot. 

Because Jews are taught that G-d gives us one last chance and does not close the book. In the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, each person gets one more chance to change what is written, to make themselves and their future a little better.  Why do we get this one last chance, when, after all, we knew that the New Year was coming?  Well, from the mercy of G-d, of course, but also, because a space in which to change is the greatest gift anyone can ever have.  How many of us have ever stood, while disaster struck our lives, thinking “it cannot be happening, please, just let me go back and undo it.”  This doesn’t give us the promise of undoing anything, or even the promise of change. But the story gives us the hope of a second chance to at least brighten our future a little, a gift that all of us can appreciate.

Now I am not a religious literalist - my point, when I stood up and said these words in front of 250 people in 2006 was this - that we too live in the space within the Days of Awe, in which it is possible, not at all certain, that the right actions on our part can reinscribe our future in some measure.  The space of second chances - not do-overs, but space in which some small softening of our blows can be enacted, need not be metaphor.

Moreover, I would argue that the space of the Days of Awe, which we can think of as a kind of box in which to enclose our Schroedinger’s cat-like selves, in which we stand, potentially able to change, and equally potentially fixed and inscribed, is a space of hope and optimism. Hope is not a word I have a lot of truck with, at least in the way that a lot of people use it.  My own thinking is that “hope” is a cheap emotion unless it causes you to break a sweat - I’m only interested in hope when it inspires us to work.  But, of course, that’s the value of hope - not as a balm to our souls, but to the calluses on our palms.

What has changed since 2006?  In 2006, I had vastly greater hopes for our capacity to change, to reinscribe ourselves.  In the years since, we’ve seen that climate change is a much more acute situation than anyone had known.  At this point I think there is real and honest reason to doubt whether even our strongest actions could make a difference - that does not free us not to try (although we are not trying, generally), but it is likely that the words are written.  Instead of a steady and gradual increase in oil prices that drives us in the right direction, we are facing a volatility that means that most people simply can’t fully grasp their situation. 

We are closer now to Neilah, the closing of the gates, in which our fate is inscribed, and we shift to acceptance of our fate.  Much closer - perhaps they are already closed, we do not know and can not know, and must live our lives as though they are open.   Most of us don’t grasp how very close we are to disaster - we go on through our everyday life, and things don’t seem so very bad, and so many people have predicted disaster before, and there’s every reason to believe we’ve got all the time in the world.  Except, of course, the fact that nearly every expression of our science tells us otherwise, that it is time and past time.

It is possible to believe that it is both too late to do anything and possible to do a great deal - in fact, I think this contradiction is the only way to go forward. I spend a lot of my time and energy finding ways to deal with this contradiction, asking how I simultaneously say to people “what you have had is lost, and there is no hope to get it back, you are living in a dead culture and simply haven’t seen it fall over yet” and also “you are needed to act, there is reason to hope and things to look forward to, and much, much work to do” - how does one do it, and say it so that others can hear? The truth is that even what is done, and closed can be helped - we may not stop one disaster, but we can pick up the fallen, tend the sick, help the hungry, bury the dead, and pray.

Again, I know many of you probably aren’t theists and most aren’t Jews.  But I’m not sure that matters - I don’t pray because I’m sure that G-d answers my prayers, or even because I’m always sure G-d exists - I pray because prayer is a form, like the shape of a sonnet or a dance.  One masters the forms, does the discipline of work, in order that maybe someday something transcendent might come out of it - I might work all my life at poetry and never create a great poem - but unless I master the form and discipline of my art, I know I will never create anything great. 

 The same is true of prayer - I do not pray because I think it will mend the world, any more than I garden or write because it will mend the world - I pray and write and garden because I can, it mends me, and it might help - and that’s enough reason.  For some people this may seem cynical, to me, it is consolatory - and hopeful.  It is easy to imagine that the only tools and things that matter are the ones that save the world, that save the day, that fix everything.

But we may be past that point.  And now the things that merely help, that simply make things better begin to come into their own.  The things that allow us to work and cope in a place where there may be nothing more we can do, or where we are constrained, enable us to pick up the tools we have, regardless of circumstances and use them as we can, for the best we can.

