Leaving the hospital after giving birth, I held my newborn daughter in my arms. As we were wheeled past the admissions area to the labor and delivery unit, I had an eerie feeling. I remembered walking by this spot just two days earlier as one very large person, and now my daughter and I were leaving as two people. All the agony and emotion of the past few days rolled into that moment. My daughter and I were separate when just recently we had been one.
Birth and separation lie at the heart of Rosh Hashanah. The theme is most clearly articulated in a piyut (liturgical poem) chanted after each shofar blowing in the three special sections added to the holiday’s Musaf Amidah. The paragraph proudly declares: “Hayom harat olam,” which can be translated as “Today, the world is born.”
The phrase “Harat olam” — “the world is born” — originates at a low point in the prophet Jeremiah’s life. After being beaten by a priest who rejected his prophecies, Jeremiah cursed the day he was born, wishing that his mother’s “womb had been harat olam — pregnant forever.”1
A commentator on piyutim, Sara Friedland Ben-Arza, notes that the author of this piyut (which entered the prayer book in the ninth century) redefines the word “harat” to mean not just “pregnancy,” but the last day of pregnancy — the day of birth.2 The piyutist shifts Jeremiah’s phrase from his wish that his mother would be “pregnant forever” to the idea that “today, the world is born.” This piyut moves from Jeremiah’s original longing for the oneness he experienced cradled within his mother’s womb to the notion that God’s creation of the world is similar to a mother giving birth to a child.
Jeremiah’s primal yearning is linked to the shofar blast because the word “truah” — which is used to announce the shofar blasts — is found in the verse just preceding the one quoted in the piyut “Hayom harat olam.” How fitting, then, that on Rosh Hashanah this piyut is recited directly after blowing the shofar!
Several rabbinic sources equate the blasts of a shofar to a mother’s sobs — such as Sisera’s mother while awaiting her son’s return from battle,3 Sarah when hearing about the binding of Isaac,4 and women in labor.5 Birth themes are also central to the Torah and haftarah readings selected for Rosh Hashanah — recounting the birth of long-awaited sons and the estrangement of children from their parents.6 The images invoked in the readings suggest “the story of a world that stops its journey once a year and looks longingly back to the womb from which it emerged…. [and allows us to] share in the sorrow of God, the parent, over the distancing of God’s children.”7
As we approach the New Year, what kavannah (spiritual intention) can these images offer us?
First, the birth imagery sets an appropriate emotional tone for the holiday. We hold the same mix of feelings approaching Rosh Hashanah as we have when we are about to have a child: anticipation and excitement along with worry and even dread. On the High Holidays, we hope to give birth to new, improved versions of ourselves, but any potential change is accompanied by wide-ranging emotions. Our lives are about to be transformed, but we don’t know how.
The Hebrew term for the High Holidays is Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe. The word “nora” means “awful,” “frightening,” “awesome,” and “amazing.” One would normally think of “amazing” and “terrible” as opposites, but the fact that they are contained in one word teaches that they are interlinked — a coin’s two sides. My pregnancies, labors, and early years of parenting were nora in every sense of the term — at once terrible, wonderful, and awe-inspiring. I thought of that word often — reminding myself in the tough moments that all incredible journeys are hard. Likewise, any major shifts in our lives may be accompanied by both terror and excitement. The pregnancy and labor imagery is apt for a season that calls us to face our fears and change for the better.
Second, the birth imagery prompts us to reflect on both our separation and our connection to others and to God. In the hospital, I realized that my daughter and I had moved from oneness to separateness, even though I feel very connected to her. While I appreciate my children’s growing independence, I still long for and enjoy moments of closeness with them. I imagine that God feels the same way. Rather than imagining God as harshly judging my every move, I can instead picture God as a parent who wants me to recognize the ways we are connected. “Rachamim,” “compassion,” uses the same root as “rechem,” the Hebrew word for womb. When I think of being rocked in God’s womb, I tap into God’s rachamim — through prayer and acts of loving-kindness and justice.
In approaching the Yamim Noraim, we revisit our joys and regrets from the past year and consider our possibilities for beginning anew. Within the Torah readings and prayers, perhaps we can hear the underlying longing for our Parent’s embrace. Listening closely to the shofar blasts, we may hear the cries of our Mother calling us home.
1 Jeremiah 20:17
2 Sara Friedland Ben-Arza, “Harat Olam: On the Birth of the World on Rosh Hashanah,” piyut.org.il/articles/449.html
3 Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33b.
4 Pirkê de Rabbi Eliezer, chapter 31, and Vayikra Rabbah 20:2
5 Meshech Chochma on Leviticus 23:24
6 On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the Torah reading (Genesis 21) is the story of Isaac’s birth and the banishment of Ishmael, and the haftarah (I Samuel 1-2) recounts the birth of Shmuel, who is sent by his mother, Hannah, to work at the Temple. On the second day of the holiday, the Torah reading (Genesis 22) describes the binding of Isaac, and the haftarah (Jeremiah 31) recalls Rachel crying over her children, and Ephraim, who was exiled.
7 Ben-Arza, p.2email print