For the last six months, I have been working on creating a new siddur for our yeshivah, Heichal HaTorah. Well, I’m not actually writing a new siddur; the Sages throughout the ages who compiled our prayers did a masterful job with that, and they don’t need my approbation. But I, and the students and faculty of the yeshivah, are working on a new translation, annotation, and elucidation of the t’filos in our siddur. The goal is to present them in a manner and vernacular that relates to an American yeshivah student in the 21st century. (To be honest, I don’t even know what annotate and elucidate really mean. But those are the adjectives ArtScroll uses, and – until the Heichal siddur is complete – ArtScroll is the gold standard...)
We, baruch Hashem, disseminated a “pre-publication” edition for the yeshivah’s annual dinner in June. Now I am working on completing the siddur with new additions, translations, and explanations.
One of the words that is a challenge to translate is nora. The standard translation is “awesome,” but in today’s society, it seems very inappropriate to refer to G-d as “awesome.”
The online Webster dictionary offers two definitions of the word “awesome.” The first is inspiring; the second is terrific/extraordinary.
It then offers the following comment:
Many object to the use of “awesome” to describe something (such as a sandwich) that does not literally elicit feelings of awe. Yet the same people who insist that “awesome” should be used only of weighty subjects (Niagara Falls, man landing on the moon) will happily use the word awful in reference to something (such as a mess) that falls distinctly short of being “full of awe.” This weakened sense was once considered improper – in fact, complaints about it persisted through the early decades of the 20th century.
The change in meaning that “awesome” is undergoing may be more recent than that of awful, but both words are treading the same path. For evidence that such change is normal, we need look no further than awe, which originally meant “terror” and now carries the weaker sense “wonder.”
During the 1990s, Coca-Cola developed a clever slogan for Diet Coke, claiming that it had “one awesome calorie!” I vividly remember my ninth grade rebbe and menahel, Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein, railing about how Americans have destroyed the English language. When he explained that G-d is awesome, his voice thundered, “But you don’t appreciate what awesome means. One calorie in a soda is not awesome!”
It is with that in mind that we are translating the word nora as “awe-inspiring,” and not “awesome.” If one reflects on the fact that whenever he prays he is in the presence of G-d, and G-d is listening to his every word, he will be inspired and awed.
On Shabbos morning, just before the chazan for Shacharis melodiously calls out Shochein Ad, we state that Hashem is nora b’nor’osecha – “awe-inspiring through Your awe-inspiringness.” What does that mean? In what other manner can one be awe-inspiring?
You’ll forgive the analogy: In L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her newfound friends return to the Wizard of Oz after doing his bidding and killing the Wicked Witch of the West. But the Wizard still inexplicably refuses to help them. The riddle is solved when Dorothy’s dog, Toto, discovers that there is a vulnerable old man behind the curtain controlling the thunderous voice of Oz. It turns out that all the awe-inspiring majesty and fear of the great and powerful Oz is nothing but a farce.
G-d is not in a popularity contest. In fact, He Himself endows man with the ability to deny His Presence or to believe in any falsity he chooses. That itself is the epitome of awesomeness, in its true meaning. G-d is awesome, but He doesn’t force that truth upon anyone. The truth is apparent and easily attainable for one who candidly seeks it. That is the meaning of awe-inspiring through His “awe-inspiringness.” We are awe-inspired by a G-d Who is truly awe-inspiring. If we could only internalize that feeling, it would be so much easier for us to want to connect and appreciate the ability to connect with G-d constantly.