These things are small, mostly, and far less shiny and impressive than the tools of world saving, of resolution.  They require we get grubby, both metaphorically and literally down and dirty with the world around us, and that we accept limited results - not enough potatoes to eat all year, but enough for a week.  Not enough money to have what we want, but maybe most of what we need.  Not enough time to fix it all, but to save some, and soften the hurt for many.  Not one single solution, but something close to a whole answer in the actions of thousands and millions and billions, each softening and easing the pain of another a little more.

I hope all of you have a happy and healthy new year.  And I wish for you all the small things, the great joys, hope, and that you may break a sweat.

L’Shana Tova Tikatevu!


43 Responses to “In the Space of the Days of Awe”

  1. vera says:

    L’shana tova, Sharon. :-)

  2. MEA says:

    And from one God botherer to another, Happy New Year!

    And just because I have to boast (and because it is, a hope, a small way to spread hope), this YouTube thingie opens with a shot of a I bag my mother and I made.

    It’s pieced out of donated cloth, with a cord crochet from something that wasn’t going to knit up well.

    It’s so nice when you get a sense that the little things you are doing aren’t in vain.

  3. Julie says:

    You have just caused me to cry on my keyboard.

  4. Rebecca the cat lover says:

    Thank you so much for writing this. Yesterday I received an unexpected gift from God (sort of a do-over, as a matter of fact). And of course, it has turned my life upside-down, has its’ bad as well as good possibilities, and has a bit of humor thrown in.

    I am not Jewish, but just the words “Days of Awe” really resonated with me when I read them. I mean to read more about this when I get a spare moment.

    Meanwhile never give up hope; never give up trying. I truly enjoy reading your blog and I always learn something from the comments.

    Take care and a happy and fruitful Harvest to everyone here.

    Thank you again.

  5. risa b says:

    Yah, if we object to anything that’s you, we’re not letting you be you, that’s basic.

    Didn’t come here to look in a mirror, neh?

  6. Kate@LivingTheFrugalLife says:

    Tell you what, Sharon, I’m one of your atheist readers, and most religious stuff gives me the hives. Some of my fears for the future are wrapped around believers and what so many of them seem hellbent on doing to my society and my country.

    But I don’t mind the religious component of your writing. Can’t really say why, beyond the lack of sanctimoniousness, judgment, or recourse to your religion as a source of moral absolutism for purpose of applying same to other people’s lives. All I know is that when you include religion in your writing, it seems to me that you find and embrace the best of religion and reject the worst of it. If that makes you a better person, then the world’s a better place for it. So who am I to object? And if you can believe it, your religious-tinged posts often touch the heart of this staunch atheist quite deeply, as did this one. (Yes, we have hearts.)

    Besides, last I checked it was your damn blog. Anyone who doesn’t like what you write has the rest of the blogosphere to explore.

  7. Mulberry Hill says:

    Yes. Thank you.

  8. Denise says:

    rock on Sharon!
    L’Shana Tova !

  9. Brad K. says:

    Blessed be,

    Brad K.

  10. Annette says:

    More tears on the keyboard.
    Amen and blessed be!

  11. Eleanor says:

    That was very moving and thought provoking. Thanks you for bringing this to attention.

    Happy new year.



  12. Marilyn says:

    Excellent piece. The fact that your writing can’t be pigeonholed is exactly why I enjoy reading your blog. I find your thoughts engaging and your honesty refreshing. There’s a whole world of blogs out there that will regurgitate their views. Let the book marking begin!

  13. Theresa says:

    Happy New Year!

    I am a sort-of-protestant-becoming-more-buddhist type of person, and I always enjoy hearing about how you apply your beliefs in your daily life. You are so down to earth about it, and it seems to me that Judaism must be a very practical, yet awe-inspiring religion. At least that’s the sense of it I get from what you write. How wonderful to have that in your life! And how kind of you to share it with all of us.

    May all beings be delivered from suffering and the root of suffering.


  14. Bart Anderson says:

    Keep on with the religious POV, Sharon. Spiritual and religious traditions are powerful. If interpreted correctly, they provide an alternative to consumerism and ruthlessness.

    One doesn’t have to believe any particular dogma. Within the different traditions, there is something that is right for everyone.

    The important thing is to make connection with **SOME** tradition. (And to respect the tradition of other people.)

    Bart / EB

  15. NM says:

    Lovely, Sharon, thank you.
    Also, what Kate said.

