*This was my d’var torah for Rosh Hashanah so it’s a bit longer than normal. I would be honored if you read it. It comes straight from the heart!
To Captain Meriwether Lewis:
The object of your mission is to explore the Missouri River and such principle stream of it, as by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean…may offer the most direct and practicable water communication across this continent for the purposes of commerce.
So wrote President Thomas Jefferson to Lewis and Clark as he charged them with their journey to find a connecting path between the Mighty Mississippi and the Pacific Ocean. After 15 months, they were so close and had faced so much: sickness, animal attacks, and even death. So here they were, the advanced party of the Corps of Discovery, on the precipice of great success.
It went beyond personal success for whoever found this route, the French, Spanish, British, or Americans would gain supremacy for they would be gaining a prime piece of resources for the country. So as Lewis advanced up a hill to find himself at a creek that led to a spring that sourced the Missouri river, he anticipated cresting the hill to see a literal downhill boat ride that would lead them quickly to the Pacific.
Turns out, that was not what they saw. Instead of a lazy downhill path to glory, they saw the Rocky Mountains, stretching for hundreds of miles. Instead of the Northwest Passage. Instead of a river. Instead of the magnificent water route, they had something in front of them they had no idea how to deal with.
Part of this was due to the fact that from all the best minds of the time, they had just assumed that what existed on one side of the continent was mirrored on the other. If we went upstream from the Eastern seaboard, then once we cross over the divide, we’ll sail downstream. The mountains, while expected, were not like the ones they were used to in Appalachia. Instead, as one member of the traveling party noted, “they were the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.”
Communally, I feel that this metaphor is apt. In many ways, we have been journeying for a number of years now, certainly before the pandemic but exacerbated even more by it. As a Jewish community, we have had a rough plan for how things are supposed to go but then, things don’t always go as planned. We have our own Rocky Mountains with which to contend: dwindling numbers, virtual religion, amplified political strife.
Personally speaking, I really can feel these Rocky Mountains. As many of you know, my wife Lauren and I are expecting our first child in a few weeks. To be totally honest with you, it feels like the scariest thing I have ever prepared for in my life. I am frightened on a minute by minute basis.
In part, this is because people seem to like to share with me not-so-comforting words which feel like attempts at comfort in the clothing of parenting hazing. “Get your sleep now!” “Oh boy, you thought you had no control before. Just wait!” Thanks, I suppose. In many ways, like the Corps of Discovery, I don’t have a map. Anything I would use to predict this from other transitions in life pales compared to what lies ahead. God knows, I would love to be able to chart this out based on what I know from my own “Appalachian mountains, but I can’t.
While many of you are far down the road in this parenting journey, and others are not there, maybe you feel this way too. What happens when the path ahead of each of us feels so daunting and we don’t really have a blueprint in front of us for what’s to come? Maybe it’s going into the latter parts of your life and your children have left the house? Maybe you’re facing the loss of a partner? Maybe you’re transitioning to a new job or a new school and all you see is the Rocky Mountains in front of you.
So I stand here before you on this hallowed day wondering what might our tradition have to offer in thinking through this frame. Facing an uncertain future. A bit of a crisis of faith. How do we respond when we don’t know what’s to come or when we thought what was to come doesn’t match what we expected?
Today is not only Rosh Hashanah; it is a day that we describe as “hayom harat olam:” Hayom-Today, Harat-we’ll leave that untranslated, Olam-the world/or forever. So today, the world is something-ed or today, something is forever.
This is a phrase we utter over and over again but it’s fairly opaque.
Here is the whole prayer:
“On this day, the world came into being; On this day, God makes a stand in judgment— all the creatures of the worlds— whether as children, or as servants; if as children, have compassion on us as a parent has compassion on their children! If as servants, our eyes are fixed on You until You favor us, and bring forth our judgment as the light, revered and holy One!”
It is relatively short, invoking God’s role as judge and the possibilities we face. Are we appearing before God with the innocence of children in which case we appeal to God’s compassionate side? Or, are we appearing before God as servants, in which case we’d appeal to our dependence on God’s grace undeserved.
