Rosh Hashanah 5768: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

Hayom Harat Olam: Today is Eternally Pregnant

The life of a rabbi can be difficult. The phone rings: someone has lost a child. There’s been a sudden death of a beloved teacher in the community. An illness, an accident, a tragedy has claimed the life of someone dear to us. As familiar as these occurrences are to me, it still feels different when these phone calls are about someone within our family circle. Nearly three weeks ago, my cousin Leo’s wife, Melanie, was taking their son, Max, to college back east when, out of the blue, she had an aneurism in her brain. This aneurism has caused paralysis that has left her in the hospital, 3,000 miles from home, in a valiant struggle to recover. While our family are hopeful and prayerful that a good outcome is yet possible, Melanie’s experience made it painfully clear to me how incredibly fragile our lives are.

U’n’taneh tokef, from the High Holy Day musaf service, presents us with a picture of life that is challenging and unsettling: Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? Who serenely and who in turmoil? In fact, we don’t like to believe that such things are decreed in heaven at the start of each year, that each of our fates are sealed here and now in the Book of Life. Perhaps, the difficulty many of us have with the picture presented by this liturgy is not that we don’t believe that it’s true, but precisely the opposite: In light of all of the loss that is a part of life, we know that it is true, that the underlying implications are absolutely true, and this knowledge terrifies us.

For me, this U’n’taneh Tokef prayer, when you listen for its emotional content, evokes a startling and overwhelming anxiety about the uncertainty of life. The Jewish New Year begins with a sobering reminder that each day life is lived without any guarantees. “Who will live and who shall die?” None of us knows the answer.

So why begin our year with such somber thoughts? Should we not be rejoicing at the gift of another year? What is the spiritual message of this focus and how are we to respond to, let alone embrace, an awareness of the overwhelming impermanence and transience of life?

Somehow, though we crave stability and yearn to be in control, we must create a construct that will allow us to continue to live with these losses each and every day. With the potential for our sense of order and predictability to be upset at any moment, we must find an approach, an attitude, that embraces life and living. One approach to this realization of life’s fragility is some variety of: Eat, Drink and Be Merry for tomorrow we die. A kind of brash and cavalier response to our mortality by living with a reckless abandon that justifies every kind of behavior in light of the brevity of our days.

There is, on the other hand, a more spiritual response to the fragility of life. This insight, taught to me by Reb Marcia Prager, is based on a re-reading (and perhaps a more accurate reading) of that familiar verse from the Shofar service that we will chant in just a bit: HaYom Harat Olam. Traditionally it is translated (as I discussed last night) as “Today the world is born” or “Today is the birthday of the world.” But “Olam” in Hebrew can mean “world” (as in Melech ha olam) or it can mean “eternal” (as in L’olam va’ed, forever and ever.) The actual phrase “harat olam” originally comes from Jeremiah 20:17 where Jeremiah bemoans his fate as a prophet and wishes that he had never been born; that his mother had been “harat olam”, eternally pregnant. (Harah can mean birth or pregnant) So, now, our verse in the Shofar service reads: “HaYom Harat Olam, Today is eternally pregnant.” Today, the now, each moment, is always pregnant, eternally filled with potential and possibility; even when we are confronted with great sadness and loss, as we all inevitably are at some time.

This, I believe, is the direction that the U’n’taneh Tokef prayer is guiding us. It is just so easy to be asleep to life, to take it for granted. We are meantto be startled by u’n’taneh tokef’s message into a great awakening to the preciousness of life, perhaps by virtue of its precariousness. Wake up! Pay attention! Look at what a gift you hold in your hands! Today is a gift, don’t waste it! If we could grasp this notion in our hearts and kishkes (guts), then we would live not with reckless abandon but embrace each exquisite opportunity for what it is and not squander our time away in vain pursuits or silly arguments that diminish life’s infinite value. HaYom Harat Olam: life is no longer one barren string of moments flapping on the line into eternity but a dazzling array of possibilities, one after another, each a gift, waiting to be opened, eternally.

Today is eternally pregnant and Rosh Hashanah’s blast of the shofar stirs us, calls us to awareness, so that we might embrace our lives with open arms. For we understand, nothing is forever. So we must face our anxiety about the transience of life by inhabiting our lives as fully as possible, and by living each moment as completely as possible. This means that we must go into our lives, not around them. This also means being very present, even for the darkest moments. This means embracing what is, and being completely alive in each moment.

May we use the message of the U’n’taneh Tokef on this Rosh Hashanah to love our friends and family more deeply; to care for our partners and children more fully. Knowing and accepting loss as a part of life, may we all go forward in this New Year to cherish all our connections with one another, in every experience and opportunity before us.

ken y’hi ratzon

Rabbi Greg Wolfe