Rambam and Jessica Rabbit
Shanah tovah and Eid mubarak!

The birthday of the world / pregnant with possibility

We hear the shofar and call out, "Hayom Harat Olam! / Today is the birthday of the world; Today the world is born!"

So says the liturgy according to most readings. And this birthday is not just one of celebration: "Today the world stands in judgment." These two motifs alone should give us pause today to consider what we are doing to the planet, to how we can restore the balance of the atmosphere, the balance of the waters and the air, of the forests and plains, the ocean and the continents.

But let's look more closely at these words, to see what they can teach us.

Harah means pregnancy, conception or gestation. Not birth, but the process which leads up to birth. Olam can mean world, but if we wanted to say "the conception of the world," we would say harat ha-olam. Olam really means eternity, from the root that means "hidden," or more precisely, the infinite that is hidden, beyond our limited perception.

If we wanted to say "the birth of the world" we would say yaldat ha'olam. Harat Olam means very literally, "pregnant with eternity", or "eternally pregnant." Today is pregnant with eternity.

That's a teaching from Rabbi David Seidenberg, of NeoHasid.org and the Shalom Center, and I think it's really cool.

"Today is the birthday of the world." We say it every year; we'll say it on Tuesday and Wednesday, that 48-hour span of time which Jewish tradition mystically considers a single extended day of Rosh Hashanah. But the liturgy says something slightly different than what the simple English rendition would suggest. As Reb Duvid notes, harah means "pregnancy," conception or gestation: not labor, not birth. I've never carried nor borne a child, but I can see from here that they're very different things. Rosh Hashanah isn't the world's "birthday," exactly; it's the day when we celebrate creation's pregnant possibilities.

And olam can signify either space or time. I like to say that olam denotes the whole space/time continuum. So if Rosh Hashanah is a day that's harat olam, it's a day for celebrating the pregnant possibilities inherent in the whole mind-boggling continuum of space/time! Kind of a far cry from "happy birthday, world," isn't it? Yes, Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of creation, but it's also something deeper, something more.

I get caught, a bit, on his alternate reading of harat olam as "eternally pregnant." Having watched friends linger until and beyond their due dates, I can't help wincing at the implications of eternal pregnancy. (From what I've gathered, the end of pregnancy is uncomfortable at best and miserable at worst.) "Eternally pregnant" may be one of those phrases that just reads differently to women than it does to men; I'm guessing he meant something like "eternally rich with possibility," which has a much more positive valance.

But I love the other way he spins the phrase, "pregnant with eternity." What would it mean to understand Rosh Hashanah as the day when we recognize the infinite possibilities hovering just outside our understanding, waiting to be born?

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