Angela W. Buchdahl | September 17, 2012
I was born a Jew. At least, I thought I was. Growing up, I had no reason to question my Jewish credentials. I suffered through Hebrew School like the other Jews. I chanted a mean Torah at my bat mitzvah. And I was president of my temple youth group.
So it was more than a little shocking when I went to Israel at age sixteen and my Orthodox roommate broke the news to me: “Angela, you know you’re not really Jewish.” She explained that because of my non-Jewish mother, I didn’t meet the traditional legal definition of “who is a Jew.”
My entire identity and worldview collapsed. I felt like a fraud. And it seemed like everyone I loved had been in on the ruse: my parents, my rabbi, even my sweet Jewish grandmother. My initial impulse was to want to leave Israel immediately—to rush back to the nurturing womb of my home community where no one questioned my Judaism. But now that I had this crucial information, there was no recapturing that sense of security or innocence.
I went off to college two years later with my identity still in upheaval. I suffered a true existential crisis for years, but felt unable to clarify who I was. Approaching my college graduation, I shared my story with a well-respected rabbi whom I met at a Jewish conference. He listened with compassion, and then suggested giyur, which is a conversion ceremony.
“But I was BORN Jewish!” I cried out.
“Of course you were,” he responded. “But conversion does not reject or negate who you were before. It’s an opportunity to affirm and create who you want to be right now.” Hearing those words, something softened in me. And for the first time, I embraced the idea. A few months later, I dipped in the waters of a mikvah in Seattle, and was rebirthed, again, as a Jew.
That brief encounter changed my life. Don’t get me wrong—I probably still would have become a cantor and rabbi. And even without the giyur, I still believe that I was born a Jew. But I learned that I had the power to recreate myself. I did not have to accept the definitions of others, or even my family of origin, to determine who I would be in that moment. And as I continued my Jewish studies, I learned that our tradition invites this re-creation and even ritualizes the possibility for our renewal each year.
Today, this holiday of Rosh Hashanah, is all about creation, about the birth of this year, and of ourselves. We’re not only supposed to recharge and reflect, but to re-create. Words from our High Holiday liturgy proclaim: “Hayom harat olam!—Today the world is born!”
Notice that those Hebrew words, “hayom harat olam,” are uttered in the present tense. Today the world is born. This is not only the anniversary of the day the world was created, some 5,773 years ago (give or take a few billion); Rosh HaShanah marks an ongoing creation that is happening right now. It is the mandate for creation today, this year, this moment, for each one of us.
Most prayer books translate the words hayom harat olam as “Today the world is born.” But a closer look at the Hebrew reveals other possibilities. The most straightforward word, hayom, simply means “today.” Olam can mean “world,” a word that’s become quite familiar from the phrase tikkun olam, “repairing the world.” But olam can also mean “forever” or “eternal,” as in the phrase l’olam va’ed. And harat, which we usually see translated as “born,” comes from the Hebrew word for pregnancy, herayon.
So when we put all that together, the phrase Hayom harat olam could also translate as “Today is pregnant with the eternal possibilities of Creation.” 1 How amazing to imagine this Rosh HaShanah posing the sacred challenge that any dream, any vision of ourselves, any new identity is possible.
The circumstances of our birth are only the starting point of our creation. We are then born and reborn in a constant process of re-creation. The acceptance of this reality is both profoundly invigorating and sometimes deeply destabilizing.
Creating ourselves anew is not always a process that we welcome. Come to think of it, being pregnant with eternal possibilities sounds rather uncomfortable—the growing bulge of limitless options can be overwhelming, and all the growth and gestation required for true change can even make us feel alien from our own bodies.
You may be sitting here this morning thinking, “I don’t want to be pregnant with possibilties! Can’t I just hold onto things just like this… for a little while?” While our Rosh HaShanah service heralds “Today the world is born!” with shofar blasts and great joy, the original source for this liturgical statement was not one of celebration, but a desperate cry of resistance to being created at all.
The first utterance of the words Harat olam comes from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah the prophet was a first-class kvetch—not that he didn’t have good reason. He was saddled with the task of chastising people over and over, urging them to change their ways, and he begged God to relieve him of this burdensome charge. But God refused to let Jeremiah off the hook, saying to him, “You were born for this.”. Jeremiah responds, “Then I curse the day I was born… I wish that I had never left my mother’s womb, that she remained harat olam, eternally pregnant, and I safe there forever.” 2
While we all may not have felt the desperation and bleakness that Jeremiah felt, of wishing we had never been born, I’d venture to say we’ve each had our moments when we wish we could shirk our responsibilities or burdens, return to a simpler time; crawl back into the womb, so to speak. Sometimes our challenges, and our traumas, even our opportunities, seem to require more from us than we think we can handle. It can be exhausting and consuming to live a life that demands constant creation and re-creation.
