Photo Credit: Open Access Initiative at the Met
White Lines (1941) by Irene Rice Pereira

There is a beautiful mystery residing at the heart of the very first meeting between our ancestors, Yitzchak and Rivka.

First, Yitzchak goes out “to converse” in the field before evening (16:63). There, he notes that camels are coming. Looking back in his direction, Rivka is apparently startled. “And Rivka lifted her eyes and she saw Yitzchak. And she fell from the camel” (v.64). Why does Rivka fall? What startles her so?

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The answer must lie in what she sees, the conversation that Yitzchak is in the midst of. Perhaps it is her shock that suggests to our Sages that Yitzchak is not in the midst of a normal conversation. Rather, he must have been engaged in prayer, a conversation with G-d. After all, as Rashi notes, the same term of sicha is used to refer to prayer in Psalm 102: “He will pour forth his prayer” (sicho).

The Netziv explains what was so startling about this sight, which, after all, was the rather everyday sight of a man at prayer:

And Rivka saw… Yitzchak standing and praying. And he was like a most terrifying angel of G-d at that moment. As it says in Midrash Rabbah, she saw him with arms outstretched in prayer. So she became very afraid. And she fell from her camel from so much fear and awe.

Remarkably, as the Netziv points out, Rivka did not actually know who the praying man was. Perhaps she was unaware that he was in prayer. Rather, he was “like a most terrifying angel of G-d at that moment.” Whatever that man was doing, it was awe-inspiring and heart-stopping. And so, she fell from her camel.

We must ask ourselves: why do we never fall over in shul? I may be the only one missing this experience but I suspect that is not the case. So, why are we not more often startled by a Jew in the midst of prayer? What did Rivka see that we do not?

I believe the answer to this question lies both in the nature of awe as an experience and in the nature of the contemporary self-understanding of the individual. Let us assay a description of each of these phenomena.

Awe does not have any particular physical indicators. Rivka was not struck by Yitzchak’s height or complexion, the length or texture of his robe, or the pace of his movements. Indeed, people who have seen the Great Ocean Road would not say the water is awe inspiring because it is blue or that they feel an overwhelming feeling of smallness because they are standing at a certain distance from the water. Rather, we experience awe when we are confronted by something larger than the sum of its parts. We experience a quality that is contained not in speed, color, or texture, but in what these things impress upon us as a whole. They may point to something quite beyond the ordinary, the great majesty which dwells just behind the curtain of creation, waiting at times to emerge and startle us with its magnitude once more.

Thus, awe resides in sensing the relationship between what we directly experience and something quite beyond it. We ourselves are pulled into this relationship, and it is often accompanied by a feeling of smallness in relation to something great:

What is the path [to attain]… awe of (G-d)? When a person contemplates His wondrous and great deeds and creations and appreciates His infinite wisdom that surpasses all comparison… (and) when he [continues] to reflect on these same matters, he will immediately recoil in awe and fear, appreciating how he is a tiny, lowly, and dark creature, standing with his flimsy, limited, wisdom before He who is of perfect knowledge, as David stated: “When I see Your heavens, the work of Your fingers… [I wonder] what is man that You should recall Him” [Psalms 8:4-5]. (Rambam, Yesodei HaTorah 2:2)

We should not be surprised that awe is hard to come by in our own time and place. As Charles Taylor writes in A Secular Age, modernity is characterized by what he calls the “buffered self.” We “take a distance from” and disengage from “everything outside the mind.” Our sense of purpose rises exclusively from within, we focus solely on our responses to our own experiences. There is a “thick emotional boundary between us and the cosmos”; a feeling of being porous, vulnerable, and open to external forces is beyond us (pp. 37-38). We cannot sense a greatness beyond us or feel small next to it because we view ourselves as being quite self-sufficient; it is rare to meet whatever might induce such unusual feelings.

Prayer could inspire awe if we felt open to a connection with G-d. If, however, we hold ourselves at a great distance, if nothing points outward to something which grasps us and overwhelms us with greatness and grandeur, then awe will remain an all too rare phenomenon.

It is our personal assessment that we are experiencing a crisis not only in awe but in prayer. We go to shul, we say the words, but we do not actually experience what prayer could and should be because we are too atomized, individualized, and emotionally armored. We tragically miss out on a deep and complex arena of the human experience if we are unable to approach G-d. We are missing something fundamental and it should trouble us.

If we are nostalgic for spiritual moments or wish for a more spiritual time, then we should begin to consciously try and reverse our atomized self-understanding. We should see ourselves not as individuals but as relatives. We are sons and daughters, friends and citizens, listeners and sharers. If we can reacquire a more porous sense of self, perhaps a renaissance of prayer and awe will follow. Then we might acquire a fuller human experience in total; an experience that relates to so much of what is beyond us that yet beckons.

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Yitzchak Sprung is the Rabbi of United Orthodox Synagogues of Houston (UOSH). Visit our facebook page or UOSH.org to learn about our amazing community.