  16. Susan B says:

    Sharon, I am not Jewish though with a maiden name of Rosenwald I suspect a Jewish heritage somewhere in my ancestry. Your post touched me in a way that clarifies thought. I will enter into prayer these next 10 days to the G-d I believe does exist keeping in mind second chance and breaking a sweat in hope. May we each ease the other’s pain and share the joy.

  17. dewey says:

    Interestingly, Greer yesterday posted a similarly moving and inspiring column, drawing on his own chosen tradition, to make exactly the same point. In his opinion, our culture’s past folly has already doomed our grandchildren to poorer and harder lives, and there is simply no action we could take now that would let them enjoy the prosperity we have had. But there are still things we can do that will make the world they’ll live in less miserable than it might otherwise be. To me, that’s something very much worth fighting for.

  18. nika says:

    I am one of the atheists but I certainly would NEVER write and ask you to change a single bit of your writing.

    How rude.

    If I were a mithraist, I wouldnt, if I were a hindu I wouldnt, if I were a mushroom nibbling sword wielding maiden from the Elysian Fields I wouldnt.

    Talk about truly horrid manners of those who do.

    Shame on them.

    As an atheist, my worldview is open ended.. no books, no fate, no luck, no dogma, no received knowledge attained after hikes on dusty mountains, no mystical beings or actors (except for the noodley appendage, perhaps *winks*).

    All of this is to say, my mind reflexively objects to such frameworks that dictate closed-ended views. I am not saying you are closed minded, in the least.

    I am though saying that, even with the worst cataclysm and even with the extinction of our species, there is hope, there is time’s arrow moving forward and there is the utterly vast persistence and tenacity of Gaia’s genomic development over time (evolution) towards organisms that fit the conditions of the day.

    I also think its important to not have a close ended view of the coming energy descent. It is not a boolean operation, there is not one moment after which you should be SIP, locking ones self away behind cinder blocks, on ice with your food stores and seed banks and frightened children who will possibly not then have the skills to be resilient in the face of their unpredictable futures.

    I should say that I am NOT prone to optimism. I can say tho that permacultural worldviews (which I am adopting more and more as I use it in our homesteading) stresses living systems that are built on living interacting and diverse ecologies that support and are moving toward biological resilience.

    As our climate changes so must we. We are obviously the invasive species but our sentience and some of our ethics can guide some of us to construct a resilient and dynamic transition construct (I am thinking a lot about how we feed people but this applies across everything that consumes the environment). If we think that the deal is done, the book is closed, the ink is gone, then there can not be resilience.

    What ever it is we think we do today to respond to the inevitable climate crisis, those who will make it through the transition will need to be able to rebuild over and over - they need to know how to be that resilient because its likely we can not plan for all contingencies or all failure modes. Teaching our kids to have positive open book minds where the last chapter has not been written and the rapture is not just around the corner (and thus earthly things are not primary) will prepare them for our future.

  19. homebrewlibrarian says:

    The truth is that even what is done, and closed can be helped - we may not stop one disaster, but we can pick up the fallen, tend the sick, help the hungry, bury the dead, and pray.

    In the same way that the poor will always be with us, I’ve come to understand that utopia will never be with us. Our species’ tendency to greed and power grubbing make the possibility of long term enlightened living very unlikely indeed.

    But that doesn’t extinguish hope. Not for me, anyway. Hope comes when the neighbors bring you soup when your kids are sick, you share your extra garden produce with your coworkers, and the guy down the street shows you how to raise bees. The world might be going to hell in a handbasket but when we pick each other up and be there to tend the sick and comfort the families of the dead, hope shines forth. A fitting reflection for Rosh Hashana!

    It might all end tomorrow but for me - I’ll be out planting trees today.

    May your New Year be blessed,

    Kerri in AK

  20. Jesse says:

    I just wanted to say that, as an Agnostic, I read your site for two reasons: 1. Because your ideas on things, while I don’t always agree, are always well thought out and put in such a way that it’s not hard to understand while at the same time doesn’t feel as if you’re talking down to anyone. and 2. BECAUSE you are NOT overbearing about your religion. I don’t know if I have enough fingers and toes to count the number of blogs on various subjects of my personal interest that ARE overbearing, so your blog is a breath of fresh air.

