Today the World is Born
Posted on September 25, 2017
“Do you remember how we celebrate Rosh Hashanah,” I asked my children as we were eating dinner the other night. Instantly, four year old Maya lifted her fist to her mouth and let out a loud moan, imitating the blast of the shofar. “And we get cupcakes,” 6 year old Andrew chimed in. “Cupcakes” I asked? “For the birthday party.” Right. Rosh Hashanah is the “birthday of the world.” And before I had a chance to overwhelm my children with the theological implications of this understanding of the Holy Day, Maya offered a suggestion for our observance—“Can we make Hello Kitty cupcakes for the birthday party?”
So I guess that they understood, as well as any small child might, that Rosh Hashanah is a big deal. I appreciate the birthday imagery that is often used to capture the importance of Rosh Hashanah for the youngest among us. Birthdays are highly anticipated by children. They carry with them celebration, tangible measurements of growth, and cupcakes.
The expression “birthday of the world,” recalls the anthropomorphic language of the Torah which attributes human qualities to God, employed as metaphor to help us relate to The Divine. Just as the imagery of God with a “yad hazakah,” a strong hand develops our understanding of God’s strength, the phrase “birthday of the world” is a tool for making one of the elements of Rosh Hashanah more relatable.
Of course, our understanding of the birthday of the world must run deeper.
In a little while, during our musaf service, we will encounter the malchuyot/zichronot/shofarot section—liturgy unique for this holy day. These series of verses relate to God’s sovereignty, remembrance and redemption. Each series is accompanied by blasts of the shofar. In hearing the shofar’s call we respond, “Hayom harat olam,” often translated as, “Today the world is born.”
What event took place on this day to give it this special designation? Not surprisingly, the sages of ancient times discussed and debated this.
Opinions in the Babylonian Talmud consider the first day of the seventh month (Tishrei) as the first day of creation (i), the day on which God said, “let there be light” and there was light. According to this opinion, God commenced the work of creation on this day. Yet the Midrash records an opinion that the world was created on the 25th day of elul (ii). That is, the sixth day of creation—the day on which God created human beings—fell on the first of Tishrei. According to this opinion Rosh Hashanah celebrates the creation of humankind, arguably the rationale for the whole of creation.
I sifted through some translations in a variety of mahzorim that I have in my office. “Hayom Harat Olam.” Today the world is born. Today the world stands as at birth. This day the world was called into being. Each translation is a little different, a little nuanced, yet each evokes the joy of our acknowledgement of creation.
A most fascinating medieval commentary presents the idea that God conceived of the world on the first of Tishrei but it did not come into being until the first of Nissan—the month designated as the first in the year, who brings the promise of spring and freedom. In this understanding of creation, the world was conceived on Rosh Hashanah.
God was, in essence, pregnant. The world would come into being only after a period of Divine Incubation.
The theme of pregnancy abounds on Rosh Hashanah. Yesterday we read of the birth of Isaac—the late in life child of Sarah. Through his birth, our sages believed, the nascent experiment with monotheism reached a critical milestone—it will be preserved and evolve for a new generation. The haftarah picks up on this theme with Hannah longing for a child of her own. In both cases, God intervened to bring the woman a child.
I want to recognize that conversations about pregnancy are not always joyful. Their presence in our observance of Rosh Hashanah can trigger immeasurable pain for some–particularly families struggling with infertility. There is little, if anything, that I can say to take away that pain, but I want to acknowledge this complicated, often invisible reality.
In her book “Einstein and the Rabbi,” Rabbi Naomi Levy introduces us to a new understanding of the phrase, “hayom harat olam.” Or, perhaps it would be better to say that she returns it to its original context. Citing Dr. Tamar Frankiel, Levy points out that the phrase in our liturgy originates from the prophet Jeremiah, who was not celebrating the birthday of the world. Rather, it “was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah in a moment of utter despair.”
Two things automatically come to mind when I think of Jeremiah. “Jeremiah was a bullfrog…” we’ll get to that later. A more appropriate association is his unique call to prophecy
The word of the LORD came to me: Before I created you in the womb, I selected you; Before you were born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet concerning the nations. I replied: Ah, Lord GOD! I don’t know how to speak, For I am still a boy. And the LORD said to me: Do not say, “I am still a boy,” But go wherever I send you And speak whatever I command you. Have no fear of them, For I am with you to deliver you —declares the LORD. The LORD put out His hand and touched my mouth, and the LORD said to me: Herewith I put My words into your mouth. (iii)
According to the text, Jeremiah’s status as prophet began in utero, and thus from the moment of his birth he carried this daunting, awesome responsibility.
The prophet Jeremiah lived during the decline of the Assyrian Empire and the subsequent rise of the neo-Babylonians… [His] prophetic career spanned the last quarter of the seventh century BCE and the opening decades of the sixth. This was a period that began with Josiah’s glorious Temple reforms…and ended with the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the people…(iv).
