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September 21, 2020

Birthing the New Year 5781: Break. Breathe. Push (Rosh HaShanah 5781/2020)

Angela W. Buchdahl

For millennia—
we Jews have celebrated the arrival of the new year with 3 words:
Hayom Harat Olam
Today is the world’s birthday!
But this year doesn’t feel like a typical birthday celebration.
For one—
It’s not much of a party without you all here.
But that’s not the only reason.
As we approached this milestone—
with a virus still very much out of control 
with deep economic distress and social unrest, 
and just when you think it couldn’t get any worse, 
RBG dies—
the mood this Rosh Hashanah feels more like a birthday
you’d rather avoid facing.
This Rosh Hashanah, 
when we read the opening line of the Unetanetokef prayer:
“This day is awesome and full of dread,”
I think we all feel a lot less awesome, 
and a lot more dread.

Yet we will still announce: Hayom Harat Olam
“Today is the Birthday of the World!”
But in truth, that’s a cheerfully pediatric translation of the phrase.
The literal translation announces:
“Today is the conception of the world.”
Harah in Hebrew, means conception or pregnancy, 
and not coincidentally, we find that word 
in both the Torah and haftarah readings this morning:

Vatahar vateled Sarah.  
Sarah conceived and gave birth.

Vatahar Hannah vateled ben.  
Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son.

In the Jewish tradition, we don’t say mazel tov or “Congratulations!” 
when we learn that someone is pregnant.
And there’s a reason for that.
We recognize that there is still a lot of uncertainty 
and potential for loss between pregnancy and birth.
Instead, we say b’sha’ah tovah: “In good time.” 

Hayom Harat Olam
“Today the world is pregnant,
Now that feels like a truer translation 
for this Rosh Hashanah, 5781.
We’re not yet feeling the joy and celebration of a “birth day”
but rather, perhaps, the cautious optimism that this new year is pregnant 
with possibilities for new life and blessing.


But I will be honest, there have been times over this last year 
when I could not even muster “cautious optimism.”
I read the news, I look at our half-emptied city, 
I see the west coast in flames
and I feel despondent. Furious. And scared.
But these same feelings of despair and helplessness 
surround the origin of harat Olam in our sacred text.

This strange phrase, harat Olam, is first uttered by Jeremiah
when he saw his prophecies falling on deaf ears.
In desperation, he curses the day he was born.
He laments that God did not allow his mother’s womb to be his tomb, 
and he wishes that his mother had remained harat olam—
eternally pregnant. 

My first thought was deep compassion for Jeremiah
that he was in such crisis over the state of the world 
that he would wish he were never born.
But then my mind went to his mother—
Can you imagine what it would be like to be eternally pregnant?!
Now that would be a crisis.

What if took the original context as our guide 
and we said this Rosh Hashanah: 
“Today is a day of Eternal Pregnancy.”
announcing that we would be stuck here 
in the womb of this quarantine—forever?
We would all despair.
It would be a crisis of epic proportions.

But you may have heard the Jewish proverb: 
“Never let a good crisis go to waste.”
Ok, it’s actually Winston Churchill 
who is usually credited with saying that, 
but our tradition anticipated his sentiment by over 3000 years. 
Because if you know our history, 
you know that we Jews were built for crisis.
And if there is one thing I have come to appreciate recently—
it’s that our texts and liturgy, 
most which were written during some famine, exile, 
Crusade, or pogrom, 
feel like they are speaking to me more than ever in this moment.
Because, actually, this isn’t unprecedented.
We’ve been here before.


In a Hartman study session I participated in this summer 
with the remarkable Melila Hellner Eshed, she pointed out that mashber
the Hebrew word for “crisis”,
has a root that appears 3 different ways in the Hebrew Bible.
Together—these 3 examples offer a roadmap 
for how we can emerge from the darkness of this crisis
and help birth a new year.

The first time we see the Hebrew root of mashber comes in Exodus. 
Moses has been on top of Mt. Sinai for 40 days, 
while God inscribed a Covenant with the Israelites.
But the Jewish people are impatient and fearful—they lose faith.
When Moses comes down and sees the Israelites 
dancing in front of a Golden Calf, the Torah tells us:
Vayashleych M’yadav…v’yishaber otam 
“he throws down the tablets in a rage and breaks them.”
V’yishaber—the first appearance of this word for crisis 

But why does Moses shatter the Covenant?
He already knows what the Israelites have done 
because God has told him
along with God’s plan to destroy them all.
And level-headed Moses has pleaded on their behalf, 
and convinced God NOT to destroy them.

So why then does he break the Tablets when he descends the mountain?
Perhaps it wasn’t internal rage, but rather an external show:
when the Israelites built that golden calf, 
they had already broken their covenant—
but they weren’t yet ready or willing to acknowledge it.
Only after seeing the broken tablets 
do the Israelites repent, and rededicate themselves.
God forgives and gives them a new set of Tablets, 
which human beings help inscribe, 
on which a stronger, better covenant could be made.