    Now, on a second point here - I LOVE to learn new things, and, having never been Jewish, your blog DOES (in a non-overbearing way!) teach me a lot more about Judaism and the practices thereof than I would ever have learned on my own (I don’t personally know any Jewish people, actually). So it’s actually interesting to come across the little tidbits you put out there. I think you are doing a great job, and THAT is why I read your blog. I encourage you to continue just how you are, because it would not be fair to you (or anyone else for that matter) to make people be something they are not.

  21. Deb says:

    Please keep writing what you want-it gives me something to ponder while I’m doing the weeding or laundry or cleaning or peeling the vegies. You have a contemplative way of writing that I find compelling and refreshing-unless you are talking about goat placentas. ;o)

    Deb in Wis

  22. Glenn says:

    I thought the observant Jew thing was just who you are. So nu?

    I like the concept of the essay though. Of course, we don’t know how much of a grace period we have. Not enought, I suspect. But we do the best we can. My wife plants more potatoes, I get more crab pots… And build more cold frames.

    Master of the
    and the
    Scow Bay

  23. Diana says:

    For heaven’s sake (and this coming from a Buddhist), it’s your blog and write what you will. I’ve never found it to be particularly cloying or preachy. Happy Holidays, Sharon, and also to your family.

  24. Mike Cagle says:


    I’m an atheist and I love reading your writing — whether it’s about “G-d,” goat placentas, or whatever! (Have to ask, though: if you’re reading your writing out loud, how do you pronounce “G-d”?) Keep writing about whatever’s interesting or important (or even funny!) to you. That’s the whole point of blogging — otherwise, why bother? All the bloggers I enjoy reading have lots of beliefs, opinions, and interests that I don’t share or agree with, or maybe haven’t even heard of — that’s part of the reason I read them! To be exposed to minds that are different than mine! (If they can write well, anyway.) Happy New Year.
    Oh — PS: You might find these essays interesting. I admire both Dawkins and Armstrong, and I don’t think they really disagree as much as one might expect. I kind of think they are both right.

  25. olympia says:

    Loved this post. I’m reminded of what Mother Theresa said when asked why she did what she did: “To save my soul.” Honestly, when we look at how small are impact is in terms of the world, it’s easy to become discouraged. But in terms of ourselves, what we do is huge.

  26. kt says:

    Shana Tovah U’metuka

    Thank you for your post.

  27. Speck In Time says:

    In the spirit of gracious goodness, Sharon, merci….

    Bonne Année to you and your beloved ones.


  28. suze_oz says:

    Sharon no one is forced to read your blog and if someone does not like to read it then it is their choice.

    Personally I love your perspective and energy. I would love to know more about Judaism. I think many forget that Christianity has deep roots in this ancient religion.

    I wish you a happy and blessed new year.


  29. P.J. Grath says:

    This is one of the most real and most moving blog postings I have ever read, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart for being you, so honestly. It also occurs to me that if saving a life is saving the world, if taking a life is destroying the world, then mending our lives is mending the world. A friend’s sister died a couple of days ago. He shrugged, with tears in his eyes, as he said, “I don’t believe in god. I believe we’re carbon-based, and when we die, we die.” At the same time he was responding with all his being to the outpouring of sympathy from all those around him, as if all the emotions inside him had opened him to the world for a while. It takes courage to be open with others. I love everything you wrote. Happy new year, my fellow Schroedinger’s cat, virtual friend.

  30. jason says:

    As an Eastern Orthodox Christian, I particularly enjoy the religious bits.

    “I don’t pray because I’m sure that G-d answers my prayers, or even because I’m always sure G-d exists - I pray because prayer is a form, like the shape of a sonnet or a dance.”

    This is my quote of the day.

  31. Deb says:

    Hey MEA, I tried to email you with the blanket pattern from the comments a couple of posts ago but it got bounced as a closed mail box. My email is debknits at mhtc dot net. If you still are interested let me know.

    Deb in Wis

  32. Shamba says:

    Oh, this is so lovely! I like the spiritual/religious part of your writings but how you work it into your daily life and this blog is extremely practical, compassionate and humane.

    Write what you please ; we come here for you after all!

    May you have Blessed Holidays,


  33. Lindsey says:

    When I homeschooled, we were fundamentalist christians and celebrated the old testament Holy Days…we would dip apples in honey and really contemplate Rosh Hashana as a family.