It is an ancient text, having its prayer roots in the 9th century. The phrasing of “hayom harat olam” goes back even farther to the prophet Jeremiah. For all of the glory that he has now, Jeremiah lived a rough life.
Jeremiah was a rabble-rouser who pushed back hard against injustice and corruption and in a world that was fairly rife with it, he didn’t fare well. He was even jailed at a point and out of this incarceration, we find Jeremiah in chapter 20 of his prophecies. He has had enough and he offers the following painful plea:
“I have become a laughingstock all day; everyone mocks me. Every time I speak, I cry out; ‘violence and plunder’, I call out. For the word of God causes me disgrace and contempt all day (‘Hayom’)“Cursed is the day (‘Hayom’) when I was born; a day on which my mother bore me should not be blessed. Cursed is the man who brought my father the news, saying, ‘A baby boy was born to you!’, delighting him with such delight. Let that man be like the cities which God overturned remorselessly; Let him hear cries in the morning and wails (teru‘ah) at noon. Because he did not kill me within the womb (rehem), So that my mother would be my grave,and her womb eternally pregnant (harat ‘olam)”
It is hard to read. Every word he offers is met with scorn. He feels God has rejected him so much that he curses the day he was born. Everything about his existence is rotten to the point where he wishes he could’ve stayed in his mother’s womb.
At its core we see that this is a totally different lens through which hayom harat olam was offered. To be honest, there is an aspect of the Jeremiah read that resonates with me. It captures the comfort of the “what was.” As he describes being safely in his mother’s womb, it reads to me like someone who is confronting a reality that is painful in its unknown-ness. It’s not what he predicted or expected and so he bucks against it in order to go backward. That’s the warmth and safety of what we know, but it’s not a model to really live.
The Rabbis also played around with this idea in a fascinating debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai: one argues that it would’ve been better for humans not to have been created presumably because of how hard things can get. Not surprisingly, that argument does not win out. This debate is later interpreted by the chasidic master the Mei Hashiloach who points out that when it’s phrased as “it would’ve been better to have never been born,” it doesn’t use the word “tov.” It uses “noach lo.” It would’ve been more comforting which is true. But goodness in life comes from the fullness of the human experience, of the knowledge that we have a soul that helps our heart feel bolstered in its brokenness. That even when the going gets rough, we’re still going and moving.
While that characterization of wanting to not be born captures the moment in Jeremiah, it is not how the paytan takes the phrase because the spirit of the machzor is one that beseeches God over and over again, zachreinu l’chayim, we want to really live, even with all its pains, tribulations, and transitions. So in our Machzor, it is totally inverted.
Instead of being about wanting to remain in the womb in perpetuity, the paytan takes us to the end result of the pregnancy, birth. Instead of it being about olam as eternality, he changes the subject to olam as world. So it goes from one person wanting to curl up and revert back to a womb-like state into the re-birthing of the whole world. If each and everyone one of us is an olam katan, a small world, then we are being birthed too. It is a magnificent and subversive midrash.
So now we have come to understand how it is that we went from the hayom harat olam of the Prophets to the hayom harat olam of the Machzor but how does it help us a frame in confronting the scary non-blueprinted map in front of us?
To help us answer that, we turn ourselves back to the essence of the day of Rosh Hashanah and how that connects us all the way back to creation. In the book of Nechemiah, we learn about the first Rosh Hashanah after all the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. In the 8th chapter, Ezra the Scribe is teaching the Torah to the people and when discussing Rosh Hashanah, he speaks about it as “holy to God, ” which is repeated two times. Unlike the other holidays which are all called mikraei kodesh, holy convocations, Rosh Hashanah is kadosh la’adoneinu, a sanctified day for God. There is something unique about RH more than any other holiday.
This notion was later developed by Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, known as the Arizal, considered the founder of Kabbalah. In Musaf he says, we describe Rosh Hashanah as the day of the beginning of your actions which gets us thinking about the 1st day of creation.
After all, today is harat olam. He continues: “every year on Rosh Hashanah, everything returns to its origin state and not only that but every being is renewed and everything that was created during The Creation is happening again through an act of reawakening within each individual.
