Rosh HaShanah  5774  – 5 September 2013—This is the day we look forward to, with awe and sometimes with trepidation.  Our synagogues, and auditoriums, and, yes, even casino special events centers, are filled with Jews coming home—compelled by an inner desire to be with mishpacha/family to welcome the New Year, to fulfill the rituals, to hear the Shofar.

We hear the trumpet blast of the Shofar and proclaim:  “HaYom Harat Olam”; and, whether we understand the Hebrew or not, we get a visceral reaction, knowing that this is a very special day.

When we were young, many of us were taught that “HaYom Harat Olam!” means “today is the birthday of the world,” and many Mach’zorim (prayer books for the Days of Awe) still translate it as such, but, as those of you who learn with me in Torah Study know, we should not always rely on English translation, and in this case, the more accurate translation of the phrase “HaYom Harat Olam” leads us to a much deeper and more nuanced conceptual understanding of this most awesome and holy day.

If we really wanted to say, “today is the birthday of the world,” we would actually proclaim “HaYom Leidat HaOlam.”   But “Harah” actually means pregnancy, conception, or gestation.  Not birth….but the process that results in birth.  And “Olam” can also mean “eternity,” the infinite that is hidden, that is beyond our limited human perception. So, when we hear the shofar and call out, “Hayom Harat Olam,” we are literally proclaiming that the day of Rosh HaShanah is “pregnant with eternity,” or Rosh HaShanah is “eternally pregnant”

As Rabbi David Seidenberg, a neo-Chassid, notes:  “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 as 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”? It is as unbounded as the hidden potential of every gestation and every birth—or, in the archaic sense of ‘great’ as pregnant, it is “great with eternity!”

Did you ever notice how, after the Shofar is blown, there is a brief moment when we are silent, before we begin to buzz with approval for the Baal T’kiyah’s skill and heart?  It is in that moment that we honor the “kol d’mamah dakkah,” the still small voice that is in the echo of the Shofar  that is really within the heart of all who hear it.  It is the voice of potential, the voice of eternity, the voice of infinite creativity.  We hear it; we feel it—HaYom Harat Olam!

It is as if we can feel what the Kabbalah calls “the infinite light that filled the beginning of creation with lovingkindness.  This light that shines in the radiance of this earth, the womb of all life, which is eternally pregnant, and which constantly brings forth life.”[1]

Sometimes, that Shofar blast throws us into a state of nostalgia, momentarily retrieving memories of the Rosh HaShanah moments of our youth….being with our parents, perhaps, or grandparents.

Sometimes, we feel the “wake-up” alarm that, too, is a message of the Shofar, and we realize that life is short, we have so much we want to accomplish, and the clock is ticking.

For some, the wail of the Shofar is an ecological warning.  It is a moment when we can reflect on what we are doing to our earth; how we are affecting the atmosphere that sustains us; the womb in which we all live?

It is from the prophet Jeremiah, that we find the source of the expression:  “HaYom Harat Olam.”[2]  says:  “Va-T’hi li imi kivri, v’rachmah harat olam.”  Let my mother be my grave and her womb be pregnant eternally.  Jeremiah was expressing profound grief and desperation for the Jewish people, and its expression becomes decidedly heavy.  Yet, in the book of Job, the planet is considered the womb:  “Yam, b’gicho mei-rechem yeitzeit.”  When the sea gushed forth from the womb.[3]  So, if we apply Jeremiah’s lament to the earth, we realize that it is a loving truism:  The earth is eternally pregnant; from our deaths come new life and new lives.  The earth is the womb and grave of each of us.

