“Hayom Harat Olam!” “Today is the birthday of the world!” We often hear or say these words during our services on Rosh Hashanah, particularly when we hear the sound of the shofar. “Happy birthday, world,” we say when we try to explain in simple terms one of the oldest themes of our Jewish New Year celebration.
Most of us would agree, however, that we know this is not literally true. There is no reason to think that the world was actually created on this specific day. Scientific and historical evidence suggest that this is a metaphorical idea at best. We approach Rosh Hashanah “as if” - as if this day marks the beginning of human history. In fact, the Hebrew “hayom harat olam”is better translated as “Today the world is pregnant!” It would certainly be a discussion starter were we to run around saying this to each other as a Rosh Hashanah greeting. Our tradition thus encourages us to say “L’shanah Tovah!” – “May this be a good year.”
Perhaps, though, we can find meaning after all in the idea that the world is pregnant? One way to interpret this concept is the teaching of our tradition that reminds us that creation is renewed each and every day. We awaken each morning to renewed possibilities, with potential, and with hope. “Hayom Harat Olam”can mean that the world is in a constant state of creating, giving birth, producing new possibilities. Such a stance can give us unbridled hope for the future.
For many, if not most of us, though, this year has caused us to lose hope. So much suffering, so much doubt, so much uncertainty, so much anxiety, so much powerlessness. Our lives and our world have been shrouded in darkness, loneliness, loss and fear.
The truth is, our tradition teaches, that we are never completely powerless. We were born into this world as God’s partners. God needs us as much as we need God. Our task is to respond, to say “Hineini” – Here I am!
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his powerful book God in Search of Man, reminds us:
“All of human history. . . may be summarized in one phrase: God is in search of man. Faith in God is a response to God’s question…When Adam and Eve hid from His presence, the Lord called: Where art thou? It is a call that goes out again and again. It is a still small echo of a still small voice, not uttered in words, not conveyed in categories of the mind, but ineffable and mysterious, as ineffable and mysterious as the glory that fills the whole world. It is wrapped in silence; it is concealed and subdued, yet it is as if all things were the frozen echo of the question: Where art thou?”
Rosh Hashanah arrives this year just in time. We all need a bit of the naïve yet encouraging optimism conveyed by the idea that “hayom harat olam,”today the world is pregnant. Today our future is filled with possibility. This future is still unknown, yet each of us has unlimited potential to say “Here I am,” and to join as partners with God in bringing about an unfolding future of goodness, blessing, justice and peace. L’Shanah Tovah Metukah – May this year be good and sweet!
Rabbi James M. Bennett is rabbi of Congregation Shaare Emeth