Sermon: Rosh Hashanah 5769 by Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

HaYom Harat Olam


“"???? ??? ????

Hayom Harat Olam

Erev Rosh HaShana

Temple Beth El, Harrisonburg, VA

September 29, 2008 / 1 Tishrei 5769

Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell

“"???? ??? ????

These three words, which are found in our machzor, our High Holiday prayerbook, are often translated as “today the world is created,” or “today is the birthday of the world.” 

My colleague Rabbi Ayelet Cohen teaches that a closer look at these three words “tells us much more.  ???? means ‘today,’ that part is simple enough.  But the Hebrew word????  means not only ‘world,’ it also means ‘forever/eternity.’” Today eternity is created. Today forever begins.

So a simple phrase that might have led us into a chorus of happy birthday rather stops us-- and asks us to think not only about marking time, but rather to consider the nature of time. We are invited to consider the relationship not only of then and now, but how now relates to forever.   

Rabbi Cohen continues, and further challenges us: “The word ??? is the most difficult one in the phrase.  It comes from the Hebrew ?????, or pregnancy.  Here it functions as a verb and a noun at the same time, implying a creative act that is not sudden or abrupt but one that requires a long period of gestation.  The elasticity of the words and of this phrase teaches us to go beyond the simple meaning.  When we read???? ??? ????  in our ????? we are saying, ‘Today the world was created,’ but also ‘Today we celebrate the constant creation of the world.’  Today is pregnant with eternal creation.”[1]

Hayom Harat Olam becomes, then, not only a statement, but also a challenge. On this day, we consider not only how we live in and measure time, but also how we honor, mirror and illuminate the mystery of continuing creation.

Let us take a moment to listen to the world. Let us take a moment to listen to eternity. Don’t get up. Stay in your seat. Begin to listen. You may settle more deeply into the pew, letting go of any physical stress or discomfort you may have been experiencing. You may want to straighten up to better hear the sounds that are waiting for you to hear. You may feel your spirit moving to the back of the sanctuary, or even out of the door, ready to dance in the evening breeze. Let yourself listen.

What do you hear? Do you hear the clouds whispering as they glide across the night sky? Do you hear the earth settling in for the night, relieved that the majority of humans who have illusions of control as they drive and cycle and walk on the earth are now, because of the dark, huddled in their frail buildings, leaving the out of doors to the insects and birds and animals who know how to navigate the night? Do you hear those creatures calling to one another in forests and deserts and on mountain tops? Do you hear the quiet murmurings of parents on the other side of the globe as they tuck their children into bed or as they gently wake them as the new day dawns? Can you hear this beautiful, fragile universe breathing, humming, singing?


Do you want to respond? Do you want to join in?

Can you find a voice in which to harmonize with or provide a counterpoint to this song?

Some of us are life long members of the world choir. Some of us hear—and join—in the song of eternity every time we garden, or when we sing a child to sleep, or when we sit beside one who needs our presence. Some of us feel our hearts open in song every time we enter this building.

Others of us are straining to hear the music. Some of us have closed our ears and our hearts. Some of us have accepted deafness as our permanent condition. But the universe is singing to us, every day of our lives. On this night, Judaism urges every one of us to rouse ourselves from the slumber that has prevented us from hearing eternity’s song. Hayom Harat Olam: today is the day when birthpangs rock our world, when creation begins anew.

What is one of the messages of eternity’s song? The Torah teaches in the Book of Numbers:

And in the seventh month, on the first day of the month, you shall have a holy convocation: You shall do no manner of work; it is a day of blowing the horn unto you. (Numbers 29:1)

And in the Book of Leviticus:

In the seventh month, in the first day of the month, shall be a solemn rest unto you, a memorial proclaimed with the blast of horns, a holy convocation. (Leviticus 23:24)

The chorus of eternity’s song may be as simple as: observe this holy day. Mark this anniversary of creation. One verse says: Do not work. Another verse directs us to blow the shofar.

The shofar sounds, and we begin to wake up. We awaken to eternity’s challenge: be present.  Be here now. Make this day the first day of the rest of your life.

A Talmudic teaching: “R. Zevid said, ‘if the first day of Rosh Hashana is warm, the whole year will be warm; if cold, the whole year will be cold’”. (Baba Batra 147a)[2]

Rabbi Zevid was not speaking about the temperature outside. Rather, he was speaking about the temperature inside. He was addressing the enthusiasm, the passion with which each of us approaches this day. Do we “warm” to this day, opening ourselves to the heat that true engagement demands? Do we turn up the heat of our spirits on this day of creation, this day when we glimpse eternity? Or are we tepid, lukewarm, room temperature? Have we, over the years, cooled down or even cooled off? Have we become cold, finding the entire enterprise of Judaism and Jewish practice chilly, off putting, frozen?

We all know that in order for human beings to function, we must maintain a particular, and in fact a very particular, body temperature. When we are ill, when our equilibrium is upset, our body temperature may drop or soar and prevent us from thinking clearly. When we become seriously overheated, or if our body temperature drops precipitously, our very lives are endangered. On this day, we are reminded that our lives depend on balance. And our spiritual lives depend on creating a climate of sufficient warmth so that we not only survive but thrive.

I would like to propose that there are, for each of us, three steps to waking up, and to opening the way to a year of warmth. These three steps can also be imagined as three concentric circles with permeable, shimmering boundaries. We begin with focusing on care for our souls. Then we expand our focus to our intimate companions. Then we extend our focus to the larger world. Join me as we explore three interrelated responses to the call of the shofar, to the call of the universe.

