Hayom harat olam – Today the world is pregnant

Hayom harat olam – Today the world is pregnant

A Sermon for Erev Rosh HaShannah 5777

By Rabbi Pamela Frydman

(This talk is also linked to the website of Congregation P’nai Tikvah.)

Rosh HaShannah is the Jewish new year, the birthday of the world, and the anniversary of creation.

It is easy for us to understand that Rosh HaShannah is the Jewish new year because Rosh HaShanah is when our calendar changes. Earlier today, the Jewish calendar was in the year 5776 and when Cantor Marla led us in the blessing over the candles, the calendar shifted to 5777.  The changing of the calendar from one year to the next makes sense to us because it is the same as what happens on January 1st.

But talking about Rosh HaShannah as the birthday of the world and the anniversary of creation is a bit more complicated. We celebrate our own personal birthday on the anniversary of our birth. But according to Chinese culture and certain African cultures, our birthday is actually the anniversary of our conception. Some religions teach that life begins at conception while other religions teach that life begins at birth.

According to Judaism, life begins at birth. The sages determined that during the period between conception and birth, the soul is hovering, but is not yet implanted within the tiny body growing in its mother’s womb. According to the rabbis, it is only after the head of the baby emerges during labor that life is considered to actually have begun.[1] And if you ask certain Jewish mothers and grandmothers, you will soon learn that a Jewish birth is not actually complete until after the newborn gets a college education.

When we say that Rosh HaShannah is the birthday of the world and the anniversary of creation, we don’t usually think of the world being conceived on Rosh HaShannah, and we also don’t usually think about the world actually being born on Rosh HaShannah. But if you look at a traditional high holy day prayer book such as the ones used in the Orthodox and Conservative Movements, you will find a prayer for Rosh HaShannah that begins with the words, “Hayom Harat Olam.” “Today the world is pregnant.”

Now that may not be a medical diagnosis, but it is a spiritual reality, because mother earth is giving birth to new life all the time. So it is fair to say that the world is always conceiving, always pregnant, and always giving birth. Within that context, I think it makes sense to say that today is the birthday of the world, and it also makes sense to say that the new year of every other religion and culture is also the birthday of the world because the world is constantly being born and reborn on mother earth.

With that understanding in place, I want to talk about some of the thorny issues and questions with which the rabbis and sages have grappled, and continue to grapple, concerning what it means that Rosh HaShannah is the birthday of the world and the anniversary of creation. These thorny issues have to do with ethics and morality, such as the question of how to make peace among individuals and nations, how to get along with our neighbors, how to get along with people who see the world differently than we do, and how hold on to the Jewish notion of chosen-ness without losing sight of the reality that God has chosen us to receive the Torah and the Jewish teachings, and God has chosen other peoples to receive other sacred spiritual scriptures and traditions.

In addition to these moral and ethical questions, there is also the question of how to reconcile Torah and science. How do we reconcile that the earth is billions of years old and human beings have been living on the earth for millions of years[2] when the Torah says that the world was created in six days and the Jewish calendar is only in the year 5777?

Rabbi Donniel Hartmann is head of the Hartmann Institute in Jerusalem. Rabbi Donniel teaches that Torah and science are both important to Judaism, but Torah is not a book of science. It is a book of values.

The point of the teachings about Adam and Eve are not just to try to tell us that the world started 5777 years ago. The point of the teachings about Adam and Eve are to tell us that Adam and Eve had a level of consciousness that human beings did not have before. That is why it says in the Torah that Adam and Eve ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

Adam and Eve started the process of us human beings driving ourselves crazy trying to figure out what is right, what is wrong and what we are going to do about it. If Adam and Eve had not eaten from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, we might be celebrating Rosh HaShannah in a completely different way without focusing on mending our relationships with our loved ones, our neighbors, and G-o-d.

It says in the Torah in the first chapter of Genesis, “Let us create Adam in Our image.” But wait. Jews are monotheists. So why does it say in the Torah, “Let us create Adam in Our image”? How many gods are there?

The Torah goes on to say, “and G-o-d created Adam, male and female created He them. Perhaps the Torah is telling us that the first human being was androgynous, and, at the time of the creation of that one androgynous being, G-o-d was a multiplicity within the Oneness. Now I don’t pretend to understand that, but it is worth contemplating, because it takes us out of our comfort zone and into the unknown, and that is the purpose of Rosh Hashanah.

