GenesisLittle Robes for the New Year
Parashat B’reishit (Genesis 1:1-6:8)
I said to the sun
tell me about the Big Bang
The sun said, “It hurts to become.”
– Andrea Gibson, I Sing the Body Electric
On the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, I was sitting in the lobby of the Cambridge city courthouse. The night before, I had been arrested with a group of Jews at a protest in solidarity with undocumented immigrants. My fellow protesters and I were waiting for our case to be called when an old, disheveled-looking man walked up to us. “Are you students?” he asked with a strong Boston accent. One of us snarked back, “No, we’re criminal defendants.” “You better listen to me,” he replied, “maybe I am the voice of God.” The rabbinical students present quickly perked up. “Ok, take out your phone,” he said, “go to the webpage Astronomy Picture of the Day. Type in your birthday. The computer will show you a picture of what the cosmos looked like on the day that you were born.” He continued, “Now send that picture to your mom as a belated Mother’s Day gift. Tell her ‘this is what space looked like on the day that you gave birth to me — this is the stardust that I come from, the stardust out of which I was made by the great, mighty, divine God…ess, The Godess! Because only a woman could do something so painful and loving as creating the whole world.’”
As I opened the Book of Genesis this week, the old man’s diatribe came back to me. From the little he said about her, I liked his vision of God.1 If I followed her, I suspected this God might have something to teach me about the broken world in which we live, the world She created. I wanted to ask her:
How did it feel to give birth to creation?
Was it painful?
Were you afraid?
It was difficult to locate answers to my questions in the Bible’s first creation story. The story of the birth of the world seems to involve little-to-no laboring. Intention, “Let there be light,” leads plainly to creation, “and there was light.” The emotional language of these passages is spare, to say the least. All we hear is that “it is good” or “very good.”
In a lecture at Hebrew College, the literary theorist Joy Ladin suggested that this creation passage falls into a broader literary pattern. She argued that in the sections of the Bible in which God is most present, there tends to be very little emotional language. In turn, in narratives like Esther and The Song of Songs, where God recedes, there’s sex, love, suffering and longing. In her book Soul of the Stranger, Laden links this lack of emotive language to her vision of God as the ultimate stranger, an entity who struggles to be known and understood by humanity. In light of my courthouse encounter, I might put it in somewhat different terms: God’s narrative style feels similar to that of a grizzled matriarch from the old country, who grew up through pogroms and displacements, through death and scarcity. When you ask her how she did it, she shrugs and offers you another helping of manna.
All week, I’ve been wondering how to get Grandma God to talk. On the way to school one day, I asked my carpool buddy about her favorite stories of mothering in the Bible. I hoped that I might be able to locate in human birth stories the emotional landscapes that God conceals from the Genesis narrative. My carpool companion sighed for a long beat. “I have something to share with you,” she said, “but it will cause me to weep. The only thing that shakes me more is the moment that Aaragon bows to the Hobbits.” She then told me the story of “little robes.”
On Rosh Hashanah, we read about Hannah, a woman who desperately wants to have children but is unable to conceive. Hannah pleads with God, telling God that if she becomes pregnant, she will give over her child to the Temple. Her prayer works, she gives birth to her son Samuel, cares for him for a few years and eventually sends him off to serve as a priest. Through tears, my friend drew my attention to the postscript to this story, an episode that we do not read on Rosh Hashanah:
“And a little robe would [Samuel’s] mother make him and would bring up to him year after year when she came up with her husband to offer the yearly sacrifice.”2
Once a year, Hannah makes her son a little robe, and then, once a year, she goes up to the Temple, sees her son and gives him his new garment:
Rosh Hashanah is not only the day that Hannah gave birth to Samuel. According to the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, it is also the day that God gave birth to (or “conceived”) the world. I’ve spent the days since my friend told me about Hannah’s little robes hoping that this story might serve as an opening through which God might share something with me about divine mothering. I have found myself asking Hannah for permission to borrow her story, to place it, as it were, on God. This is the story I heard:
Before time, God prayed, in all-ness and aloneness for something beyond Herself. Over seven days, God’s prayers were met; She finally gave birth to creation. But in order to create, God needed to separate, to make something distinct from God, something distant from Herself.
Ever since, this God longs for Her creation.
Once a year, God prepares for the time that She allows Herself to be closest to creation. She crafts a little robe, a small piece of Herself. As She works, She estimates the shape and size, color and texture that will keep creation strong and safe, wise and holy in the year to come.
Each year, on Her creation’s birthday, on Rosh Hashanah, God draws close and lays a little robe over creation.
May our new robe keep us strong and safe, wise and holy in 5780.
 I use any and all pronouns for God with trepidation knowing the dangers of attempting to name the Ineffable. Further, I fear alienating readers from this complicated discussion by speaking about God and human experience in binary terms. While holding these concerns, I use she/her pronouns here to describe the Divine as reflected in my mother, grandmother and other women that birthed and have nurtured me.
 1 Samuel 2:19. Translation by Robert Alter, 2018.
Joey Glick is a rabbinical student at the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.