But not always does creation have to be so labored. Sometimes the birthing of new identities and new stages of life proceed without seeming effort, like the familiar creation story from Genesis where “God said, ‘Let there be Light!’ and there was Light. And it was good.” For God, a simple separation of light and darkness creates a day and night in a predictable and undemanding process. And also for us, sometimes our creation process can be that straightforward: we grow up, separate from our parents, go to school, get a job, each in its proper day, just as we expected and just as was expected of us. We say, “Let there be college/marriage/a promotion!” and it is so. And it was good.
But we know it’s never quite that simple, is it? And if it’s any consolation, I don’t think Creation was so easy for God either. If all that God had to do to create was issue a few commands in a really awesome voice, then why would the Almighty Lord need to rest? Perhaps each day of creating really did demand much more from God. On this Rosh HaShanah, this day celebrating the world’s birth, consider a lesser-known Creation account, also from our tradition, found in the book of Job, spoken by God from out of a whirlwind:
“Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, if you are so wise…Were you there when I stopped the waters, as they issued gushing from the womb? When I wrapped the ocean in clouds and swaddled the sea in shadows?” 3
God is saying, “Guess what—this birthing the world project—it’s messy and a little frightening! It’s strenuous work to create, but in the end, when you embrace the miracle of new life, the creation is worth it.”
I hope that in your own life, you have not been tested like Job, who lost all of his children and wealth and was afflicted with a terrible disease. I know that some of you have been. But you may all resonate with the challenge of how hard and frightening it is to reconceive of yourself when you find your world changing around you. How many times have you felt that you were starting again—after an illness, a new job, a divorce, a child’s graduation, a spouse’s death. With each of these sometimes inevitable and sometimes completely surprising life events, we have the potential, whether we want to or not, to recreate ourselves—to come out on the other side embracing the miracle of new life.
I don’t think I fully appreciated the truth of how at every age we are born and reborn until I had a conversation with a congregant this past spring. She is part of a Wise Aging discussion group at Central. She declared, “I think the decade between sixty and seventy is when the most change happens in a person’s life.”
I was skeptical. “Really?!” I said. “How could the changes from sixty to seventy compete with the decade between, say, ten and twenty, when we move from childhood to adulthood? Or twenty and thirty, when many of us graduate from college, get married, and perhaps become a parent?” I kept to myself what I was really thinking: ”I don’t know exactly when we really become grownup, but I certainly thought at sixty, you were there!”
She defended her assertion: “At sixty,” she said, “many people are often at the peak of their careers, managing their law firms, heading their medical practices, and they’re seeing their kids go to college or graduate. By sixty-five, some are retiring or forced into retirement. Then by seventy, the vast majority are no longer working, no longer actively needed by their kids, and for the first time in their lives, don’t have a structure to dictate their days. Identities that they relied on are often completely gone. This chapter necessitates a new life, and new meaning.”
I was persuaded. This congregant had underscored a basic truth, that there really is no time in our lifespan in which our own creation ends. In fact our Torah reading this morning began with God answering Sarah’s prayers for a child, and making her a mother—at age ninety! Abraham was a ripe one hundred. I guess it’s never too late for romance.
But if that example rings with Biblical hyperbole, know that Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa at the age of seventy-six. Julia Child wrote her first cookbook in midlife and her television debut came when she was fifty-one. Roget only began compiling his monumental thesaurus at the age of seventy—as a retirement project. And Rabbi Akiva, one of our tradition’s greatest scholars, only began learning his aleph bet at the age of forty, which in those days was already one foot in the grave. 4
If Sarah was ninety when she had Isaac, then we know that at any age, we can be pregnant with the eternal possibilities of Creation. How will you create yourself again this year? Will you have the courage to pursue a new career path? Will you mend a broken relationship? Will you learn the aleph bet—even at this age? Will you open your heart to find a companion after your loved one has gone? Will you take care of your body and soul? Will you make room for God in your life?
Hayom harat olam. Today, all of this is possible.
In a few moments, you will hear the sound of the shofar. The modern scholar DovBer Pinson once wrote, “The shofar is the midwife of the new year.” This year, think of its cries as birth pangs. 5 Today my new self is being born. Today is pregnant with eternity. Today, I find the power that God gave me to create myself anew. We’re asked today not just to accept a new birth but to conceive one, to move assertively, courageously forward into this day of regeneration, of Rosh HaShanah.
Hayom harat olam. This Rosh Hashanah day we are pregnant with the eternal possibilities of creation.
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