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Today is the birthday of the world

  • RabbiGreg
During the blowing of the shofar, we declare Hayom harat olam! (This is the birthday of the world!) Wait, we all know that Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish new year, but here we are celebrating the birthday of the world, nothing less! Let’s try to understand this.
by RABBI GREG ALEXANDER | Sep 06, 2018

First, how is Rosh Hashanah the birthday of the world? A midrashic tradition (Pesikta d'Rav Kahana 23:1) explains that Adam and Chavah (Adam and Eve) were created on the first of Tishrei. In other words, Rosh Hashanah doesn’t just begin the Jewish year. It has significance way before and beyond the Jewish people. It celebrates the creation of all humanity. After all, Adam and Eve were not Jewish – there were no Jews for another 20 generations until Abe and Sarah come along.

“But, wait,” you say, “there is a problem!” You see, if you open Genesis and have a look at chapter one, Adam and Eve were created on the sixth day of creation. So, Rosh Hashanah is called the “birthday of the world”, but actually a more accurate term would be the birthday of human beings. Much of the world was already created.

So, the world we are talking about is the world of people, of us. It’s our birthday. Rosh Hashanah marks the moment that we were given responsibility to guard and tend the Garden of Eden, and to be partners with G-d in the work of creation. It’s our moment of stepping up, or taking on the obligation that comes with being the pinnacle of creation.

As the midrash teaches us, “Upon creating the first human beings, G-d guided them around the Garden of Eden, saying; ‘Look at my creations! See how beautiful and perfect they are! I created everything for you. Make sure you don’t ruin or destroy my world. If you do, there will be no one after you to fix it.’” (Midrash Kohelet Rabbah 7:20) So, Rosh Hashanah marks our creation and our role in the world – after all, when G-d created the world, it was all ready to go. We didn’t need to do anything to help build it. But ever since then, it’s been up to us to look after it.

Here’s another strange thing, the words hayom harat olam are poetic, and difficult for even a Hebrew-speaker to comprehend. Literally, the words mean “today is the pregnancy of the world”. So, the world being described is not yet born! It’s a world still in-utero, still pregnant with possibility, still being shaped and formed in the womb.

Now, we can unpack this further. When we are pregnant, we are not sure what our baby will look like, feel like, sound like. We are not sure what our response to the birth will be, and what kind of parents we will be. We can hope and imagine what we would like this baby to be, and we can hope and imagine how we would like to raise it, but at this stage all is potential, possibility, undetermined.

That is the emotion of Rosh Hashanah – it is a day of expectancy, a day of hushed hopes, and wished-for dreams. At the same time, it is a day of nervous dread. What parent can be sure that everything will be good with the birth, with the first days, and the years to come? What parent is not filled with mixed emotions, with the joy of expectancy, but also the nervous tension of not knowing.

That is the spiritual state of Rosh Hashanah. It is a day of mystery and expectation, of hope and dread. For the whole world is still in limbo, unformed, and unjudged, as we spend the day trying to persuade G-d to look at our world not with harsh justice, but with loving kindness and mercy. It is a world not yet born! A world that is still in-utero, still pregnant with possibility, still being shaped and formed.

What we know for sure is that, just like in the case of Adam and Eve, this world that is about to be born on Rosh Hashanah is our responsibility. We have the honour of co-parenting this world with G-d, being co-shapers and creators as the world becomes what it truly should be at its birth. Right now, in these last days of Elul, as we get ourselves ready for Rosh Hashanah, right now is when the hard work needs to be done. Just like expectant parents who are gathering themselves and their support for birth – eating right, sleeping well, ticking off the to-do lists so all is just right and ready for that baby to come, so do we need to get ourselves ready for hayom – this awesome day.

The sound of the shofar already fills us with awe and mystery. It has been calling to us each morning of Elul, calling us to be ready, to wake up from our slumber and prepare for the big day. When we blow it on Rosh Hashanah, we will declare, Hayom harat olam! This is the day of the pregnancy of the world, this is the day of expectancy and mystery, of awe and wonder, as we prepare ourselves to co-parent this world with G-d. May it be a blessed and sweet beginning to a year of abundance and good for us all. Shanah tovah umetukah.

  • Rabbi Greg Alexander, a third generation South African Progressive Jew, serves on the rabbinic team of the Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation.

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