By Rabbi David Seidenberg
On Rosh Hashanah, 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 how people translate it, 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 that means “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 Hashanah 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 — as it says, “How
wondrously diverse, how limitless, how great are your works, Source of
Life” (Psalm 92:6)! All this is in the sound of the shofar.
Rosh Hashanah 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, that filled
Creation at its beginning with loving-kindness.
This year Rosh Hashanah 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 gives 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. This year, when it’s the Sabbatical
year, all the more so. 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
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 not only 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 ba’mishpat.” Here, the usual transaltion is “Today the
world will stand in judgment.” But the phrase “ya’amid ba’mishpat”
comes from Proverbs 29:4: “A king through justice makes the earth
stand” (Melekh b’mishpat ya’amid aretz). 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 coming Sabbatical Year,
which begins on Rosh Hashanah. 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 not consuming future
generations to take for ourselves. 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 Hashanah, 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 Hashanah 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 we say at the end of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy: 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”
(Ps 95:7). All this will happen for us, today, if we will listen.