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.
During this Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, I will focus the attention at the services I facilitate to a Hebrew word: bechirah. The word bechirah means choice. The same Hebrew root, b-ch-r, is used for words that mean: free will (bechirat chofshit) and elections (bechirot). In an election year, that is certainly relevant. And at Rosh Hashana time, we reflect on the choices we have made in the past year and look to use our free will to make better choices in the coming year. All of these about the Hebrew word: b-ch-r.
Over a lifetime, any of us will participate in dozens of High Holidays. If we look at each year’s Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur separately from the previous year or the coming year, the prayers and rituals can become a bit monotonous. “We sinned, we’ll do better, Amen”. While it is important to look at our years, one by one, I believe that it is just as important to look at our lives with a broader lens.
In our narrower, year-by-year lens, we are saying: We have used our free will to make choices this past year. Some of our choices were good. Some of our choices were bad. We will use our free will in the coming year to make new choices. Some of our choices will be good. Some of our choices will be bad. Right. That’s pretty much the message each year.
The broader lens approach says something a little different: Indeed, we have used our free will to make some good and some bad choices in the past year. And certainly, we will try harder to make better choices in the year ahead. But there is a bigger picture here. To borrow a phrase from social media: What are the trending topics? In other words, when we look not just at each year by itself, but look at our 5 year trends or our ten year trends, what do they look like? If you’re a smart financial investor, that’s how you look at your investments, right? Not how well did they do last week or last month or last year. But how are they doing over a 5 year or 10 year return.
We need to look at our life choices in the same way. The short term picture of our past year gives us some data to review. And our commitment for the coming year gives us short-term projections. But the real investment question is: how does your life look in the long-term? Are the trends over the long term good trends, trends that show that we are continually moving in the right direction?
Making moral choices is what this season is about. And it’s not only about making the right choices for ourselves, but for how we use our moral choices to serve as role models and teachers for others. Dr. Tom Sergiovanni is one of the great educational leaders of our generation. He writes about how, in education, moral leadership is of prime importance. As he points out, and I concur, it is not merely in schools that
moral leadership is critical, but in families and in communities as well. As members of the Jewish people, or as individuals who are mishpacha, family to those with Jewish members, we see ourselves as moral leaders. Fallible like every other human, but with a leadership role for our world that we strive to carry out.
So what makes Rosh Hashana less monotonous, is movement from small picture to greater picture. Just as we move from what this past year and coming year look like to a bigger picture of what our lifelong trends look like, I suggest that we also move from our own individual lives to looking at how we express our moral leadership through choices on a family, community, national and even global level.
Which leads us to the topic of bechirot, elections. I have my personal preferences, politically. Actually I have always voted not so much on the basis of a particular party platform, but on the basis of the moral leadership that I’ve spoken of. Which candidate is a true leader? Who leads on the basis of the personal values that I respect? Who has the most integrity?
Having said that, either of the two major political parties could have easily won my vote. I watched a few quick segments of the Democratic and Republican conventions, and was disappointed in both. The only thing I really learned from the conventions is that, even if you’re as good an actor and director as Clint Eastwood, it’s not a bad idea to have a script or at least some notes.
Know how either party would have had my vote this year? All either one had to do was to say, a month or two ago: Hey, Americans! We already know who is being nominated for president and vice president. And, within reason, we pretty much know what the party platform will look like. So, rather than spending over $136 million in tax money, plus millions more that were raised privately, plus millions more spent by convention participants in travel, food, hotels and other expenses, we’re cancelling the convention. In a year in which 1 out of every 10 people are unemployed and seeking work, plus more that have given up on jobs and are either taking retirement or have tried to open their own businesses [like myself]; a year in which 15% of Americans are living in poverty; a year in which 16% of Americans lack health insurance, we just can’t justify having a big national party to decide absolutely nothing. Instead, we’re going to donate ½ of what we’d spend on the convention, and ask the delegates to donate ½ of what they would have spent to shlep to Tampa or Charlotte and use those hundreds of millions of dollars to feed the hungry, create some jobs, save some people from foreclosure and insure some folks.
For a statement like that, I would have voted a straight party line. It’s all about integrity and putting things into perspective.
In this year, here are my two platforms:
- Moral leadership for our families, community and world
- Lifelong trends in how we make choices.
I invite you to spend these holidays reflecting on these two considerations and on setting our course for making and, as Gandhi remarked, actually becoming the change that needs to happen.
Wishing you a שנה טובה
Wishing you a shana tova u’metukah, a Happy and Sweet New Year,