    Those days are gone; I am more of a happy agnostic and have come WAY out of fundamentalism. I don’t even consider myself Christian anymore in the basic sense that most Christians do. I still believe in God, I believe He created the world, but I believe that we have FAR LESS to do with anything that we think we do, and that we’re pretty far removed from it all. It’s just my current level of thinking.

    I have Jewish family members and I have always appreciated the beauty of their faith; in some ways I feel a bit sad that I wasn’t born Jewish (my father’s side is, but my mothers is not). It’s sort of like a feeling that we’re not allowed to be “in the club with God” at times…hope that wasn’t offensive, didn’t mean it to be.

    The moral of this story is, Sharon, it is YOUR BLOG. I choose to come here and read because I love your words and your perspective on everything from God to Judaism to Peak Oil.

    L’Shana Tova….

  34. Mike Cagle says:

    In view of this post, it was interesting to read this one today on Andrew Sullivan’s blog -

  35. Lynne says:

    As one of your atheist readers, I’ve come to appreciate the religious content. As I’ve gotten older I’ve come to feel things that atheists don’t seem to have a language for. As an atheist how do I talk about my guilt over previous behaviours - mindless driving, shopping, for example, without worrying if I’m going to go to hell? If the gates are closing? I don’t know what I’d do with those emotions with no language to express it. When I read these posts I understand that other people have these feelings and have been thinking about them for thousands of years. It helps.

  36. Lisa Z says:

    I, for one, will never give up hoping. That is like dying too much.

    And I, for another, love the religious aspect to your writing, and to you. It is beautiful.

  37. Kelli says:

    Beautiful, Sharon. Thank you. There is a wonderful interview with Sharon Brous, a rabbi in LA, on “Speaking of Faith” that I think you and others might really enjoy. She talks about the Days of Awe and the inherent challenges to “God bothering:”

  38. Kat says:

    Well, Sharon, I am not Jewish, nor am I Native American or Christian, or Islamic or Buddhist. Nevertheless, I find value and truth in the teachings of all those religions, as well as others. I believe that religion exists to serve our souls, not the other way around. And I read stories from all those traditions to my daughter, because I believe that she will need to be flexible in her viewpoints and generous in what she accepts as truth. ( The Old Turtle books by Douglas Wood are wonderful, as are the Keepers of the Earth and Keepers of the Animals books by Joseph Bruchac and Michael Carduto.) I am devoutly Pagan, with mostly Christian relatives who want to save my soul. I appreciate your religious comments because Judaism seems to be woven throughout your life, and not an adjunct to it. Blessed Be!

  39. Andrew says:

    Interesting article and comments, but I do not understand much of them, or the meaning of the words - atheist, jew, christian, pagan, buddhist, wiccan, islamic, eastern orthodox, native american, etc.

    I am just a homo sapien sapiens, and generally get on with the daily chore of being alive. The need for much more than this simple fact is beyond me. Sorry if this offends, but I couldn’t pretend it different if I tried.

  40. Gary in Mosul says:

    I am sooo glad I stumbled upon this site. Your post is eloquently expressed and couched in a very approachable style and warm tone. You are a wonderful writer! I have just discovered what Peak Oil means and it’s implications for the future, so your Blog is timely for me, and (from reading the comments here) I would say for others too. They sound grateful for this site and now I know I will be too.


  41. Apple Jack Creek says:

    Thank you, Sharon, for encouraging me to do what I can, to break a sweat and get on with doing the little that I am able to do, because someday, that little bit might make a big difference. A few potatoes, a new lamb, a knitted sock.

    Blessings to you and yours. You are a light to the world, which I realize is a Christian metaphor, but … I believe you understand what I mean.

  42. Gary B. says:

    Two weeks ago I was close to where you and you family live and couldn’t locate a phone number. And I tried, really… Eighteen months ago I told you I’d provide you with a sample of special new and extra powerful BTU biofuel when north of Albany. Sorry we didn’t connect, I had a quantity sample for you as well as others whom I was visiting in NY State. Another time maybe? Happy holidaze and hug your young children.


  43. REFLECTIONS: Mending the world « Gainesville Catholic Worker says:

    [...] Astyk writes just beautifully on this tradition in the context of our environmental crisis in a recent post where she describes how and where she finds [...]

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