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Last year, when Super Storm Sandy was bearing down on the greater New York/New Jersey region, having experienced other storms and their effects previously, Rabbi Rick Jacobs anticipated the possibility of a power outage and reminded by his wife that G-d invented Home Depot, he dutifully purchased a generator.  Well, as we all know, the power did go out and, in fact, remained out for over a week, and, with the help of more home-handy neighbors, Rabbi Jacobs was indeed able to get the generator to provide power to his home, where they hunkered down for the week.  Emerging from their home, the Jacobs were aghast to see the devastation that the storm had wrought.  Trees were down and, in their own yard, had also taken their toll on other structures on their property.  When they went to see what coverage they had in their home-owner’s insurance, they read the bad news that they were not covered at all, as the storm was considered “An act of G-d.”

Was G-d on the hook for Superstorm Sandy, for Hurricane Katrina, or  the tsunami? How do we have a faith in a G-d that can be so destructive?  When do we have faith in G-d?

I am reminded of the guy who’s nervously tapping his fingers on the driving wheel, circling for a space to park, so he can get to his important 9 o’clock appointment.  He looks to the heavens and vow:  “O dear G-d; if you find me a parking space, I promise that I’ll be the best Jew ever!  I’ll give tzedakah; actually join the congregation that I go to; volunteer in the community; even fulfill my pledge to Federation. In a few moments, sure enough, he sees a spot in just the right place.  As he is parking, he says:  “Don’t worry, G-d!  I found one myself.”

Part of the Awe of the Days of Awe, the “Yamim HaNoraim” is found in the awesome and troubling piyyut/liturgical poem-prayer, the “U-netane Tokef,”  which we will recite on Yom Kippur. In the first key phrase we acknowledge the holiness of the day and read the troublesome declaration that on Rosh HaShanah we are “decided” and on Yom Kippur we are “sealed,” and then, now that we are quaking in our boots, we are told that we have within our ability things that we can do to temper the faiteful decree.  For generations upon generations, Jews have taken this literally.  In Rabbi Harold Kushner’s groundbreaking book, “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” he, who lost his young teenage son to the rare but always fatal disease of progeria…wherein a child grows old prematurely….Rabbi Kushner, nonetheless, states that sometimes bad things just happen.  It is not Divine injustice.

So when we read the U-Netane Tokef, we must confront our understanding.  Is it Divine causality or is it because sometimes tragedies happen….or something else, altogether.

In the U-Netane Tokef, one of the questions asked is who will perish by earthquakes?  Judith Sklar, responds in her treatise “Faces of Injustice” that  the 1750 Lisbon earthquake was the last time that there was a significant decry against Divine injustice.   The prevalent feeling, exacerbated by the Catholic church, decried the deaths of the nearly 80,000 people as being G-d’s wrath for their sinful behavior.  But not everyone bought into a wrathful G-d; it was the dawning of the age of Enlightenment and none other than the philosopher, Voltaire, challenged the concept of Divine causality.

The aftermath of the Lisbon earthquake disaster prompted the beginnings of the science of seismology.  Would the people have built so many dwellings on the land, had they known that the land was on a fault line where two massive tectonic plates were sure to collide?  It was estimated, in retrospect, to have been a massive earthquake or over 8.5 on the Richter scale….had there have been such a thing as a Richter scale, at the time.  Shifts in the earth’s tectonic plates are natural phenomena; we now know enough to build with proper precautions or not build at all.  A recent  earthquake in Chile, at a measured rate of 8.5 took a toll of 550…sad, but not nearly the disaster it could have been, had they not been prepared.

And what about the not too long ago earthquake in Haiti, where over 300,000 people died in an earthquake that was only 7 on the Richter scale?  To this day the country is still suffering?  But had there been responsible building codes and a responsible government in Haiti, the natural disaster would have taken a much lower toll, and the recovery would have gone much more smoothly.  The earthquakes were certainly not results of Divine causality, but the results of the earthquakes continue to be a matter of human injustice.

The traditional U-Netane Tokef  also asks “who by starvation,” so let’s look into that.  When our kids say “I’m starving,” it is usually a hyperbole that can easily be satisfied with a distracting activity or an actual snack.  But what does “I’m starving” really mean?   Current statistics are that during any one of our prayer services 400,000 people will die from starvation.  More than 4 million people will die this from hunger?  This is not caused by a vengeful G-d; when we have the ability to feed the world, this is a shameful result of lack of social action.

