Rosh Hashana 5784
The Jewish musician Eliana Light has a song for Rosh Hashana that goes like this:
Happy birthday world
If you were a kid
I’d bake you a cake
but you couldn’t eat it
so instead I’ll say
Happy birthday world
It’s a great song because kids get the magic of birthdays. This holiday is for singing happy birthday to the whole world? Yes please. People of all ages can connect to the delight and meaning of singing the world happy birthday. To say - we love you. To say - we are thankful for you. To say - we belong to you.
We observe birthdays to celebrate, and to show love and appreciation. We observe birthdays to mark the passage of time and to honor growth and change. So, too, with the world. On Rosh Hashana we celebrate the world as a whole - and thus we consider the world as a whole, and our place in it. We show love and appreciation for the world, and we reflect on how we might live in better relationship. But how do we mark the passage of time on a world scale? How do we honor the world’s growth and change?
One way is through our self and communal reflection. We are part of the world, after all - not separate from it. We mark our own passage of time in this world, and we honor our own individual or communal growth and change.
At the end of the hottest summer on record, we also have to honor the planet’s changes. And in particular, we have to honor the ways that we have changed the planet.
The Hebrew words in Eliana Light’s song, hayom harat olam, come from the liturgy for Rosh Hashana Musaf, the service we will begin in a few minutes. They don’t really mean happy birthday world.
These three words are sometimes translated as:
Today the world is born.
Today the world stands as at birth.
Today the world is conceived.
Today is pregnant with eternity.
Hayom is the easiest to translate - it means “today.”
Harat means to conceive or become pregnant. In the stories of our matriarchs, including the ones we read this morning, it appears with the word for birth: va’tahar vateleid - she conceived, and she gave birth. The subjects are Eve, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah, Bilhah, Rachel, and many unnamed women who conceived, carried, and bore our ancestors.
Harat evokes all the emotion of conception, pregnancy, and birth: miraculousness, uncertainty, labor, possibility, longing. It means - so much is new. So much is possible. So much is unknown.
Olam is more complex.
In Biblical usage, it means “eternal.” In later rabbinic usage, it comes to mean “the world.” It has the connotation of “endless” - in both time and space. It means “the world” but also “the cosmos.” It means “of an ancient time” but also “futurity.” The psalmist sings, “mey-olam ad olam” - from olam to olam - from the everlasting past to the everlasting future. Thus, olam means world, but it is deeply encoded with our sense and our hope that the world is everlasting.
So this phrase expresses our awareness that the world is continually reborn, continually remade, ever changing. And it expresses our hope that the world is stable, that we have continuity from past to future, that there is something eternal holding us together.
At the end of the hottest summer on record, I think we have to sing those words differently - and I think they are more important than ever.
At the heart of our work on Rosh Hashana is to face our vulnerability, to literally recite it aloud together - who shall live and who shall die? Who by flood and who by fire? Our forebears wrote these words because they, too, experienced the precarity of being a human on this planet. Their sense of vulnerability was about what they didn’t know, an uncertainty that we, too, hold: none of us can predict what joys, what challenges, what losses the coming year will bring. But our sense of vulnerability is compounded by what we do know. We are flooded with studies, reports, and predictions. We know that humans are decimating biodiversity, depleting and destroying wilderness, and heating up the atmosphere with catastrophic consequences. And this summer, so many of us felt the impact in a new way.
Let’s take a deep breath together. Was there a moment this summer when you felt scared about the weather? Or sad, or resentful, or angry, or betrayed? About the loss of peaches, or a weekend too smoky to go outside, or a place you love flooded? About loved ones stranded after a tropical storm, who didn’t have power, or who you couldn’t reach on the phone, like we couldn’t, for weeks, with Ray-ray’s aunts and uncles in Guam.
This sacred day is about those feelings, and cultivating our communal response to them. That is what we are here for. The liturgy is meant to touch our deepest fears. It is meant to connect us to generations of collective resilience, finely honed spiritual tools to help us be less numb, more connected to each other, to an experience of shared strength, and to the creativity, imagination, and possibility we need to respond to this moment.
