Really proud of this Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon at Temple Ner Tamidreflecting on this newest stage of life:
A little over a week ago, I became a father. These past ten day have been in a way, a rehearsal for me for the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Between feedings, changings, and swaddlings, I’ve had the opportunity to do the kind of reflection, emblematic at this time of year. I’ve taken an account of who I am, what is important to me, and where I want to go. And I’ve been reflecting a lot on where I was only a few short weeks ago.
Rosh Hashanah is a time of birth and rebirth. Tomorrow, we will read the account of our patriarch Isaac’s birth. We will also read in our Haftarah about the miraculous birth of Samuel, son of Hannah, who struggled with infertility and I imagine would find a whole sermon on becoming a father painful. For those people, I want to say, we see you, love you, and are here for you.
But more than anything, Rosh Hashanah is a fitting time to become a parent because it is, according to our prayer book, the “birthday of the world” a funny misnomer because Rosh Hashanah does not commemorate God’s beginning the act of creation with the words “let there be light” but rather the sixth day of creation, the day that we humans appear.
Yet, what we may not know is that though we call today the “birthday of the world” the Hebrew that we are translating does not mean this. After we blow shofar tomorrow we will declare, HaYom Harat Olam. And to understand what this phrase means, we need to look into its context.
HaYom Harat Olam was not uttered triumphantly by God as God moulded us and breathed life into us. Instead it was said by the Prophet Jeremiah in a moment of utter grief and exasperation. There is no questions that Jeremiah led a tough life. As Abraham Joshua Heschel explains about the life of the prophet:
The prophet is a lonely man. He alienates the wicked as well as the pious, the cynics as well as the believers, the priests and the princes, the judges and the false prophets. But to be a prophet means to challenge and to defy and to cast out fear.
Jeremiah was perhaps the loneliest of all. His message came at a time when society was particularly corrupt and would not heed his calls for teshuvah, for repentance. He spoke in the timbre of ethics and was met with nothing but scorn and contempt. He’s laughed at, ridiculed, and even placed in the stocks. In one heart-wrenching moment, Jeremiah cries out to God:
I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the Lord has brought me insult and reproach all day long. (Jer 20:7)
Later in his outpouring of sorrow, Jeremiah utters those tragic words, the odd inspiration for our Rosh Hashanah prayer:
Accursed be the man Who brought my father the news And said, “A boy Is born to you,” And gave him such joy!...—Because he did not kill me before birth So that my mother might be my grave, And her womb (harat olam) eternally pregnant (Jer 20:15-17)
Years later, the authors of our High Holy Day prayers took these words and flipped them on their heads. Olam can mean eternity or it can simply mean world, since for them looking at the vastness around them, they were the same. Harat usually means pregnant but in rare cases it can be used to speak about birth as well. Thus the moan of Jeremiah goes from a futile wish to remain in his mother’s womb to a statement about the world’s birth.
Poor Jeremiah, such a hard life. Yet, notice what he says. His wish is not that he was never conceived. His wish is not that he did not exist. It is that his mother remains, harat olam, literally eternally pregnant with him.
And it’s this sentiment that I found myself thinking about over the first few days of Lev’s life. Birth is a scary thing (not just because you might labor for 41 hours like Ayelet did only to end up in a C-section). No, birth is scary because pregnancy is pregnant with possibility. And life, by nature is limiting.
Our ancient Rabbis understood this. There is a famous story in our tradition that while in the womb a child is omniscient. He or she knows all the secrets of the world and can see from one end of the universe to the other. Then, right before birth an angel comes and touches them below the nose and above their lips, leaving an indentation and causing them to forget everything they knew before. The process of growing up and attaining wisdom is actually the process of re-learning.
One of the things that makes this text so profound is what is says about birth. Before we are born we have every possibility before us. Because we have not yet lived, we have not limited ourselves. The longer we exist on this earth the more set is our path. Changing careers gets harder as you get older. You can’t unbirth your children. Your behavior patterns become like grooves in your character, worn deeper with age. Most people will change with age by becoming more of themselves.
But that’s not the way it is before we take our first breath. Yes, we are limited by who our parents are, where we live, what society we are born into. Yet, before us is an infinite number of paths. And what is scary about living is that as we walk those paths we inevitably make the choice to ignore others. Instead of the fetus who can see the universe before him or her and head off in a mirad of directions we instead are subject to the life we lead. Our parents, our schools, friends, our religion all take us down a road helping us meander and turn until we are so far down it, we cannot turn around and go back.
When Jeremiah asked that his mother be harat olam, eternally pregnant, what he is saying is that he wishes those infinite paths were before him. He doesn’t want to be born, to take that first breath because from that moment onward his life will never be as broad. He will open his eyes and grow into the the young man who God notices and calls to deliver the Divine message. But if he remains unborn, he will never set down the path of ridicule and pain he has come to know.
Though we might not admit it, Jeremiah’s sentiment is a universal one. Sometimes we are so enamored with the wide futures before us that we cannot take that first step into it.
I’ve always loved the scene in Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut, where a character named Kilmore Trout is making a decision to leave home on a journey. In a mirror of his own experience, he opens his pet parakeet’s cage and positions him by the window, daring him to fly away. Immediately, his pet turns around and flies back into his pen. Remarking on the oddity of the bird’s reaction, Trout snipes, “That's the most intelligent [thing] I ever heard of. You made sure you'd still have something worth wishing for - to get out of the cage” (pg. 35).
Vonnegut teach us that we all carry a piece of Jeremiah within ourselves. Whether the parakeet’s cage or the safety of home, a piece of us often wants to remain eternally in the womb. We know that the dreams of the future will always be more vast than the future itself.