That is to say, Rosh Hashanah is imbued with the essence of the actual creation of the world that we are meant to tap into. Every person that comes into Rosh Hashanah has an opportunity to be reborn, to really think about where their lives are and where their lives ought to be. That part that we can tap into has been a part of the universe since its very creation. Each year has its own variables though so even though we carry the ancient power of creation, we also carry the unique potential, each of us to be a part of bringing something new to the world.
That’s scary, and I think that’s sort of the point. Imagine what it must have felt like to see primordial chaos, tohu va’vovuhu become actualized into the new world. That immensity is what I and many others feel now. Not just the heaviness of this new world that is about to be created and not just the inability to compare it to something else but also about my lack of control. That was part of the terror of what Lewis and Clark saw when they realized, oh no, this is not what we expected.
Maybe there is some semblance of control in moments of birth and rebirth. In the creation narrative, there is a moment when Adam is tasked with naming the animals. The Sfat Emet explains that as a final act of creation, God imbued humanity with the honor and responsibility of completing the circle of creation from infinite to finite and back again.
In naming aspects of creation, Adam elevated creation by articulating what and how he encountered something, and named it giving it the ability to be referenced throughout time. Giving a name to something roots it in purpose and place in the context of an infinite saga of creation.
That is how we are empowered in this hayom harat-ness of newness and rebirth. We have control over how we name it and what it is known for. We can’t control all the variables but that ability gifted to us by the Divine provides some grounding when we face the path ahead that is unlike other paths.
Even if it really is unlike any other road we’ve traveled, when we face this tectonic shift to our reality, there are aspects of familiarity there. It’s why I think hayom harat olam appears three times at the end of the Malchuyot, Shofarot, and Zichronot services beyond just the literary reasons. In essence, those three services represent the three time domains. We first coronate God in the present moment. We look backward in remembering God’s presence in our lives. We then herald the redemption in a future time.
I am reading that as the response to the anxiety we feel when facing this birth of a new world. Take stock of what you’re actually feeling in the present. Don’t run from it. It’s part of life such that you will face it again in the future so pay attention to the lessons now. And of course, you’ve done this before. Maybe not this exact thing but flickers of this exist in your past.
Without going too deep into the history of the rest of Lewis and Clark’s adventure, much of their success came from an attitude of courage and hope at facing the unknown. Not one built on bravado but one built on the belief that how they had gotten here would serve them in getting to where they wanted to go, even if it wasn’t a direct comparison. And of course, they relied on others, including many of the native tribes that brought them in, healed them, and provided for them, especially Sacagawea without whom they probably wouldn't have succeeded in their mission.
To rebirth yourself, you have to have the help of others, so please consider this my calling out. If you are in your own story of rebirth, consider me a helper for you.
The Rashbam, one of the great medieval commentators, offered a lesser known linguistic connection to the meaning of the phrase “harah” that we have been discussing as re/birth. He posits that the ones that bear us, our parents, are our “horim,” and they’re also our “harim,” our mountains. In other words, today and always you have been bringing things to life.
On Rosh Hashanah, remember that. They are the peaks from which we have been hewn, the strength that others have done this before us. And that also means that embedded within the mountains in front of us, those rocky and petrifying peaks, there is so much potential for rewriting your own creation.
Philosophy Professor Jonathan Lear from the University of Chicago talks about a certain kind of hope he frames as radical hope: “it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. What would it be for such hope to be justified?
This feels deeply resonant. I have no clue or conception of what is to come but I still hope. It’s part of what drove Lewis and Clark from the Lemhi Pass.
Please let us all find this type of hope within us. When we face the mountains, to recognize that the fear we feel is real and to be able to reach out to others for help. But not so much that we have a Jeremiah-like reaction and want to revert back to the womb. Because we also know that we have the ability to write our own re/birth story; because what’s in front of us may not be at all what we imagined it to be.
That’s the beauty and the anxiety of it all. Hayom Harat Olam. Today as always, we all stand on the brink of re-creation. May we merit to continue to create and be created in this beautiful, scary, and messy gift of a world.
Shanah Tovah-may this year be especially sweet in its growth, newness, and hope.