Writer and activist Rebecca Solnit invites us to consider what we are packing for the upcoming emergency. Not in the way of survival kits, but in the way of stories, which, she writes, “strengthen or weaken us, connect or disconnect us, motivate or demoralize us… they make us who we are, and who we are has everything to do with who and what survives…We are all called upon to balance a sense of danger with a sense of possibility, to pack some of both in our kits and not let one outweigh the other. Too much of either leads to inaction. To do that means recognizing we are capable of complexity, of holding many emotions, of understanding the sheer uncertainty of the future and the possibility of shaping it, of knowing that since we cannot know outcomes ahead of time, we are also making decisions about who to be and how to live.” (Not Too Late: Changing the Climate Story from Despair to Possibility by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua)
That is the spiritual work of this season: to understand the sheer uncertainty of the future and the possibility of shaping it. We get to use the spiritual tools our ancestors gave us to help us craft our own story of this time, and to live into it fully.
I want to argue that the words hayom harat olam might be the three most important words we say today, because this phrase contains both the awareness of danger and the awareness of possibility that Solnit describes.
Held within our declaration that the world is born today is our fear that it might not be. Is our need to pray that it will be - today, and tomorrow, and the next day.
In the musaf service, the paragraph that begins with hayom harat olam, today the world is conceived, continues this way: Today all creation is called to judgment. And then we ask that God judge us with compassion and grace. Here it is: we affirm that the world will continue on its stable foundation, and we plead that our future be secure. Indeed, Rosh Hashana evolved, in part, from a Babylonian festival marking a convocation of their gods, who assembled to renew the world and judge each human being, inscribing our fate on the tablet of destiny. Among the innovations our sages added are the days between - the idea that our fate doesn’t get sealed until Yom Kippur, and really not until Hoshana Rabbah, and really not ever, because we always have the option to repent, to return, to shape the future.
Our tradition shifted the emphasis from a judgment that finalizes our fate to a judgment that invites us into accountability and change.
Another rabbinic innovation was to question whether this day of creation and day of judgment were really the same date. In a midrash (Pesikta d’Rav Kahana), Rabbi Eliezer, seeking to connect Rosh Hashana as hayom harat olam, the day the world comes into being, with Rosh Hashana as yom hadin, the day of judgment, suggests that it was humanity that was created on the first of Tishrei - making Rosh Hashana not the first but the sixth day of creation. Creation began on the 25th of Elul, but we celebrate the day humanity was created.
On the one hand, centering the impact of humanity on the planet seems apt. In this particular moment, when “what we do over this decade is literally a matter of life and death,” as climate scientist Joelle Gergis writes, devoting a day to taking accountability for human behavior seems wise, and full of transformative potential. Gergis continues, “...there is no evidence to support the notion that we are currently facing runaway climate change or the inevitability of an unlivable future…every single metric ton of carbon dioxide we prevent from entering the atmosphere lessens the severity of the impacts we bake into the system.” Every single metric ton matters. Those who still profit from the extractive economy would have us believe that it is all or nothing. That there is nothing we can do to prevent climate collapse. Or that the kind of change required is impossible. But it’s not all or nothing; every bit of change can make a life and death difference. What story can we tell that says: we will take responsibility for our human impact on the planet. We will not allow anyone to convince us to give up. As Solnit says, the stories we carry “make us who we are, and who we are has everything to do with who and what survives.”
But. Celebrating the creation of humanity on Rosh Hashana centers humanity in a dangerous way. The story that humans are separate from what we call “nature” has run its course; we are part of nature; we are of it. The only kind of stories that can save us now are the ones that hold us in an interdependent web of mutual flourishing. If the land and the water, the sun and moon and stars, the green growing things and the creepy crawling things and the land animals and the birds of the sky, and the sky itself, are just background to the human story, we will not survive.