Rosh Hashanah is not a time for complacency. It is a time for prayer and shaking in our boots and hoping that this new year will be better than the last year, or at least not any worse.

Going back to Adam and Eve, the story of the one androgynous being is in the first chapter of Genesis, and the story of Adam and Eve is in the second chapter of Genesis. In order to reconcile these two stories, Jewish sages have postulated that taking the rib to form Eve was a kind of surgery performed by G-o-d, the divine surgeon, to divide the androgynous being into two separate people, one of whom was a man and the other a woman.

There is also another midrash – interpretation – that the primordial Adam described in the first chapter of Genesis was Siamese twins, one male and one female. In that case, G-o-d, the divine surgeon, divided the Siamese twins into Adam and Eve.

Whether from one androgynous being or from Siamese twins, either way, these teachings are noble attempts at reconciling our understanding of Torah and science.

There is also a beautiful midrash – interpretation – in the Mishna that takes the story of Adam to another level and demonstrates how the Adam story teaches us about how to make peace with our neighbors and how to understand that each person is a treasured being created in the image of G-o-d.

It says in the Mishna, that “The Bible relates that G-o-d created Adam, as a single human being, the ancestor of all humanity. This teaches us that to destroy a single life is as if to destroy an entire world; and to save a single life is as if to save an entire world.

The Mishna goes on to explain that we “say that G-o-d created Adam as a single human being, in order to have peace in the world, so that no one may say to his neighbor, my ancestor is greater than your ancestor. Saying that G-o-d created Adam as a single human being is also the answer to heretics who might claim that there is more than one Creator.

The Mishna also explains that, “Declaring that G-o-d populated the world from a single human being also proclaims G-o-d’s greatness. Because when human beings mint many coins using one mold, all the coins look alike. But the Holy One minted every human being with the mold of Adam, and yet no two people are alike. Therefore, every human being must declare, that “It is for my sake that the world was created.”[3]

During these ten days that begin with Rosh HaShannah, and continuing through the end of Yom Kippur, we have an opportunity to get a jump start on overcoming our prejudice, bigotry, and hatred of those who are different than we are, and we do not have to give up our preferences in order to accomplish this. We can continue to root for our favorite sports teams and our favorite sports heroes. We can continue to support our preferred political candidates and causes. We can continue with all the things we do, but we can learn to do everything without engaging in hateful rhetoric, and without belittling, demeaning, or demonizing our fellow human beings with whom we disagree.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Pshishke gave us a beautiful teaching that can help us learn to get a handle on loving and respecting others without losing our sense of self-importance. But before I tell you that teaching, I want to focus on the name of Rabbi Simcha Bunim’s village in Europe. The village is not called kishke. It’s called Pshishke with a “P” for peaceful. Rabbi Simcha Bunim teaches that everyone should get two little pieces of paper. On one piece of paper, we should write, “I am but dust and ashes.” Those are the words that help us to remember that we are not better than others, and we will not live forever, and all our pronouncements will eventually turn to dust and ashes.

On the other piece of paper, we are to write, “the world was created for me.” Those are the words that help us remember that we are absolutely better than others. We are at the center of our own reality and G-o-d created us to be that way.

Rabbi Simcha Bunim teaches that we should keep these two pieces of paper on our person at all times and reach for the appropriate saying when we need it, because sometimes we need to remember that we are but dust and ashes, and sometimes we need to remember that the world was created just for us.

On Rosh HaShannah, and during the entire ten days through the end of Yom Kippur, when you are losing your sense of humor and you don’t want to see another prayer about what is right and what is wrong with our world or our behavior, remember these teachings: The world was created for each and every one of us, and at the very same time, we are but dust and ashes.

כתיבה וחתימה לשנה טובה ומתוקה, שנת שלום

K’tivah uch’timah l’shana tovah um’tukah, shnat shalom. May each and every one be  inscribed and sealed for a good and sweet year, a year of peace.

Kayn yehi ratzon. So may it be.

[1] This is the Jewish view regardless of whether the newborn arrives via the birth canal  or by caesarian section.

[2] “Introduction to Human Evolution,” Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. http://humanorigins.si.edu/education/introduction-human-evolution

[3] Mishna Sanhedrin 4:5.