The Jewish calendar gives us ample opportunity to prepare for this Rosh Hashana day. Too few of us take advantage of the month of Elul, the month that precedes and ushers in Rosh Hashana. This is a month when we are invited and encouraged to engage in the process of heshbon hanefesh, taking an accounting of our souls. In fact, the shofar that will rouse us from our slumber tomorrow morning has been warmed up, so to speak, by being sounded every day during the month that preceded this day. Whether we took advantage of this month of preparation or not, each of us can now enter this process of caring for ourselves, for our spirits, for our souls. Our tradition teaches that rather than being a narcissistic or anti-social exercise, taking stock of and taking responsibility for one’s behavior and actions is what mature individuals must do. During the month of Elul and the first ten days of Tishrei, beginning today and continuing until Yom Kippur, we are encouraged to focus on our own lives, on how we care for ourselves, body and soul.

If we don’t care for ourselves, we cannot be present for others. Rosh Hashana, then, is a wake up call to each of us to mind our own health. To make sure that we have regular physical exams, and that we heed the direction and advice of our health care professionals. Rosh HaShana is a perfect time to re-commit ourselves to a regular program of exercise, or to a new approach to modulating our eating patterns.

But health is not confined to the body. How is our intellectual health? What are we reading? With whom do we engage in conversation? Are we speaking only to those with whom we agree? Are we open to ideas that challenge us and make us stretch intellectually? And what about our spiritual health? How do we, day after day, week after week, care for our souls?

We Jews are blessed with many tools for maintaining health. Our tradition has a rich body of prayers and texts that can be used as daily practice, from the moment we open our eyes until we close them again at the end of the day. By thanking God every time we eat, we are engaging in a spiritual practice of gratitude We are also making an explicit connection between our responsibility of caring for our bodies and our appreciation of our place in God’s universe. We begin at home—in the home of our own bodies, the bodies that are the physical container, the temporary home for our durable and infinite souls.

The renewed self, however, does not live alone. Every one of us gathered in this sanctuary tonight, whether we live alone in a modest apartment or in a rambling house, or whether we live in a dwelling that is filled with others and their comings and goings—each of us lives in a context of intimate relations. Whether we eat breakfast every day with our intimates, or whether they are thousands of miles away—each of us is in the center of a particular circle of souls. Some of us are quite conscious—and insistent—about our place as the center, the focal point of that circle. Others of us never think of ourselves that way. I ask you to take this time to place yourself in the center of the unique web that is your life now. Who are the people with whom you interact every day, those who make up your daily world now? This is your intimate circle. Whether these people are related to you or not, whether you have chosen these beloveds and companions or not, I ask you now to focus on these primary connections.

What is the quality of your interactions with these individuals? If you are truly taking care of yourself (step one), you are making space to be present for another. As we all know, intimate relationships are very demanding. They ask us to be present, to show up, to listen, and to interact. Many intimate relationships that come to an end do so because one of the partners is no longer present. He or she became distracted—by work or by something else that pulled them away from the demanding work of being present, showing up so that exchanges of quality and substance and meaning can happen.

Today is the day when we are called by the shofar to pay attention to our relationships. When we take ourselves seriously, we attend to appropriate self care. The healthy self can extend care to others. Our tradition teaches that these two circles of care are essential but insufficient.

My colleague Rabbi Jan Katzew recently shared the following teaching of Isaac Luria, the sixteenth century kabbalist. As you may know, Rosh Hashana is observed for two days in Israel, and in most communities around the world. In the Talmud, which is written in Aramaic, these two days of Rosh Hashana are called yom arichta, one long day. What does this mean? Chaim Vital, Isaac Luria’s student, tells that Luria’s response is that the two days of Rosh HaShana are like one long day. The work of the first day is to turn one’s attention inward: to review one’s deeds, to conduct a heshbon hanefesh. The work of the second day is to turn one’s attention to the world, to address oneself to tikkun olam. Tradition teaches us that this is the work of one long day: the work of each day is necessary but insufficient. The work of both days, together, is the essential challenge of this day of renewal.

HaYom Harat Olam. This day, when each of us is challenged to open our hearts and minds as the shofar jolts us from our slumber—this very day calls us to find a balance that works for us—between our inner work and our outer work, between caring for ourselves and caring for the world.

Today is a day to examine the causes, projects and the communities in which we are engaged. These days of reflection challenge us to re-evaluate and re-assess our involvement: are we lukewarm or have we cooled off? This is a time to remember and reclaim the heat that drew us to the work that reflects our vision of what the world can be. This day is a day to reclaim the sacred Jewish obligation of repairing the world.

Today the world is created. Today is pregnant with eternity. Tonight we listen to the universe calling us, challenging each one of us to wake up and to shake off the chill of our slumber. The silence and the song that we hear when we open our hearts includes the songs of our souls, the music of our souls bound up with the lives of others, the songs of our souls bound up with the world entire. The universe invites us to join the dance of repair and of return, and to sing songs of wholeness, hope and peace.

Let us go forth, my friends, with deep thanks to the Source of all for enabling us to once again celebrate creation. Cradled in the arms of this beautiful world, sheltered beneath the endless skies, may each of us be privileged to hear –and to sing--eternity’s song every evening, and every morning, of this new year. 

[1] Ayelet S. Cohen, “Hayom Harat Olam,” Rosh HaShana 5764, Congregational Beit Simchat Torah. From the internet.

[2] Cited in Nachalat Shimon on Parashat Nitzavim, by R. Shimon Ashkenazi of Dorbromil, as translated by Rabbi Jonathan Slater.