Breathless, my son ran over to me, his eyes aglow.
“Did you know that hagfish digest food through their skin? Or that there are more than 1,000 kinds of mangoes?”
I shook my head no.
Ecstatic with my ignorance, my son continued with his barrage of bizarre facts. As he rattled off one outlandish statement after the next, I couldn’t help but smile at his fascination with the world around him.
Children tap into this sense of awe with incredible facility. They “oooh” and “aaah” with ease, peering out onto life with eyes hungry for amazement. Their ability to be genuinely surprised is beyond admirable – it’s inspiring.
Have you ever seen a child give chase after a firefly or spot a rainbow on the horizon? It’s magical! Children embrace these experiences with unmitigated gusto, the truest sense of wonder in this world.
And yet, somewhere between childhood and maturity, we lose sight of wonder. It gets buried, lodged beneath the endless to-do lists and overstuffed calendars that dictate our lives, shoved under the ever-growing piles of mail and clutter that seem to overrun our spaces. Or maybe it gets swiped, as we mindlessly scroll our lives away on Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest. As Rabbi Chaim Stern wrote in “A Prayer for Shabbat,” which appears in Mishkan T’filah, the newest Reform siddur (prayer book):
“Days pass and the years vanish and we walk sightless among miracles.”
But our schism with wonder is more than just a casualty of our distracted and overscheduled lives. Life, with all of its experiences and disappointments, grinds away at our ability to stand in awe, at our propensity to open our eyes in joyful astonishment. And, indeed, when the rent is overdue, when the refrigerator is bare, when work runs dry, and relationships run us ragged, we struggle to find space for the extraordinary.
Even so, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel felt strongly that wonder is no mere extravagance, but a necessity, saying, “The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.” Why would Heschel make such a radical statement? Why is this feeling of wonder, this rush of amazement and excitement, so elemental to our lives? And, what about wonder deems our lives worth living?
Could it be that wonder takes us out of ourselves, forcing us to see what lies beyond the infinitesimally small imprint of our lives? Or is it that wonder sheds light on the extraordinary workings of the earth, often unseen or unnoticed by the human eye? Perhaps it is that wonder breeds questions and curiosity, imagination and aspiration? Or, perhaps it is that wonder frequently renders us speechless, reminding us that our word shouldn’t always be the last word. Or maybe it is that wonder serves to humble us before the grandeur of the earth, facilitating an unwavering and unmitigated sense of gratitude, for all that exists before us, both the ordinary and the Divine.
This weekend, we will celebrate Shavuot, and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, a groundbreaking moment we refer to as “Revelation.” As the Torah was revealed, our ancestral community was transformed from a band of refugees fleeing their captors, into a nation, with statutes and laws, ethics and principles. We were now a people, our eyes having been opened to a world framed by the sacred words of Torah, and our hearts having been opened to a new covenant with God. In this extraordinary moment of awe and amazement and wonder, everything changed – our perspective, our direction, and our understanding of the universe; nothing would ever be the same again.
As we look ahead to Shavuot, we are tasked with a sacred call: to harness that hallowed sense of wonder in our own lives, and to do so knowing it will not be easy. We must compel ourselves to notice not only the fireflies and the rainbows, but more than that, too – our friends and our families and our co-workers. We must notice them and regard them; the particular wonder of paying attention to those we love is missing from our lives far too often these days.
On a recent evening after work, I came home, cell phone in hand; I still had emails to check and plenty of messages to answer. My son ran over, his favorite book in hand, and, without so much as even a hello, he started in: “A group of giraffes is called a tower; all the earth’s land could fit into the Pacific Ocean; the skin between your eyebrows is called your glabella!” The more my son shared, the more excited he became; he was in a delirious state of awe, as he recited the world’s most obscure secrets for me to hear.
This moment, I realized, was Revelation too.