Who by water?  Tsunamis can’t be prevented, but they can be predicted.  We can predict and prepare by going to higher ground.  The problem often is that the warnings about impending tsunamis don’t actually get to the people.  A tragic misfortune becomes a grave injustice.

In 2003 our government slashed funding for flood control and in 2005, the well predicted Hurricane Katrina, although hit and devastated New Orleans and became the worst civil engineering disaster in the history of the United States.  While the government called it “A blind and random tragedy,” three years later, a lawsuit was made against the US Army Corps of Engineers, the designers and builders of the levee system.  Responsibility for the failures and the disastrous flooding was laid squarely on the Army Corps, but it turns out that the federal agency was immune to liability due to the Flood Control Act of 1928.  Believe it or not, there were some religious leaders who declared the victims to have been sinners and the devastation to have been G-d’s Divine justice, but the disaster, again, was the result of cost-cutting, bad engineering…all preventable.

Although many people die each year from obesity related diseases, only this year has the government recognized obesity as a disease itself.

While the U-Netane Tokef does ask, “Who by sword?” we can easily relate that to another contemporary scourge and ask “Who by guns?
Gun legislation was enthusiastically promoted by the public after the Sandy Hook disaster; but, again, governmental ennui or, possibly worse yet, governmental buckling to the political pressure, prevented passage of much-needed gun control.  It is estimated that 30,000  people  die by guns each year.  It’s not Divine fate to be gunned down; it’s the result of those of us who do not do the critical work of promoting public policy to lessen and/or prevent gun violence.

Two and a half generations of research have proven that Yucca Mountain is neither a safe place for a nuclear repository, nor is it safe to transport nuclear waste through Las Vegas; yet we are still liable to see Yucca Mountain become the designated dump site…unless we take seriously our responsibility as stewards of the earth, as G-d appointed us in Breishit/Genesis.[4]

Where is G-d in all of this?  Even the Talmud states “Acts of nature are morally neutral, not Divine causality.”[5]  And, accordingly, I’d like to suggest that insurance companies should cease blaming G-d for acts of nature.  Mark Twain once said:  “There are many scapegoats for our blunders, but the most popular one is Providence.”

There is a tradition of “Olam k’minhago noheig,” another nuanced understanding of the Hebrew word “olam” when we translate this as meaning that nature does what is intrinsic to nature.  While it might seem Divine justice if a person steals a measure of wheat and sows it in the ground, the wheat wouldn’t grow, but we know that “olam k’minhago noheig” and nature does what is intrinsic to nature.  That wheat, if properly tended will indeed grow.

Last year, Congressman Trent Franks, of Arizona, rightfully received flack for declaring that rape only rarely resulted in pregnancy.  And then-Congressman Todd Akin, of Missouri, also put his foot in his mouth when he spoke of “legitimate rape” and women having a natural ability to shut “the whole thing down.” Au contraire, a medical journal has estimated that there are over 32,300 pregnancies that are the result of rapes annually![6]  Olam k’minhago noheig .”

Nature may do what nature does, but humanity must be responsible for preventing, preparing for, or mitigating disaster.  Rabbi Harold Shulweiss notes that DNA may be a factor, but an earthquake is not judgment.  Like Rabbi Harold Kushner, I believe that we cannot and must not blame G-d for the personal tragedies that befall us or our families.  It is better to expend efforts and energy to promote research and come up with preventive measures for disease control, to lobby for legislation and enforcement of preventive measures against the causes of societal violence.  And we need to wake up, and pray that it is not too late, to correct the global climate change about which our scientists have been warning us for all-too-many years.

