Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
September 20, 2020
Today the world stands as at birth. הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם. Today all creation is called to judgement, הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים. whether as Your children or as Your servants.אִם כְּבָנִים. אִם כַּעֲבָדִים. If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a parent is compassionate with children...and, as day emerges from night, to bring forth a favorable judgement on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy One. (Machzor Lev Shalem, p. 158.)
What does it mean to be at the birthday of the world? Is today even the world’s birthday? Why do we cry out hayom harat olam to the voice of the shofar? Most importantly, what would our world look like if we saw this moment not merely as an annual celebration, but a recognition of the power of our choices, the realization that THIS VERY moment is “pregnant with eternity.”
In the traditional liturgy, we have prayed to and for a Gd who has the power of judgement upon us, who literally determines if we live and die. For many, that understanding is far too foreign, pushing them away from our traditions. Like generations before us, we must interpret the texts according to our own understanding. We MUST connect them to our lived experience. The prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur demand our attention. The shofar blasts our souls and says “WAKE UP!” The verses of (malchuyot) kingship, (zichronot) remembrance and (shofarot) of the shofar remind us that we are not alone. They remind us that we are part of a community, a nation, a people, a family. We are not isolated in our own little boxes, but part of something greater.
As we recite these words, we recognize our own mortality. With COVID, we saw that our actions could have great and terrible consequences. The simple, politicized, act of wearing a mask (or not) can help protect or condemn those around us. This moment shows the fundamental difference between American and Jewish culture. Lin Manuel Miranda as Hamilton asked “Are we a nation of states, what’s the state of our nation?”. While American states have come together for common cause, they have remained far more individual, and respected individuality far more than Jewish tradition does. Our currently counter-cultural tradition reminds us that EVERY one of us is valuable. My blood is not redder than yours. As such, we must take into account the needs of the many--and not only the needs of the few!
This year may have enlightened us that reward and punishment is not only individual, but communal. The choices of others impact our own lives. How we respond matters deeply, yet how our family or neighbors respond ALSO matter! The shofar cries out. Do you hear the blood of your neighbor? Do you hear the cry of the orphan? Do you hear the cry of the hungry? You were slaves in Egypt! Remember!
I stand here imperfect. I know there is more I could have done locally to feed the hungry, to free the fettered. I have not served at the food bank or built a home this year. Yet I have struggled mightily to ensure that OUR community had a way to pray, to learn, to gather--to fulfill our goals as a kehillah kedoshah. That struggle has succeeded for some and failed for others. We have not made everyone happy or fulfilled the needs of all. Al Chet Shehatanu lefanecha, Forgive us for our sins AND let us work to better them. As we continue to work, to pray, to sing, to dance, to mourn together in person and virtually, we will work to move past the basics and build together the full spectrum of CBI.
What does Hayom Harat Olam REALLY mean. Rabbi David Seidenberg, writing more than a decade ago as “neoHasid”, deeply studied these words. He argued that harah is not birth but pregnancy, that Olam is not only world, but all eternity. As such, the translation would really be “This day is pregnant with eternity.”
What deeper evocation could one find of this wondrous and miraculous creation than "eternally pregnant," always bringing forth new lives, new creatures, even new species? Always dynamic, growing; balanced not like a pillar on its foundation, but like a gyroscope, turning and turning. What higher praise of the Creator than, "How wondrously diverse, how limitless, how changing are your works! Mah rabu ma'asekhah Adonai"? You show us the infinite in the finite, the world in a grain of sand, a child's grasp, a caterpillar's transformation, a leaf unfolding or decomposing. What greater potential in this moment, than for it to be "pregnant with insights, with hopes, as great as eternity"? ... http://www.neohasid.org/stoptheflood/hayom_harat_olam/
What happens when we look at the world as pregnant with eternity? What happens when we look at this moment as pregnant with eternity?
Today is a day of possibility. On this second day of Rosh Hashanah, we get an opportunity we did not have yesterday. We heard the sound of the shofar. With each blast it awakens our soul. It declares that another day has passed in our lives, that our future is closer than ever before. It tells us that we are not yet all we could be, but we can get there.
The curve of the shofar teaches us this lesson. As we go through the cycles of the years, we return to the same times again and again. If we reach a precipice, we come back again. At this moment, we are not at the end of our lives, nor the beginning. We are part of the greater chain of our lives, the lives of our ancestors and the lives of our descendents. We have been given a gift. We have another chance. We do not wipe away our past, but we can learn from it!
At this moment, throughout the world, Jews are gathering virtually and in small groups to declare Gd’s might. They are coming together to pray. They are looking at where they have been and where they wish to be. Sometimes those two places are the same, but for so many of us, they are not. My deepest desire today would be able to greet each person at the door, to murmur words of blessing and thanks, to smile and hug, to sing and dance and cry. Many of those things can still happen--but they require adaptation.
So much of these months has been mourning what has been lost, but what have we gained? One of my teachers, Rabbi Karen Reiss Medwed, a prominent Jewish educator and dean at Northeastern University, a member of the Committee of Jewish Law and Standards, has been teaching for years about inclusion of people with disabilities in synagogues.
Video streaming has been a benefit for many of those who cannot easily attend services. Zoom Minyan has given them the opportunity to be a vital part of our community in a way they had not felt in years. These technologies have allowed us to reintegrate those who had felt marginalized previously. And yet, it is imperfect. For those with hearing impairment, these visual technologies can be lacking. Even with those challenges, it allows us to welcome people safely to our community, a vital task.
Slowing down has been a benefit to us all. At any moment of any day I can study Torah, learn a new language, practice a new skill with students and teachers around the world. This world is FILLED with new opportunities--but I cannot do them all. Nor can CBI. Our staff and volunteers have been incredible--creating new programs and re-envisioning what we already did. We cannot do everything though--we have to take stock and see what really makes sense. Slowing down helps us reflect on what truly matters.
One of the biggest challenges of COVID has been the isolation. For those that live alone, or live in assisted living or nursing homes, this time has been incredibly challenging. Yet it has also allowed time for us to reconnect. If I cannot go physically see a neighbor, then a friend in Europe or Israel is as distant as my next door neighbor. Through technology we can join an Israel Bonds program based in Philadelphia, NY, or Jerusalem, something that would never have happened before. I have gotten more calls and connections from old friends than I did previously. I hope the same is true for you. At CBI, we have been regularly working to connect you with one another. I pray that those efforts will continue long after our “normal” gatherings return.
Hayom harat olam. Today the world is pregnant with eternity. Today we decide how we will live. Repeating our sacred words, standing and sitting together, reaching deeper and deeper into our souls, we connect with God and one another. Let us celebrate those choices and make more. We are witnessing the birthpangs of a new moment. As day emerges from night, let it bring forth a favorable judgement, and let us help the awe-inspiring Holy One to create it with beauty, with hope, with love, together.