This sermon was originally delivered on Rosh Hashanah 5776 at the Newton Centre Minyan.
In a little while, as we stand and hear the call of the shofar, we will recite these words: Hayom harat olam.
Translated in our machzor: “Today the world stands as at birth.”
The liturgy beckons us back to the beginning of time. We are invited to imagine the world as utterly new. A pristine universe of potentiality stretched out before us. In the same breath, we bring our consciousness to this day — Hayom — and we are asked to consider in this very moment, the possibility of such vast possibility.
It is a big ask.
At the heart of this big ask is a small Hebrew word — a word that I haven’t given a lot of thought to until this year. The root is “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 my curiosity about this root became more insistent when I realized that it also makes an appearance this morning in both the Torah and haftarah readings.
Vatahar vateled Sarah. Sarah conceived and gave birth.
Vatahar Hannah vateled ben. Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son.
Why is the focus on conception significant – both in the biblical stories that we read this morning, as we recall the births of Yitzchak and Shmuel, and in our liturgical response to the shofar blasts, as we recall the birth of the world?
There are three reasons, I think, that it is worth lingering for a moment on the language of conception. The first has to do with longing. Both Sarah and Hannah, of course, 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.
Why does this matter? And why would the same word punctuate our response to each round of shofar blasts?
Hayom harat olam.
Perhaps here, too, the liturgy is reminding us – Don’t forget the 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. Just as Sarah and Hannah longed to give birth to their children, just as God longed to give birth to the world, so this day begins with our own willingness to take the risk of longing.
If something new is going to happen – if anything new is going to happen — whether in our own hearts, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in the blood-stained streets of this city or any other city in the world — we are going to have to take the risk of wanting it.
The second reason we do well to focus on the language of conception has to do with the importance of gestation. It reminds us that giving birth to anything entails, in the words of Rabbi Adina Allen ’14,“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 . . . ”
Perhaps this is part of why Rabbeinu Tam taught that the creation of the world actually involved a prolonged period between conception and birth. It was in Tishrei – on Rosh Hashanah — that God decided to create the world; but it was not until Nisan that God actually did so. In this view, Rosh Hashanah is literally Yom Harat Olam – the day on which the world was conceived in God’s plan.
(In this frame, one might even be tempted to view the period between Rosh Hashanah and Pesach as the period of divine pregnancy – but I will leave that alone for today.)
The third reason I think it’s important for us to be aware of the language of conception has to do with our capacity for relationship. And it’s this aspect that I want to consider a little more deeply this morning. To remember that birth begins with conception is to remember that we each begin our lives as part of another person.
The medieval commentator Rashbam makes an evocative suggestion about the root “hara” that underscores this point. He suggests a connection between “horim” – our parents, the ones who conceive us – and “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.
A few years ago, the Israeli writer David Grossman published what was, I think, his first and only children’s book, called “Hibbuk” or “The Hug”. It is a simple and hauntingly beautiful account of a conversation between a mother and her child. It begins with the mother saying to her son, Ben: “You are so sweet and special. There is no one else like you in the world.”
“Really?” the son responds. “There is no one else like me?” The mother continues emphatically. “No, absolutely not, you are utterly unique, you are one-of-a-kind.” The boy persists, and then says quietly, “But I don’t want to be the only person like me. Then I am totally alone.” The mother tries to gently coax her son into understanding. “Well, we are each a little bit alone and a little bit not alone.” He is still not consoled, and finally, she says, “Give me a hug.” And, as she holds him close, she hears his beating heart and he hears hers. Quietly, from within her embrace, he says, “Now I am not alone.” And she responds, “That’s exactly why hugs were invented.”
The story is made all the more poignant by the timing of its publication shortly after Grossman and his wife lost their son Uri in Lebanon.
When our 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.”
A beautiful song, one I’ve loved for a long time. So 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 Avivah Zornberg writes, “The difficulty in rearing children has to do with the ambiguities of independence. The child must separate from the parent; the parent must allow the child to discover his or her own reality. Where there was one, there must be two. This separation, though necessary, is a complex and often tormented experience. 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 these days make amply clear, it is often in our families that we make the most painful mistakes. Each of the parents in the Torah readings for these two days – Sarah, Hagar, and Avraham — hold up a mirror showing us how dangerous it can be when we fail to see another person as a separate human being when, instead, we see them as an extension of ourselves.
In a deep sense, Sarah’s cruelty to Hagar flowed not from seeing her as a stranger, as an other — but from seeing her as nothing more than an extension of herself. Hagar was supposed to be a surrogate, a stand-in, with no independent identity of her own. It is when the surrogate stands to claim her own place that she becomes intolerable, that she and her child – himself a living, breathing image of God – need to be cast out.
Hagar abandoned Yishmael, not because she didn’t care but because she cared so much that she couldn’t bear to see him suffer. What does it mean when our caring causes us to pull away — to avert our gaze — to leave someone we love to suffer alone?
Tomorrow morning we will listen as Avraham ascends the mountain with Yitzchak. And this year I find myself wondering, is it partly the logic of the possessive grammar — Bincha, yechidcha, asher ahavta — that leads him up that mountain? Your son, Your only one, The one you love. This child is an extension of me. He is mine to sacrifice. No, says the angel, al tishlach et yad’cha el hana’ar. Don’t set your hand against the boy. Suddenly, the possessive grammar disappears. The boy stands as his own being, saved, solitary, he comes down from the mountain alone.
Let me come back now to Hayom harat olam. Strikingly, the original context of the phrase “harat olam” in Tanach 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 strange and disturbing fantasy that God would have left him buried in his mother’s womb, enveloped there in a “harat olam” – an eternal pregnancy.
By the time this phrase is adopted for the Rosh Hashanah liturgy the meaning of “olam” as “world” is 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 precisely at the threshold of the world that could be. The shofar calls — and we stand together summoning the courage to yearn, the courage to patiently cultivate hope, the courage to reach out to each other, again and again, the courage to love.
I leave you with my current favorite definition of courage – from Professor Jonathan Lear. This is what he writes: “Courage is the capacity for living well with the risks that inevitably attend human existence because we are finite, erotic creatures . . . By finite, I mean to point to a family of limitations that characterize the human condition: we are not all-powerful or all-knowing, our ability to create is limited and so is our ability to get what we want . . . We may suffer physical and emotional injury, we may make significant mistakes, our beliefs may be false and even the concepts with which we understand ourselves and the world may collapse. By erotic, I mean, that in our finite condition of lack, we reach out to the world in yearning, longing, admiration, and desire . . . as finite creatures we are vulnerable; and yet as erotic creatures we reach out to the world and try to embrace it.”
Hayom harat olam. May we be brave this year. Knowing all the risks, may we reach out to the world and try to embrace it.