During this Pandemic crisis, after the killing of George Floyd, 
protests against racial injustice have roiled our cities.
But, if we are honest, 
we will admit that our country’s covenant with African Americans 
wasn’t newly violated with George Floyd’s death. 
It was broken long ago.
What gives me hope, is that out of this crisis, 
Americans are finally seeing it.
The shattering of our nation’s complacency, 
and the breaking of our collective silence, 
is the first step toward repentance and repair.
So that—with our own hands—
we might etch a better, stronger covenant, 
which ensures equity, dignity and safety 
for our Black and Brown brothers and sisters.


The next time we find the root for the word crisis, mashber 
is in the Book of Jonah, the prophetic book 
our people traditionally read on Yom Kippur afternoon.
Jonah is called by God to go to the people of Ninevah 
and tell them to repent.
But he has no interest in helping them.
He tries to flee from God by boat 
and ends up cast overboard
where Jonah says in the text: 
Y’soveveini kol mishbarecha 
“Your breakers crashed down around me.”

Here the word crisis shares the same root as breakers, 
those giant, pounding ocean waves 
that can overwhelm and engulf us.
Jonah searches for air but his lungs can’t find it—
we can imagine his terror
As he thinks—I can’t breathe.
I. Can’t. Breathe.

But Jonah was fortunate.  He doesn’t die.
God delivers a great fish to swallow him.
and he finds his breath—in the belly of a whale.
It’s a respite from the storm, even as it is…
solitary confinement.
Jonah is there for 3 days. 
He prays, reflects, and comes to understand his purpose.
Jonah is transformed.

Over the last 6 months, 
as the coronavirus made landfall on our shores 
and waves of this pandemic rippled out from city to city,
many of us, the fortunate ones whose lives permitted it, 
have taken shelter from the storm
in our own kind of solitary confinement at home.

I ask you:
What have you learned about yourself in this time?
How has this crisis forced you to think about what is important?
What really matters to you?
What are your spiritual anchors when life is uncertain?
What have you taken for granted?

In our busy, full lives, 
it is easy to get tossed from one thing to the next 
without a chance to pause.
To lead an unexamined life.
But if this pandemic has shown us anything 
it is that we should not waste our opportunity, 
while in the belly of the whale,
to take a deep breath.
That breath—enables an accounting of our soul.
So that we can emerge, like Jonah, 
with a new understanding of our meaning and purpose 
and God’s call to us.


The third appearance of the Hebrew root of mashber, of crisis
can be found in the book of Isaiah,
“This is a day of distress…” he says
Ki va-u vanim ad mashber, v’choach ayn l’leydah
“the babies have reached the birthstool,
but there isn’t the strength to give birth.” 
The birthstool was the primitive chair, 
usually built of 2 stones, on which a mother sat in labor.
How brilliant of our ancestors to understand 
crisis as the seat of new birth.
But Isaiah writes that at this most regenerative, hopeful, 
high-stakes moment 
on the verge of birthing life
sometimes we don’t have the strength to PUSH.

If you’ve ever been in labor,
you know that there is a moment 
when you don’t feel like you’re birthing,
you feel like you’re dying.
And that line between life and death, it’s not imaginary.
There is real peril and indescribable pain
in every miraculous birth.
At some point, despite the fatigue and the fog, 
like Sarah and Hannah, and our mothers before us—
we know we need to find the strength
and we have to PUSH.
After all—we don’t have a choice.
We can’t stay eternally pregnant.

Our city, our nation, our entire world, 
is in the throes of some serious contractions—
Protests and riots, hurricanes and wildfires,
and a persistent, insistent virus that has shuttered businesses
and taken nearly a million lives.
We despair because it feels like 
everything around us is dying
our economy, our democracy, our planet.
But I believe 
that the pain and convulsions we are feeling
are not the last shudders of death and demise,
but the labor pains of a new world, 
longing to be born.

Take our beloved New York City—
the waves of this pandemic have exposed so much brokenness:
devastating inequities in healthcare,
and childcare
and education.  
We see increasing homelessness, closer to home than ever,
testing the compassion of neighborhoods.
But in truth: these are not new problems.
These injustices existed long before the pandemic,
only now we are forced to really see them.
And you can’t fix something until you acknowledge it is broken.

Instead of despairing—
we must recognize this pain for what it is—
the first, necessary step for our city’s rebirth.

Because every birth begins with a breaking.


Think of the times before that our city was broken—
After the New York Stock Exchange crashed in the 30’s
And near bankruptcy in the 70’s
And our Twin Towers falling on 9/11—
each time, people declared this city “Dead.”

But New Yorkers looked directly at the brokenness
and we faced it.
We took a deep breath.
And remembered who we were.  
Then we found our grit and we pushed forward.
And out of those dark chapters, our city was reborn, 
stronger than ever.

And now we are here once more. 
These past six months have been hell 
and we are only certain 
that there is still more uncertainty ahead…
But Jewish tradition teaches us:
We know how to do this. We have been here before.

Our tradition is midwifing us — holding and coaching us —- 
through this latest crisis with these 3 ancient instructions:

Hayom Harat Olam
Make today the World’s Birthday.
Not just another birthday—but the day of the world’s BIRTH.
This holiday urges us forward, 
even when we’re not sure we have the strength—
believe that you do.

Because this new world must be born

B’Sha’ah Tova
In good time.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.

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