And much of the problem for us is that infinite possibility is paralyzing. As strange as it sounds now, with all the controversy surrounding him, Aziz Ansari wrote a book with sociologist Eric Klinenberg about the problems with dating in this era. In this book, Modern Romance, the two speak about what makes choosing a mate in the 21st century much more complicated than it has ever been. They explain that as opposed to the Ansari’s grandparent who had little choice but to marry one another, today, with the internet we can scroll down and see hundreds of possibilities. Since falling in love is always a little imperfect as we come to terms with those things about another that we have to learn to live with, our modern technology dangles the profiles of countless potential individuals with the potential to be an even better matches.
This sentiment is echoed in the insightful and entertaining Ted talk, The Paradox of Choice by psychologist Barry Schwartz. In it he explains the reason why it was so much easier for me to shop in my little Brooklyn co-ops before coming to suburbs to the warehouses you call supermarkets:
Paralysis is a consequence of having too many choices...You really want to get the decision right if it's for all eternity, right? You don't want to pick the wrong mutual fund, or the wrong salad dressing…[and[ even if we manage to overcome the paralysis and make a choice, we end up less satisfied with the result of the choice than we would be if we had fewer options to choose from. And there are several reasons for this. One of them is that with a lot of different salad dressings to choose from, if you buy one, and it's not perfect -- and what salad dressing is? -- it's easy to imagine you could have made a different choice that would have been better. And what happens is this imagined alternative induces you to regret the decision you made, and this regret subtracts from the satisfaction you get out of the decision you made, even if it was a good decision. The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose.
But if we don’t have to choose, if we never cross the starting line then we never have to worry. If life is messy, complicated, and full of compromise then how glorious to only have the imagined, perfect path before us.
Thankfully we can’t choose to be harat olam, forever in the womb, because despite the fact that our lives cannot match our imagined expectations, living in this world is truly amazing.
In contrast to Jeremiah, our tradition tells the story of Abraham who lived in Ur in Mesopotamia nearly 3,500 years ago. He too was in a sort of womb, though his was the Fertile Crescent. Though we may have learned in school that God one day called Abraham out of the blue and told him to leave his home and travel to Israel to start a new nation, the Jewish people, our Rabbis understood the story differently.
They imagine that Abraham did not fit in with his society. Where others worshiped idols, he believed in one God. In fact, he was so outspoken about his faith that they imagine that the king at the time, Nimrod, threw Abraham into a furnace for his iconoclasm. Abraham yearned to find a land to settle away from all the baggage of home.
Thus when God calls to Abraham, Lech Lecha, go forth, it was not a call from nowhere. Instead, God was asking Abraham to do what he had always wanted but was too scared. God wanted Abraham to journey on, to the land of Canaan, even if it did not live up to his expectations. And it wouldn’t. Abraham, who our Rabbis teach, dreamed of tilling the fertile soil of his future homeland was met with a horrible drought and needed to travel to Egypt to get food. Read the Torah and we find he was met with trial after trial from the minute he entered the land: war, family disputes, infertility. Life was not easy for him and his future was much worse than he ever dreamed it would be.
But it was also beautiful. Amidst the stories of trouble we have tales of faith. Among the discord we find acts of love. Between the lines of sorrow we have births and sacrifices, growth and joy. Because Abraham did not live with eternal possibility, because he blazed a path, we know his story. Living, moving forward necessitates some of the deepest courage we can muster, but if we do, what an amazing ride we are in store for.
Every year, when we recite HaYom Harat Olam we take Abraham’s journey and like him (and like my son) we are born anew. Each year is pregnant with infinite possibilities. And every Rosh Hashanah we mark the fact that we moved from millions of opportunities before us now, each of which gets shortened with each passing day, until there is only one, the road we traveled that ended at Sundown today, our past year.
And that process is also mimicked at the macro level during the Ten Days of Awe, the Yamim Noraim. For if Rosh Hashanah is when we step out of the womb then Yom Kippur, the day when we don’t eat, wear a white shroud, and stare into an empty ark during the singing of Kol Nidre, meant to remind us of our open casket, symbolizes our death. Thus in ten days we learn to move from infinite possibility of life to the finiate finality of breathing our last breath. In essence, every Rosh Hashanah, we mourn the many paths we could take in this world and we throw ourselves into the one we follow.
It was certainly easier for Lev to stay in the womb (though it would not have been easier for Ayelet). But now he’s born. In the coming months I’ll see amazing things from him. I’ll watch him discover that he had hands, and then I’ll watch him choose how he uses those hands to make a mark on the world. I’ll see him take his first steps and then I’ll watch him march toward his passions, even as he walks away from others. I’ll feed him his first solid food and he will develop his own tastes, every meal being a microcosm of the millions of things he won’t eat in order to choose one he will.
And I’ll watch it all from the frontlines, cheering him on and guiding him the best I can. Life will not be easy, it never is. I hope he doesn’t have a life like Jeremiah. I expect he’ll have one like Abraham with its ups and downs. But he’ll live. And often, I hope, he will thrive. From the moment he came from the womb his future began to shrink, but luckily at the same time, his world began to grow.
He may very well be at the earliest stage in that journey but each of us is somewhere along it as well. Though we have so many possibilities before us we cannot be afraid to choose a direction. As Lewis Carol explained, ‘In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.”
On this day, Hayom Harat Olam, the day eternally pregnant with possibility, do the most courageous thing you can, march forward in your life. Take chances and choose sides. Our world is beautiful because it is full of people who steps out into it, unencumbered by the paralysis of choice, and got busy marking their mark.