Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Primal Fear, Primal Awe

By Susan Esther Barnes

An interesting semantic issue comes up at least once or twice a year in our synagogue Torah Study group. There is a Hebrew word used often in relation to our feelings toward God which is generally translated as "fear," but an alternate translation for it is "awe." Substitute the word "awe" for "fear" and everything changes. Or nothing does.


I am deep in King Hezekiah's winding ancient water tunnel beneath the City of David in Jerusalem. The water comes part way up my shins. The ceiling is so low in places even I, at only 5 feet 4 inches tall, have to duck. The walls are inches away on either side, sometimes less than that. There is no room to pass; no way to turn back.

I am carrying a light stick to negotiate my way following the line of people in front of me. We are moving faster than the people behind us. Looking back, I can no longer see the light of the woman trailing me.

On a whim, I stop and wait until the person in front of me, too, disappears from sight. I hide my light stick beneath my clothing and descend into utter darkness. The echos of the voices of my group reverberate against the limestone walls, intertwining around me, then continuing on as if I don't exist.

I place the fingertips of my left hand against the rough surface of the ceiling. I use my left elbow to discover the location of the damp left wall, and my right elbow to negotiate the wall on the right, as my right hand covers the light stick it grips beneath my clothing.

I step forward into the darkness. After a while, my left elbow suddenly loses contact with the wall. I swing it out to its full extent; all it meets is empty air.

On one level I know this is just a man-made tunnel, going in one direction. It is perfectly safe; even small children are allowed in here. I cannot get lost.

On another level I imagine a huge cavern opening up on my left. The thrum of my heart responds to the irresistible pull of a primal fear. I still hear voices, but I am alone here in the dark, my light is gone, and I cannot see a way out.


Later, I say my prayers at the Kotel. As I back away, the stones in front of me appear to grow eerily, filling my restored sight.

I begin to cry, then sit, hunched over, on the steps nearby, sobbing. It is a primal thing. Hineini, I am here, fully present, in this place we yearned for over the hundreds, almost thousands, of years of our exile.

The echos of the voices of the ancient mourners for Jerusalem reverberate against the limestone walls, intertwining around me, then continuing on as if I don't exist. I am full of awe.


  1. this was a really beautifully written post. i felt like i was walking right there with you in the dark! and i love the shout-out to the power of words. well done!