When we say hayom harat olam, part of its power comes from imagining the world itself pregnant with possibility. Imagining that the earth is a body, a body that is vulnerable, a body that we want to protect as we would any body that carries new life inside it. The metaphor of a pregnant world animates the world. It reminds us that the earth is our kin, not a resource for us to use. A loved one to whom we might, in fact, want to sing happy birthday.
The phrase hayom harat olam doesn’t just invite us to celebrate the world’s creation. It asks us to feel it unfolding all around us.
A birthday is the anniversary of an event that happened long ago. Harat olam is present tense. With these words, teaches Rabbi Sheila Pelz Weinberg, “we can connect to the precise energy present at creation.” We need nothing less than that kind of creativity to respond to this crisis - and it is there for us, in our stories. It is there for us in the longing of our mothers, Sarah and Chana and all of them, who longed, who prayed, who schemed and dreamed and worked, who conceived and who gave birth. It is there in the story of a God who lovingly crafted us by hand, out of earth itself, made adam, humanity, out of adamah, earth, who kneaded and wove, and who inspires us to create, to craft, to build, to weave and color and knit and paint and write and sing. It is there for us in ruach elohim, the Divine breath which hovered over the waters when the world was just a swirling chaos - the Divine breath which still hovers and flows, sparks and shines.
When we say hayom harat olam, our obligation is to feel that powerful force of creative energy even as we connect to the fragility our people - all people - have always felt. To know that we exist in olam, a world, one which has not existed forever, but whose origins and slow evolution are distant and awe-inspiring; and to hope that our future be as long, and slowly evolving, and awe-inspiring as our past.
Hope, Rebecca Solnit wrote, “is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky… hope is an ax you break down doors with in an emergency.” The words hayom harat olam must illuminate in us a hope that is both wildly imaginative, and concrete, rooting in knowing how much we have already won.
This year, Mayor Michelle Wu announced her plan for all of Boston’s public housing units to be fossil fuel free by 2030. This means renovating them for better health, comfort, housing stability, and energy usage. This means that the people in our city who are most likely to suffer from the impacts of climate change will be first to benefit from the solutions that mitigate and adapt to it. It is an ambitious plan and yet a tiny piece of the extraordinary success of the climate movement in the past fifteen years. And every step towards achieving it will have real impacts. Every apartment that no longer has a gas stove means a kid less likely to suffer from asthma. Every apartment with a heat pump means a family more likely to be able to pay their utility bills. This is what it means to say every bit of change can have life and death consequences.
To know the immensity of the struggle and to commit to the work of incremental change is a hard spiritual and emotional balance. It may be easier to be overwhelmed or to be numb. It may be easier to reassure ourselves that whatever we are doing is enough. And many people in this community are doing powerful work, in many different fields, around this issue. I invite you to ask yourself what else you are going to do this year? If you are already doing climate work, how can you expand your conversation? Who else can you bring into the work? If you aren’t already, can you make some of the work you do climate work? The conversation needs to be happening everywhere, in every field, on every level, and it needs to be happening together. Rabbi Laura Bellows, who directs Spiritual Activism and Education at the Jewish climate organization Dayenu, says that “one of the best individual climate actions you can do is to become less of an individual.”
Together, we have to access the power of being alive hayom, today, harat in an always changing, ever-renewing, astonishingly creative and endlessly possible, world, olam, with awareness of vulnerability and a wild hope that the power of what has been and the hope of what can be will enough to move us to make it be.
It might feel like a song that sings happy birthday to the world is a little trite. But I don’t think so. Yesterday was my nibbling Jesse’s sixth birthday and I know there is nothing trite about getting to say I love you to someone we love. There is nothing trite about giving thanks that someone we love is still here, and hoping that the coming year be one of safety and growth and joy for them. There is nothing trite about remembering who we belong to. And when that is the earth, we get to sing it all together.
Hayom, hayom, harat olam.
Happy birthday world.