(A condensed version of this essay appeared in the Australian Jewish News Rosh Hashana Supplement, 2003)
Hayom harat olam. Today is the birth of the world. With these words we repeatedly affirm our meaning of Rosh Hashana following each set of shofar blasts. How strange, and almost surreal it is for me to connect with such meanings as my own due date corresponds with the eve of Yom Kippur, during that week that is meant for contemplation of such ideas – humanity, newness, rebirth, and regeneration. Indeed, the Talmudic verse that keeps coming to mind – “whoever saves one life has saved a whole world” – endows the concept of harat olam with a whole new dimension. It’s as if I am about to give birth to a whole world indeed.
I am especially grateful for this pregnancy imagery in light of the general absence of the female experiential perspective in the Jewish lifecycle. We mark most events from the male vantage point, in particular birth, which is notable in Judaism for bris, the male-centered nationalistic-covenantal ritual that completely obscures the basic and primal miracle of birth itself. That initial event of entry into the world, as a predominantly female domain, in absent from our ritualistic and liturgical collections. We have no ceremony, no official words of praise, not even a blessing of shehecheyanu – thank you God for bringing us to this moment (short of a scattered custom for women to say Birchat Hagomel, thanks for saving me from a miracle, sometime after birth). As Rabbi Debra Orenstein writes in her wonderful book, Lifecycles, “The failure to take notice of childbirth… stems from [the idea that] …childbirth is women’s domain. Not only that, but it is women’s domain at its most mysterious, powerful and frightening. During childbirth, life or death – and maybe both – will be given by God and seemingly by Woman as well.” (pp 1-2) Thus, the connection between the principal shofar ritual and pregnancy makes me feel as if my life as expectant mother has an acknowledged place in the community, a visible presence in the synagogue – at least in this one brief moment.
Rosh Hashana is a remarkable time to be giving birth because the theme of “awe-inspiring” meant to envelop this time of year seems to more aptly describe the birth process. Actually, all living creatures inspire majesty when they enter this universe from nothing but a seed or an egg. On a recent holiday, we had the amazing privilege of assisting a cow in delivering her calf, as well as watching two litters of rabbits being born, and caring for a litter of week-old puppies. The emergence of life from virtual nothingness is, in every instance, an incredible reminiscence of God’s original creation of this world – something from nothing, life from blackness.
But as life emerges in all its wonder, the vulnerability of the process is a constant reminder of the proximity between life and death. Of the 20 rabbits born, only 19 survived, of the seven puppies only five remained, and the calf that arrived was so big that there was a fear for the well-being of the mother. One can hardly celebrate the marvel of birth without acknowledging the presence of death.
For humans, the linking of life and death shackles what would have been an uninhibited joyful optimism at birth – as anyone who’s experienced miscarriage, stillbirth, infertility, disability, or loss can attest to. Yet there’s a whole other dimension to our restraint that emerges from the human condition. We alone have the dubious distinction of causing harm to one another for reasons other than survival or protection. People hurt, abuse, and oppress one another for ego, lust, power, control, and sometimes just sadistic pleasure. As Kohelet wrote millennia ago, “There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it is abundant in man” (Ecclesiastes 6;1) As I prepare to bring a new human into this world, my joy is fettered with countless worries – will this creature be hurt or abused, or worse, will he be one of the hurters? I fret not only over the vulnerability of life itself, which is apparent throughout the animal kingdom, but moreso out of the uncertainty about what kind of life this little person will have and lead. With the knowledge that life has within it pain, trauma, sorrow, and evil, it is so very difficult to thoroughly, unequivocally and whole-heartedly celebrate the day of birth as completely good.
Perhaps this is what is meant by Rashi’s interpretation of the curse of Eve. Where the Torah says, “with sorrow you will bring children”(Genesis 3;16), Rashi understands this to mean not just the pain of childbirth but of childrearing as well. That is, after the initial pain will come years of sadness. God’s initial blessing of life and spirit is swaddled in decades of anguish around parenting. Awe-inspiring marvel and boundless agony are braided into one another in that process of bringing forth life into the universe. Perhaps this is also Kohelet’s reference to “better the day of death than the day of birth.” (7;1) At birth we are fully aware that anything is possible – both good and bad. But at death, we know everything. There is no more darkness over our knowledge, no more shadows, no more expectations. What is is, what was was, and there can only be acceptance. The anxious anticipation and fear is gone.
That’s how God must feel as we acknowledge Rosh Hashana, the day that She birthed our universe into being. Humanity is capable of both greatness and cruelty, of divine performance and of merciless brutality – sometimes in the same swift movement, even in the same breath. Thus, to celebrate birth – of a being or of a world – means to accept that troubling reality. Perhaps this explains why the celebrations around Rosh Hashana are intricately connected with the somberness of Yom Kippur. We cannot with integrity simply celebrate our existence; we must also reflect, take responsibility, and repent. Hayom harat olam is followed by reminders of “judgment”, epitomized in the powerful Netane Tokef prayer on Yom Kippur which expounds on expectant death. Death and birth are part of the same narrative, two competing events within our souls. First we must accept that our presence in the universe is both a blessing and a curse, a mixture of sadness and joy, of good and evil, of ecstasy and misery. Only then do we have the right to truly celebrate with God. That is perhaps why the holiday following Yom Kippur, Sukkot, is the only one where the Jews are told to “be happy” (Leviticus 23;40). As if to say, now that you have experienced God’s birthing process, the cries of the shofar alongside the celebration of birth and life, now you can truly celebrate, as God does, with a hopeful optimism mixed in with a wide-eyed, realistic understanding of human failings – and the prayer that this year, humanity may indeed transcend the agony and truly and fully imitate the divine through acts of human kindness.
The potential for the God-like spirit to envelop our world is all about us and how we mark our lives. We have the will and the ability to minimize the pain in the universe through how we choose to live our lives. This is my blessing and hope around Rosh Hashana, and more specifically around the birth of my baby. This child is, indeed, an entire world. And despite the shortcomings of our heritage, I will say shehechayanu when this beautiful creature arrives, please God, and I will bless her and acknowledge her presence in the universe with unadulterated joy and ceremony, with that elation reserved for Sukkot and Shmini Azeret. And with that, in my own small way, I hope to bring this new being into the world with elation, eagerness, and a belief that every act of joy and kindness truly changes the world.
No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment
Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award-winning author, and leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator and activist. The former the Executive Director of JOFA, the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Elana writes and speaks all around the world about gender issues in Jewish life, in education and in Israel.