HaYom Harat Olam – Rosh Hashanah Inspiration
by Rabbi Emerita Yocheved Mintz, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, September 21, 2017 | 5778
Preparing for the Yamim HaNoraim, the Days of Awe, I have been immersed in study, reviewing the liturgy, working on my own personal t’shuvah, and, of course, checking in with congregants, friends, and family. It’s that time of year; the time we look back and look forward, catch up, apologize, make amends, and hopefully start afresh. There’s always the promise of new beginnings…and, this year, with my granddaughter, Abby, nine months pregnant with a little brother or sister for my great-granddaughter, Maya, the promise of new beginning is certainly tangible—evident, perceptible, and quantifiable.
Looking over the liturgy in the dozen or so machzorim on my desk, I was struck by the number of times the term “HaYom Harat Olam” appears….at least six times in the traditional Mussaf, and each time it’s translated something like “Today the World is Born.” But nowhere in the phrase is the root for birth, as I know it…yud, lamed, daled, and, frankly, it didn’t bother me enough to look up the root heh–reish-heh; I simply accepted the translation, and concept and went about my business. I can even remember how children in Sunday School used to make Rosh HaShanah cards with birthday cakes with shofarot on top or apples and honey decorating them, proclaiming Rosh HaShanah as the birthday of the world…a concept that I struggled with for many years. Something didn’t make sense.
It wasn’t until a former teacher of mine, Dr. Tamar Frankiel, past-provost of the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, queried in passing, “I wonder what the origin is of the phrase “HaYom Harat Olam,” that I was motivated to look into it further, and what I found was profound…and a bit disturbing.
The phrase actually comes from the Book of Jeremiah, and it is anything but a Happy Birthday greeting. It can be found in Chapter 20, verse 17…but let me start at verse 14, an extremely distraught Jeremiah proclaims:
“Arur haYom…cursed be the day
That I was born!
Let not the day be blessed
When my mother bore me!
Accursed be the man that
Brought my father the news
And said, ‘a boy
Is born to you,’
And gave him much joy!
And that man became like cities,
Which the Lord overthrew without relenting!
Let him hear shrieks in the morning
And Battle-shouts at noontide—
Because” (and here’s where it really gets unsettling—verse 17)
“Because he did not kill me before birth
So that my mother might be my grave
“V’rachmah harat olam”—and her womb pregnant forever!
“Why did I ever issue from the womb,
To see misery and woe,
To spend all my days in shame!”
Harat Olam—pregnant forever. Oy! What a concept. Of course, taken in context, we know that Jeremiah was having a breakdown. No one was listening to him…not from above and not from below. He knew what was coming and tried to warn the nation, but no one would pay any attention to him.
“If only I had been a stillbirth,” he was bewailing. “If only my mother’s womb would be pregnant for all time…”
“Pregnant forever.” Oy! This sounds more like a curse than a blessing…
While I do have a friend who was so afraid of giving birth that she used to joke, “knock me out and wake me up when they’re old enough to go to school;” and I can remember how happy I was with each of my four pregnancies; but the point at which I was nine months invested in the process and looked like a Butterball turkey, and the point that Abby is in right now, due any day, ant minute…that’s the point where most women, trepidations and all, are ready to bring the new life into the world.
A new life. A new beginning.
Being pregnant forever is not a healthy state of body, nor of mind. It is not truly living; it is holding back on life. But, pregnancy is a state of potential.
So why do we say “HaYom Harat Olam?” I think Jews pray this phrase every Rosh HaShanah, because it comes as a warning. Every single one of us, at some time in our life, get stuck in a seemingly pregnant forever state. There’s something that we’ve conceived that needs to be born.
Maybe it’s a book, a painting, a poem, a song, a script; maybe it’s a blog, a business idea, a career change you’ve been privately thinking about. Maybe it’s going back to school, or volunteering, or visiting an old friend…but you don’t do anything about it.
Maybe, it’s saying “I love you, I’m sorry, I forgive you”… But you cannot summon up the courage to say any of it.
Maybe it’s a departure of sorts to which you’re holding on…a breakup. You know it’s time to go; you know it’s time to stop pretending that everything is fine—but everything is not fine; nothing is fine.
Maybe you know you have the capacity to do something, but the Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder has fallen asleep or brought in his evil twin and it tells you, “you’re not worthy.”
Abraham Maslow, the late 20th century psychologist, said: “Capacities clamor to be used, and cease their clamor only when they are well-used. Not only is it fun to use our capacities, but it is also necessary. The unused capacity or organ can become a disease center or else atrophy, thus diminishing the person.”
Or maybe you’re simply afraid. My colleague, Rabbi Dale Schreiber says,
Fear is an idol that comes in uninvited, takes up residence and then drives the decision making.
Fear is indeed powerful. For some of us it’s fear of judgment (whether from others or from our selves: “You’re no good; I’ve got no talent”).
For some of us it’s fear of responsibility: “I’m not ready to make this shift.”
For some of us, it’s the body‘s inertia—a lack of will.
And for some, it’s ego’s hubris that keeps us permanently pregnant: “I’ve go all the time in the world, I can do this tomorrow.”
My late mother, may she rest in peace, used to say “Morgan, morgan err lich toiter, alleh zavteh foilleh-loiter; tomorrow, tomorrow, but never today / that’s what all the lazy folks say.” She pegged me for a procrastinator; and she was right. I, on the other hand, rationalize producing at the last minute like baking cookies. No one likes stale cookies; I’d rather eat them fresh from the oven.
But actually producing something is not being pregnant forever, and the truth is that some of us seem to be pregnant forever. Perhaps it’s because we’re simply too comfortable with the current timeline; it’s easier to maintain the status quo, then make a change.
That’s where Jeremiah comes in with his haunting phrase “harat olam”, pregnant forever; and where our sages adapted it to the liturgy for Rosh HaShanah: “HaYom Harat Olam.” The phrase can be translated “Today is Pregnant Forever” or “Today is Infinitely Pregnant.” And we are the ones who get to choose whether it will remain in a permanent state of potential or whether it can break forth with life.
So, let’s take a moment and ask our souls: “What am I holding onto right now that needs birthing?” Can you see it? Can you see the potential, the capacity, the forward step that needs to be taken?
Pregnancy yields to labor…and labor means work, and, perhaps, some pain. Most of us do whatever we can to avoid pain…some of us do whatever we can to avoid work; but discomfort is part of the birthing process.
Sometimes it’s drive and courage that gets us going, but more often than not, things remain as they are until they get too painful to endure. At that point we can’t take living in a state of permanent pregnancy anymore—we just can’t! We become aware of a deep aching within our soul—a knowledge that we’re living well-beneath our own potential. And once we allow ourselves to feel that pain, it simply gets to be too much to hold back the change that needs to come.
(Abby texted me after her doctor’s appointment this week, that, although her due date had passed, she got to “stay pregnant”…) Yipes!!
I loved being pregnant; but I loved even more giving birth to our four sons, raising them to be young men; watching them become husbands and fathers, and now, at least one of them, is a grandfather. I loved seeing them work up to their potential and watching my grandchildren and now even great-grandchildren discover their own talents and capacities and potential. I am truly blessed…but so are we all.
HaYom Harat Olam. This day is fully pregnant. And we have the power to give it life.
Sense the latent potential of this day; the budding possibilities; the imaginable promise of this Rosh HaShanah day….
Break through; break free. Decide what will live on only in your dreams and what will be born and light up the world.
May we all come to see what is inside of us, just waiting to be born. U-v’chartah ba–chayim, as it says in Deuteronomy: “Choose life.”
L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu…May you be inscribed for a good, a really good, year.