Seventy Faces of Torah rabbi david seidenberg

Planting the Seed of Eternity: A Meditation on Rosh Hashana and Our Planet

rabbi david seidenberg
Rabbi David Seidenberg

On Rosh Hashana, after every time we hear the sound of the shofar, we call out the words, “Hayom harat olam.” This expression is usually translated as, “Today is the birthday of the world, or “Today the world is born.”

Even though that’s the common translation, the Hebrew word “harah” or “harat” actually means pregnancy, conception or gestation. Not birth, but the process that leads to birth.

Furthermore, “olam” can mean “world,” but it can also mean “eternity,” from the root word for “hidden,” or more precisely, “the infinite that is hidden,” that is beyond our limited perception.

Therefore, the expression harat olam could be rendered as, “pregnant with eternity,” or “eternally pregnant.”

The day of Rosh Hashana is pregnant with eternity.

What deeper evocation could one find of this wondrous and miraculous Creation than to say that it is eternally pregnant, always bringing forth new lives, new creatures, even new species. Always dynamic and growing — balanced not like a pillar on its foundation, but like a gyroscope, turning and turning. What higher praise of the Creator could there be than what one finds in this description, as it says in Psalms, “How wondrously diverse, how limitless, how great are your works, Source of Life” (92:6)! All this is in the sound of the shofar.

Rosh Hashana is also the time when we honor the still small voice that comes after the sound of the shofar, the moment when we can hear the echo and potential of this eternity, of this infinite creative force. Every time we hear the shofar blasting, again and again and again, we respond: Hayom harat olam — Today, at this moment!

This ritual, this day, gives us a chance to pause and reflect on what the Kabbalah calls the “Or Ein Sof,” the Infinite Light, which filled Creation at its beginning with loving-kindness.

This year, Rosh Hashana is also the beginning of the Sabbatical Year, called Shmitah, in Hebrew. In all years, the Infinite Light shines in the radiance of this Earth, the womb of all life, which is eternally pregnant, and which constantly brings forth life. In this year, when we are thinking about letting the land rest, we may listen to the land in a special way, feeling her light more intensely.

Every time we hear the shofar, it offers us a moment when we can, if we choose, reflect on what we are doing to this land and the Earth as a whole, our home and our womb; all the more so this year, the Sabbatical Year. What will we conceive this year, as we listen? How will we make this a year of rest and blessing, for us and for all creation?

Today, each day, we are changing the quality of that radiant light as we change the atmosphere, as we change the conditions of life on this planet. We are putting back into the atmosphere the carbon that millions and millions of years and billions of billions of creatures removed and stored in the Earth, and we are doing it faster than we can realize. We are changing the air we breathe, the winds that drive the rains, the atmospheric blanket that holds the warmth of the sun long enough for us to survive from one day to the next, this blanket that allows us to live, to thrive, to be nurtured and nourished.

Most people know how climate change works: as the blanket holds in more and more energy, the blanket causes Earth’s climate to become hotter; but what really matters is that Earth’s climate becomes more and more chaotic, more unstable. The global climate crisis is not a problem of pollution — carbon is life. It’s not a problem of a degree or two. It’s a problem of balance.

Listen to the next words we say after the sounding of the shofar: “Hayom ya’amid bamishpat.” Here, the usual translation is “Today the world will stand in judgment.” But the phrase “ya’amid bamishpat” comes from Proverbs 29:4: “A king through justice makes the Earth stand.” So, another way to translate this expression would be, “This day will be sustained by Justice.” May this day awaken us to justice, may it inspire us to act justly. Without justice, even the land itself, the living land that is soil and micro-organisms and decay and birth, cannot stand and endure.

Ecologically, justice, “mishpat,” means many things, including balance, as it does in Isaiah: “I set justice with a plumb line and righteousness with a balance (Isaiah 28:17).” In our liturgy, God is the king who sets justice in the Earth. If we want to be agents of change, agents of God, we need to help in this task, making the world stand upright through acts of justice, fairness and balance.

This is also one of the deep lessons of the Sabbatical Year, which begins on Rosh Hashana. Through the practices of Shmitah, the Torah offers us a chance to return to the womb-space, when all is shared and all is given freely, and to the Eden-space, when all is shared not just between human beings, but also with the wild animals, as rabbinic law requires us to do during Shmitah.

The moment after the shofar is sounded is a moment of rest and recollection, like the weekly Sabbath and like Shmitah. These moments can bring us into balance, and balance comes, as Shmitah teaches, when every person, every species and every place has enough of what it needs for life to thrive. Balance means that our relationship with the Earth is dynamic and sustainable, that we are thinking carefully about our needs and those of future generations. Each of us helps to establish balance, not just when we see someone in need, but in this moment, “hayom,” today and every day, in every act and gesture, every choice, in what we eat and wear, how we dwell in our homes, in how we travel to work and how we return home.

Hayom harat olam: Today, this day, this Rosh Hashana, is pregnant with eternity. Today is an opportunity to conceive new intentions, new possibilities. Today is our day; today we are alive on this planet.

As we say at the end of the Rosh Hashana liturgy, “Hayim kulchem hayom,” “All of you are alive today.” Today, hayom, our choices will gestate the future, for our children, and for the children of every species upon the Earth.

As our prayer states: Today may we find courage; today may we be blessed; today may we be inscribed in the Book of Life, for good lives. Today, “if you will listen to the Voice” (Psalm 95:7). All this will happen for us, today, if we will listen.

Rabbi David Seidenberg is the author of “Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World,” published by Cambridge University Press, and the creator and director of neohasid.org. He teaches on spirituality, Jewish thought, midrash and Kabbalah throughout North America in in Europe and Israel.

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