As is typical for prophets, Jeremiah’s life was not easy. Indeed, he lamented, “the word of the LORD causes me constant disgrace and contempt… I heard the whispers of the crowd— Terror all around: “Inform! Let us inform against him!” All my [supposed] friends Are waiting for me to stumble…(v)
And it was in the context of this lament that he said “Cursed be (hayom) the day I was born… If only my mother had not given birth to me. ..rahmah harat olam, better that I had stayed in my mother’s womb forever.
With the context of Jeremiah, Levy teaches that “[T]he true translation of the Hebrew phrase is not ‘Today the world is born’ or any of the similar translations, but ‘Today is pregnant forever.’”
The Hebrew word “olam” can mean world, as many of us are most accustomed to—as in the phrase tikkun olam, repair the world. But that definition grew out of an older designation —olam means eternity, forever as in: Barukh Adonai hamevorakh l’olam vaed—Blessed be God forever and ever.
Today is pregnant forever.
Levy explains…”[P]regnant forever is not a healthy state of mind. It is a state of a permanent un-living, of life being held back,” she adds that “Jews pray this phrase every New Year because it comes as a warning. Every single one of us, somewhere in our lives, we are pregnant forever. There is something we’ve already conceived that is pleading with us, “Let me be born.”(vi)
Maybe it’s a creative endeavor—a book, a painting, a poem, a song, a script, a story, a business idea. Maybe it’s a career shift. You’ve been privately dreaming about it and exploring it, but doing nothing about it.
Maybe it’s the words “I’m sorry,” or the words “I love you,” or the words, “I forgive you.” They are fully formed inside your mouth but you haven’t gotten up the courage to actually speak them. (levy 121)(vii)
The question that should occupy our minds as we answer the call to receive the New Year is “what am I holding on to right now that I need to give life to?”
Our traditional liturgy demands us to address this very question through the words of prayer: unitaneh tokef kidooshat hayom, ki hu norah v’ahyom—Let us speak of the sacred power of this day—profound and awe-inspiring. For the anonymous author of this piyyut, the sacred power of the day seems, at first glance, to be held by God, the ultimate “judge” who determines mi yeechyeh oomi yamut—who will live and who will die. It is entirely possible to feel crushed under the theological weight of the text.
Some are quick to discard it, understandably repelled by the imagery of God as puppet-master—the legislator who executes Her own judgement. But as the piyyut unfolds, if we are able to stick with it beyond its portrayal of life and death, we see that it explores a nuanced question—what will life look like?
Mi yanuach umi yanua—Who will be at peace, who troubled?
Mi yeeshalev umi yeetyaser—Who will be tranquil, who tormented?
Mi yooshpal umi yaroom—Who will be brought low, who raised up?
And a rather simple answer—it’s up to you. You have the potential to strive for peace and tranquility. We are even given an informative recipe…teshuva, tefilah, tzedakkah—Returning through reflective repentance, prayer and righteous acts.
Unetaneh Tokef manages to remind us that we have no control while simultaneously imploring us to take control. It’s maddening. And I love it.
Levy offers a contemporary, instructive formula for acknowledging potential, for addressing that which has been conceived yet not birthed, offering five tools that can help you move from potential to action, to my mind, each is a riff on the combined force of the teshuva, tefillah, tzedakkah method of liturgy.
Pray–Express your longings to God
Talk—Tell the people you love what you’ve been sitting on and not hatching. Ask for help.
Honesty—Look at your life and see the places you’ve left in suspended animation. Take the time to come face to face with your unfulfilled potential.
Be receptive—Listening and seeing are pivotal factors on your path. Listen to the voice of your soul rooting for you to take even one step forward.
Feel the pain—Often things as they are have to get painful enough so that you can’t live in a state of permanent pregnancy anymore. We become aware of a deep aching within our souls, a knowledge that we are living well beneath our own potential. And once we allow ourselves to experience that pain, it gets to be too much to hold back the change that needs to come.
Jeremiah was a bullfrog
What am I holding onto right now that I need to give life to?
Let me elucidate the power of this question with an anecdote.
Hoyt Axton was a country songwriter. He sought to create a children’s television special called “The Happy Song,” but, alas, the show never came to fruition. Axton held onto a song that he had written, or really a chorus and a melody, that yearned to find an audience. He was, if you will, pregnant with song. It happens that he was the opening act for a popular band, and shared the song with them, simply making up words to fit the music of the unwritten verses.
Axton explained in the Oregon News-Review: “I had the chorus for three months. I took a drink of wine, leaned on the speaker, and said ‘Jeremiah was a bullfrog.’ It was meaningless. It was a temporary lyric. Before I could rewrite it, they cut it and it was a hit. Jeremiah was an expedient of the time.” The song, Joy to the World, received the honor of Billboard’s #1 song of 1971 and went on to become one of the most popular singles of all time.
And its chorus celebrates creation:
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me
Today the world was called into being…
Today we respond to that call, anticipating what it is that we will create.
Hayom Harat Olam
(i) BT rh 10b-11a
(ii) pesikta d’rav kahana piska 23:1
(iv) Fishbane, Michael. JPS Haftarah Commentary. pp540-1
(v) Jeremiah 20
(vi) Levy, Naomi. Einstein and the Rabbi. Pp.119-126