During the Rosh Hashana Musaf service, the words “hayom harat olam” are recited at the sounding of the shofar. Most machzorim, High Holiday prayer books, have these three words translated with something along the lines of “Today the world was created” or “today the world was born. Neither translation is accurate. At all.
The word harat is taken from the Hebrew root H-R-H, to become pregnant, to conceive. That is very different from the word used in the Torah, B-R-A, an act of creation, or Y-Tz-R, forming.
To me, creation implies the totality of creation, and it has an end point. Indeed, the Torah version of the creation story concludes with Vayechulu ha-shamayim v’ha-aretz v’chol tzva’am, vayechal Elohim ba’yom Ha-shevi’i – The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing. If the words sound familiar, it may be because they appear in the Shabbat services and in Saturday morning Kiddush all year long.
“Today the world was conceived” is far different than a creation story of “B’reishit bara Elohim”, in the beginning God created or the conclusion of the Biblical account, “The heaven and earth were finished”. What is the main difference? Bereshit Bara and Vayechal Elohim, God created and God completed imply a total completion. There is no uncertainty at the conclusion of the creation. The creation is total and, one would think, perfect, since traditional Jewish belief is in a perfect God.
Harat is totally different. In the words of the rabbis and writers of the machzor, the world was conceived. What do we think of when the words conception and pregnancy are used? We speak of something being “pregnant with opportunity”. Pregnancy is the ultimate sign of faith in a way: We don’t know how that life in formation is going to turn out. But we make new life in the hope and the expectation that we, as parents, will help to shape and guide that little life.
And conception? Yes, we “conceive” of a new idea, a thought. There are no guarantees, but the desire to conceive and innovate moves our world forward.
In the Kabbalistic literature, the creation story, unlike the assumption of the Biblical account, is imperfect and even incomplete. In its version, there a flaw is exposed in which vessels meant to capture all the goodness of creation shatter, with sparks of holiness spread and often hidden across creation. God doesn’t intend to create a perfect world, God conceives a world of possibilities, but one in need of what the Kabbalists refer to as tikkun, repair. In this version, the completion of creation doesn’t begin and end with God, it begins with God but ends with us. We, Jews and human beings, are responsible for gathering and bringing together holiness. And I believe that the authors of Musaf had a similar idea in mind when they deliberately chose “conception” for our service’s understanding of the creation story: That, as we enter a new year, just as the universe entered creation, it is full of possibility, but also full of pitfalls.
Maimonides developed the idea that there are 13 basic principles of Jewish belief. The last of them is: Ani maamin be’emunah shelemah b’viyat Ha-Mashiach, I have full faith in the coming of the Messiah. It’s actually something all Jews agree upon conceptually, even as we disagree about the method of delivery. Is it a somewhat supernatural event and individual, with links to the kingdom of David? Is it a process that unfolds gradually? Or perhaps a totally human and historical phase that we bring to fruition by totally natural means of making the world one of peace? On that, we disagree. But the faith that the world does and must head towards tikkun, repair, is universal. And it’s articulated in the closing words of the Malchuyot, the verses of Musaf that declare God’s kingship: l’taken olam b’malchut Shaddai, to repair the world [to become] a Godly kingdom.
Everything that happens and every choice we make, individually or as part of a society or group, either furthers that goal or moves us farther from it. If you aren’t paying attention, and I think most of you are, the year since the last Rosh Hashana has highlighted sinat chinam, baseless hatred in public and private domains. In what need to be civil discussions about how to make our world better, interactions have disintegrated into name calling and disrespect for anyone with whom we disagree. These so-called discussions violate every Jewish value about lashon hara, evil speech.
We have witnessed mass murders occur and, rather than working together to prevent this violence, the murders become overly politicized and we lose the opportunity to make meaning of those that have died.
Hayom Harat Olam, on this day the world was conceived. It is our obligation to complete the work of creation. This is the time to decide: How are we going to take the actions that move the world towards that messianic destiny? What actions will we take to insist that disagreements are aimed towards solving problems rather than creating new ones? What are the Jewish ideas that need to be introduced to our Jewish community, to Israel and to the world, so that we can get back to rowing in the same direction?
May the words of Hayom Harat Olam, the world being “pregnant with opportunity” inspire us today to make the commitments to moving the world to a state of tikkun and may our actions serve to bless all of us with a shana tova u’metukah, a happy and sweet new year.