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Hayom Harat Olam: Today the World is “Eternally Pregnant” Part 1 – erev Rosh Hashana

As I first began to conceive of my High Holy Day sermons, my family was eagerly anticipating the birth of my nephew. On erev Tisha B’Av, about four days before his due date, I casually texted my brother and sister-in-law, saying, “No pressure, but according to the Jewish tradition, if the baby is born before sundown tomorrow, he could be the Messiah.”

My brother and sister-in-law had also been rooting for the little one to arrive that weekend, in part so that he might share a birthday with Neil Armstrong, and in part to ease my sister-in-law’s discomfort at being pregnant in August. They hadn’t even considered the teaching that the darkest day of the Jewish calendar, commemorating the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, might also be the day that the Messiah is born.

We acknowledge the redemptive potential of birth every time we welcome a child into the covenant of the Jewish people. Our baby naming liturgy says that:

“Every child comes into the world with a message,

That God is not discouraged with us.

For with every child comes the hope for new possibilities.…

Each new soul is testimony to our conviction

That we still believe that life is good” (L’chol Z’man Va’eit, p. 9).

Our Rosh Hashana machzor is rich with narratives about the redemptive power of pregnancy and childbirth. This imagery signifies hope, possibilities, and the potential for renewal. In our shofar service, we proclaim, hayom harat olam, usually translated as “Today is the day of the world’s birth,” or, “Today the world is born anew.”

But harat olam does not actually mean the “birthday of the world.” Anyone who has ever received a birthday call from me knows that “birthday” in Hebrew is yom huledet. Harat olam doesn’t connote birth, but rather pregnancy. And in its original context, its most accurate translation is kind of terrifying: harat olam means “eternally pregnant.”

Rabbi Naomi Levy writes:

“[Hayom harat olam] is … a phrase spoken by the prophet Jeremiah in a moment of utter despair. Jeremiah spent his career offering the word of God to the Jewish people. Jeremiah pleaded with them to change their ways and stop the corruption, the sins, the materialism, the empty rituals and the shallow prayers. Did they listen to him? No. Instead they scorned him and ignored him. Jeremiah became dejected. He was sick of being a prophet who never got heard. … … ‘If only my mother had not given birth to me,” [he said,] V’rachma harat olam. If only her womb was pregnant forever’” (Einstein and the Rabbi p. 118).

At this point, you might be guessing at the ideological direction of this sermon, and you would be half right. This biblical phrase resonates with me deeply at a moment when we are contemplating the real power, and terror, that pregnancy and birth still hold in our lives and our society. But as this sermon was gestating, I realized it was going to be twins. Tomorrow, I will speak about reproductive justice. But tonight, I want to explore the power of harat olam as a metaphor.

As we welcome a new year, we consider, what might it mean for this new year to be born? And what might it mean for us to be “eternally pregnant”?

Aside from all the discomfort and anxiety that might accompany an actual pregnancy, in its most positive sense, to be pregnant is to be filled with possibility, quite literally to the point of bursting. Pregnancy is pure potential: a cluster of cells, a genetic pattern, that might someday become a fully-fledged human being. And that human being, “teeny tiny” as they might start out, has the potential to live a life that we can only begin to imagine. Even farther beyond our comprehension is that, one day, that cluster of cells might give birth to the next generation.

On this, the “day of the world’s birth,” we imagine that the new year, too, is pregnant with possibility. We read biblical tales of long-awaited births and eat round foods; the gently swelling challah; the pomegranate splitting open to spill its seeds. We contemplate what kind of year, and what kind of self, we want to give birth to.

But as with any pregnancy, to embark upon a new year is also filled with risk. What if we try something new, and we fail? What if we try to change, but fall back into the same bad patterns? What if we do manage to change, or create something new, and it upsets the delicate balance of our lives? And what if we get stuck, or blocked, and end up doing nothing at all? What if we’re pregnant forever?

Rabbi Levy suggests that “Every single one of us, somewhere in our lives, we are pregnant forever. There is something we’ve already conceived that is pleading with us, ‘Let me be born.’ Maybe it’s a creative endeavor…. Maybe it’s a career shift. … Maybe it’s the words ‘I’m sorry,’ or the words ‘I love you,’ or the words ‘I forgive you.’ They are fully formed inside your mouth, but you haven’t gotten up the courage to actually speak them. …. Maybe it’s a departure you’re holding on to …. You know it’s time to stop pretending everything is fine when nothing is fine” (Einstein and the Rabbi p. 121).

But sometimes this horrifying idea of eternal pregnancy feels less frightening than the alternative. Says Rabbi Levy, “Some of us are pregnant forever because we’re comfortable being pregnant forever. …And that’s where Jeremiah comes in with his haunting phrase. ….[Hayom Harat Olam!] Today is pregnant forever! And you are the one who gets to choose what will remain in a state of eternal potential and what will break forth into life” (Einstein and the Rabbi p. 124).

No matter what we are holding onto, and for how long, the blast of the shofar reminds us that we cannot stay pregnant forever. The water breaks and the contractions begin.

Midrash Tanhuma suggest that the 100 blasts of the shofar correspond to the 99 times a woman cries out in pain while in labor (possibly a conservative estimate on the rabbis’ part!). The one hundredth blast is the cry of birth, a cry of joy, relief, and exultation (Midrash Tanhuma Tazria 4/Emor 11).

We accompany these primal cries with biblical stories of auspicious births. While neither Sarah nor Hannah was technically “pregnant forever,” each endured a long period of waiting before giving birth. Hannah, in particular, is caught in what Rabbi Tali Adler calls “endless cycles of waiting and wanting,” signified by the repetitive phrases miyamim yamima, “in those days,” and shana b’shana, “year after year.” Each year, Hannah travels with her husband, her co-wife, and her co-wife’s many children, to make an offering at the temple in Shiloh. Each year, she is taunted by her co-wife for being barren, such that she cries and refuses to eat, and her husband is powerless to comfort her. This would be an unpleasant family outing even one time. But this same pattern enacts itself, again and again, year after year.

