Hebrew College will be closed Sept. 26 & 27 in observance of Rosh Hashanah. Shana tova u'metukah!

Deuteronomy Blessing for the
Month of Tishrei

By Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld
birth-world-illustration

In a few days, we will stand and hear the call of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah and recite these words, Hayom harat olam, often translated as “Today the world is born.” As the cry of the shofar reverberates in the room, we are asked to imagine a time when the world was utterly new and unspoiled, untouched by the debris of human history, we are asked to clear away the debris of disappointment in our own lives and to risk, on this day, in this moment, the possibility of such vast possibility.

At the heart of this liturgical moment is a small Hebrew word—“hara”—as in “harat olam”—but our translation — along with most other translations— doesn’t quite do it justice. Hara means, in fact, not birth but conception. A more precise translation of the refrain that follows the shofar blasts would be: “Today the world is conceived.” Or perhaps, “today the world becomes pregnant.”

I might have been tempted to let this distinction go for a variety of reasons—including the fact that I am politically inclined to avoid conversations about the significance of the moment of conception as opposed to the moment of birth!

But the root hara also makes an appearance in both the Torah and haftarah readings for Rosh Hashanah.
Vatahar vateled Sarah. Sarah conceived and gave birth.
Vatahar Hannah vateled ben. Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son.

The word hara insistently calls for our attention on Rosh Hashanah.
Why might this focus on conception be significant—both in the biblical stories that we read on Rosh Hashanah, as we recall the births of Yitzchak and Shmuel,
and in our response to the shofar blasts, as we recall the birth of the world?

There are three reasons, I think, that it is worth lingering on the language of conception.

The first reason is longing.
Both Sarah and Hannah, had been barren for many years before giving birth to these long-awaited children.When the biblical narrative makes a point of telling us, “She conceived and gave birth,” it is, in effect, saying—
Don’t forget her longing.
Don’t forget how much she waited for this child. Don’t forget how much she wanted this child. When we say the words, “Hayom harat olam,” we are again reminded—
Don’t forget your longing.
Don’t forget the waiting. Don’t forget the wanting. That’s the real story of birth, that’s the real story of creation, and that’s the real story of teshuvah.

If something new is going to happen—if anything new is going to happen—whether in our own hearts, our homes, our neighborhoods, in the streets of this city or any other city in the world—we are going to have to take the risk of longing for it.

The second reason is gestation.
The language of conception reminds us that giving birth to anything entails, in the words of Hebrew College alumna Rabbi Adina Allen, “a need to wait, to nurture over time . . . to sit through not knowing, to wonder, to expect, to become attached, to have sleepless nights of fear and anxiety, to have moments of joy and anticipation, to acknowledge the chance of loss or complications, to remain present to all the possibilities . . .”

The medieval commentator, Rabbeinu Tam, taught that the creation of the world involved a prolonged period between conception and birth. It was in Tishrei—on Rosh Hashanah—that God conceived and decided to create the world; but it was not until Nisan that God actually did so. There is a necessary period of gestation—of divine pregnancy, if you will—before a new world can be born into being.

The third reason is relationship.
To remember that birth begins with conception is to remember that we each begin our lives as part of another person. Another medieval commentator, Rashbam, makes an evocative suggestion about the root “hara” that underscores this point. He suggests a connection between the word “horim”—our parents, the ones who conceive us—and the word “harim”—mountains. Our parents—and their parents before them are the mountains from which we are hewn. We begin our lives as part of another person. When we are born, we become separate—and we spend our lives longing for connection, learning over and over to love, to let go, and to love again.

When my kids were little—too little, it turns out—I found myself singing to them the wonderful song by Sweet Honey in the Rock that is a setting of the Khalil Gibran poem:

“Your children are not your children,
They are the sons and the daughters of life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but they are not from you
And though they are with you, they belong not to you.”

It’s a beautiful song, one I’ve loved for a long time. But I was not prepared for the reaction that followed. My children were horrified.
What?
“We’re not yours?”
We don’t belong to you?
I tried to explain.
“It means that I love you—but I don’t OWN you.
I’m your mother, but you’re not MINE.
You’re not my possession.”
This brought their protest to its full crescendo.
“But we WANT to belong to you!!!
We WANT to be yours!!”

As the contemporary Bible scholar Avivah Zornberg writes, “The difficulty in rearing children has to do with the ambiguities of independence . . . The relationship between separation and loving attachment has to be negotiated each time afresh. There is no theory that can totally guide the parent.” This dynamic – while it unfolds most intensely between parents and children – is at play in every human relationship. We long to belong to each other, and we also long to become fully ourselves. We long for a deep sense of connection and we also long to know that we are valued as unique individuals with our own sense of dignity and self-worth. It is in our families that we first learn to navigate these tricky waters; and as our Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah make amply clear, it is often in our families that we make the most painful mistakes.

***

With these layers of association, let’s return now to the full phrase Hayom harat olam.

Strikingly and strangely, the original context of the phrase “harat olam” in the Bible is a tragic one. It is used by Jeremiah when, in a moment of despair, he curses the day of his birth and complains that God did not kill him in the womb—“so that my mother might be my grave and her womb pregnant forever (rachama harat olam).” Here, as in most biblical sources, the word “olam” means eternal. And so, Jeremiah is expressing the disturbing fantasy that God would have left him buried in his mother’s womb, enveloped there in a “harat olam”—an eternal pregnancy.

Significantly, by the time this phrase is adopted for the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, the meaning of “olam” as “world” has evolved and become widely accepted in rabbinic usage—and so, in a remarkable and provocative reversal, Jeremiah’s haunting image is utterly transformed. Instead of imagining ourselves as eternally unborn—suspended forever in the suffocating safety of what could have been—we imagine ourselves standing with hope and courage at the threshold of the world that could be.

With this transformed meaning of harat olam, we are beckoned into the beginning of the new year.

As the shofar calls, we are summoned not to the life-denying fantasy of perfection, forever out of reach, but to the life-affirming possibilities of a world in which we reach out to each other, again and again,
willing to risk longing,
willing to risk waiting,
willing to risk loving.

Hayom harat olam.
May we be brave this year.
Together, may we reach out to the world—
this world—
and try to embrace it.


Rabbi Sharon Cohen AnisfeldRabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld is President of Hebrew College in Newton Centre, MA.

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