We are changing the quality of life as we blindly continue to change the atmosphere that sustains life.  We are putting back into the atmosphere the carbon that all of life before the industrial revolution had removed and stored in the earth.  We are changing the air we breathe, the winds that drive the rains, the blanket of atmosphere that tempers the warmth, which allows us to thrive. The balance is already off, and we cannot blame G-d; and, in fact, blame is useless.  Action is imperative!

Following the shofar blowing, traditional machzorim announce “HaYom ya’amid ba-misphat.”  While this is traditionally translated as “Today the world stands in judgment[7],” I would like to offer another translation:  “This day will be sustained by Justice.”

Ecologically, Justice  means many things, including balance.  As it says in the TaNaCh:  “Samti mishpat l’kav u-tz’dakah l’mishkelet.”  I set aside justice with a plumb line and righteousness with a balance.[8]

So, in the U-netane Tokef, where is G-d?  The Theological grounding is that G-d is the supporter of our experience, that  G-dly acts are in the ways that we are the exemplars of how we live in the world….G-d is not the Master Puppeteer…G-d is in “maasei yadeinu,” in the works of our hands.

There is a modern midrash by Rabbi Marc Gellman that I have shared with some of you before.  It goes something like this:

Before there was anything, there was just God, a few angels, and a huge swirling glob of rocks and water with no place to go. The angels looked around and asked God, “Why don’t you clean up this mess?”

So God collected rocks from the huge swirling glob and put them together in clumps and said, “Some of these clumps of rocks will be planets and some will be stars, and some of these rocks will be … just rocks. Then God collected water from the huge swirling glob and put it together in pools of water and said, “Some of these pools of water will be oceans, and some will become clouds, and some of this water will be … just water.

The angels looked around and said, “Well, God, It’s neater now, but is it finished?” And G-d answered, “Nope!”

On some of the rocks G-d placed growing things, and creeping things, and things that only God knows what they are, and when God had done all this, the angels looked around and asked God, “Is the world finished now?” And G-d answered, “Nope!”

G-d made a man and a woman from some of the water and dust and said to them, “You know, I am tired now. Please finish up the world for me … really it’s almost done.” But the man and the woman said, “We can’t finish the world alone! You have the plans and we are too little.”

“You are big enough,” G-d answered them. “But I agree to this. If you keep trying to finish the world, I will be your partner.”

The man and woman asked, “What’s a partner?” and G-d answered, “A partner is someone you work with on a big thing that neither of you can do alone. If you have a partner, it means you can never give up, because your partner is depending on you. On the days you think I am not doing enough and on the days I think you are not doing enough, even on those days we are still partners and we must not stop trying to finish the world. That’s the deal.” And they all agreed to that deal.

Then the angels asked G-d, “Is the world finished yet?” and G-d answered, “I don’t know. Go ask my partners.”

HaYom harat olam.”  This Rosh HaShanah is pregnant with eternity.  Today, this day, births a myriad of new intentions, conceives a plethora of new possibilities.  Our choices and actions will gestate the future of our children and for theirs…and for the offspring of every species on earth.  “HaYom t’varcheinu.”  Today, may we be blessed with courage and resolve, wisdom and moral fortitude, health and determination, more G-dly deeds and less injustice.  “HaYom, im b’kolo tishma-u. ha-yom  ticht’veinu l’chayim tovim.”  Today, if we listen to the still small voice, if we accept our partnering relationship with G-d, today may we be inscribed to truly live.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Teichateimu…This new year of 5744, may we inscribe ourselves and seal ourselves for a life worth living.

Ken y’hi ratzon.

Rabbi Yocheved Mintz

Congregation P’nai Tikvah

 



[1] Tanya, Igeret HaKodesh 20

[2] Jeremiah 20:17

[3] Job 38:8

[4] Breishit 1:29,30

[5] Avodah Zara 54b

[6] American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, August 1996

[7] The phrase ya’amid bamishpat comes from Mishlei (Proverbs): “Melekh b’mishpat ya’amid aretz. A king through justice makes the earth stand.” (29:4)

[8] Isaiah 28:17