But Hannah is not destined to be pregnant forever. All this time, there has been something growing within her. Probably a fair amount of resentment towards her husband and her co-wife. But also the belief that her life has a purpose, and the hope that things might be different, someday soon. After reenacting the same family drama, year after year, Hannah decides it is time for something to new be born. She climbs the steps of the temple, and offers a prayer from her heart.

In this moment, says Rabbi Adler, “Hannah moves from sitting on the sidelines of her own life to standing and taking control …. Hannah dares to dream of—and to demand—a different life for herself, .… ‘Give me a child,’ she says [to God] …. ‘And together, You and I will create a new world.’”

Hannah’s prayer, and child that results from it, indeed create a new world. The birth of Samuel, the anointing of King David, even the very concept of personal prayer, “all stem from the moment Hannah stands up and refuses to accept her life as it is. In this moment in which a woman desperate to be a mother dares to dream of a different life, the fate of the Jewish people is changed forever” (“Breaking the Cycle: Creating New Time,” Hadar High Holy Days Reader 5783, pp. 6-7).

On this day, as the new year begins, we ask ourselves: what is the different life that we are dreaming about? What is this new world that we want to create? And what is holding us back from giving birth to it?

There are likely many different and deeply personal answers to these questions in our community tonight. And there are also many ways in which we, as a congregation, might feel as if we have been pregnant forever. Years ago, the leadership of this community conceived of what our next chapter would look like. Our visionary lay leadership, in partnership with our Founding Rabbi Elliot Holin, raised funds for a “Bridge to the Future.” You engaged a new rabbi and a new Religious School Director. Together, we developed a plan to sell our High School Road property and become renters, so that we could be more nimble and sustainable. We planned to start an endowment, so that we could continue to exist in the world as this unique community for as long as humanly possible.

And then COVID happened.

Nevertheless, we persisted. We sold our property. We built our endowment. We brokered a deal to move in here at the Beth Sholom Campus, with plans for construction to create dedicated space for us, and new shared technology that would bring our streaming system out of my dining room and into the 21st century. Last year at this time, this new arrangement felt pregnant with possibility.

And then there were more COVID variants. Supply chain issues. Zoning challenges. Technology hiccups. Construction delays. All this time, we have been moving gradually towards the vision we had back on High School Road. But at the same time, the gestation period for this vision now rivals that of the African elephant (two years!). It feels like we have been pregnant forever.

But all that time, while it may not always have looked like much was happening, underneath the surface, the cells were still dividing and multiplying. Much of what we had hoped for this space, though long overdue, is on the verge of becoming a reality. This summer, we were finally able to install our eternal light, our yahrzeit board, and our donor wall. We now have offices for our staff and will soon, finally, have our own sign on Old York Road. We are forming relationships with our counterparts here at Beth Sholom, in hopes that our partnership going forward can be a fertile and fruitful one.

And as Joni Mitchell once sang, now there will be “new dreams, maybe better dreams, and plenty.” Now we have the opportunity to ask ourselves: what do we, as a community, want to give birth to this year?

Rabbi Nachman of Bretslav once said, “The day you were born was the day the world decided it could no longer exist without you.” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik added that each of us was born with a particular set of talents, and at a particular moment, so that we could fulfill a particular mission during our lifetime.

Kol Ami came into the world, nearly 30 years ago, because of people who believed that the world needed us: an intimate and dynamic, progressive, and inclusive community in Elkins Park. Many things have changed in those three decades, and in the years to come we might be called upon to fulfill our sacred mission in new ways. But the essence of what we were put here to do remains unchanged. Our community still needs us as a welcoming space and a voice for justice, a place to build a rich, participatory, joyful and musical prayer life. Our community still needs us to provide a loving and supportive environment for people of all ages, backgrounds, and life situations to learn and grow, to create meaning in our lives, and to build connections with each other.

Whether we are considering what we want to give birth to as individuals, or as a community, we are in for a long labor. Following this metaphor to its logical conclusion, childbirth and nursing, childrearing and adolescence, don’t promise to be any easier. But our tradition reminds us that this is the way it has always been, and that, more often than not, the pain is worth it.

Rabbi Alan Lew writes that, “This is the bet that life always makes against us. Life bets that we won’t be willing to endure the suffering it requires. Life bets that we will try to shut out the suffering, and so shut out life in the bargain. …. Tisha B’Av has a hot tip for us. Take the suffering. Take the loss. Turn toward it. Embrace it. Let the walls come down” (This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared p. 62).

Legend has it that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B’Av, the darkest day of the Jewish calendar. But the Bible tells us that this Messiah will also descend from some of the most complicated figures in our sacred story: the famously flawed King David; Ruth the Moabite convert; and Perez, a child conceived through an illicit union between Judah and Tamar.

A blogger known as Jewniverse writes, “This vision of the Messiah may be unexpected, but it can still be inspiring. Salvation will not emerge from some sort of magical flawlessness. The search for redemption is rooted in the real world. The beginning may be gritty, but the dream of a perfected world is still possible.”

In the end, my nephew, Miles Apollo Berkowitz, or Milo, was not born on Tisha B’Av. He was born a week past his due date, a full day after my sister-in-law was scheduled to be induced. For a moment there, it did seem like she might be pregnant forever. But he’s here now. He is both a testament to everyone who has come before him, and the beginning of an entirely new chapter of our people’s story. We can’t wait to see who he will become. And we can’t wait to see what kind of world might be born with him finally in it.

Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz