Ha-yom harat olam—today the world was born! So we proclaim upon sounding the shofar, which recalls the cry of labor pains. Last night I spoke of Rosh Hashanah as a celebration of that creation.
But this morning, I want to affix an asterisk to that claim, for long ago our Sages suggested that this universe wasn’t God’s first effort at world-building. They arrive at this surprisingly contemporary cosmological twist through a close reading of the biblical text. As a bit of background, it is helpful to know that the Rabbis believed God creates life using Hebrew letters. So what happens when they apply that assumption to the Torah’s opening word, b’reshit—In the beginning? They’re puzzled because given their premise, Torah should start with the letter aleph, the first in the Hebrew alphabet. Yet b’reshit begins with bet, the second letter. Why did God seem to skip the aleph and commence creation with the letter bet?
In the Zohar, the magnum opus of Jewish mysticism, our Sages offer an ingenious answer grounded in one of their favorite practices—wordplay. Zohar notes that the Hebrew for the number one thousand—eleph—is very closely related to the letter name, aleph. From this they glean that the Holy One’s work of creation did, in fact, actually begin with aleph—for God formed and destroyed one thousand worlds before finally turning to the bet of bereshit to fashion the one we know and inhabit. This naturally leads to a classic Talmudic debate, where one side argued that the Holy One actually created and then demolished all of those worlds, while the other insisted that She merely contemplated then terminated them long before they were born.
I recognize that their medieval science is archaic and the intricacies of rabbinic hermeneutics aren’t for everyone, but our Sages’ notion of prior worlds that were not meant to be raises a host of interesting and important questions that remain strikingly germane in our time and place. In pursuit of insight and empathy we might imagine ourselves in God’s place: What were those unique universes like and how close did they come to fruition? Why did God decide to destroy them? And how did God feel through the long and trying labor of conceiving and aborting so many potential worlds?
There are, of course, no definitive answers to these questions. Our responses are a kind of modern-day midrash, the sacred and essential Jewish work of building creative bridges between ancient texts and current contexts. Like all of our tradition’s conjectures about ultimate things, they reveal far more about us than they do about the Holy One, who remains a deep mystery. That’s something to celebrate, because every encounter with God becomes a powerful mirror into ourselves and the human condition. With that in mind, how do we imagine the drama around a thousand worlds created and destroyed?
The Kabbalists envisioned these hidden worlds as ubarim—embryos God might have birthed but ultimately aborted. I imagine each of these pregnancies came with its own unique circumstances. I picture some as deeply desired and long in the making, beloved to the Holy One, yet for some mysterious reason, unknowable even to her, not destined to be. I see her weeping for their loss, for their promise and potential tragically unfulfilled. Perhaps others were beautiful but not quite right, lacking some essential quality they needed to endure. Some of those myriad worlds may have been doomed by bad timing—on a slightly different occasion, each could have been the one, but the moment wasn’t ripe. I can also imagine instances where the potential world might well have worked just fine—but God Herself wasn’t ready, was not yet prepared to meet the ceaseless demands of a magnificent but also deeply needy universe that would require constant attention, nourishment, patience, and love. Perhaps God needed to mature a little more before taking on that awesome responsibility—to grow, as it were, into the terrifying role of being a Creator and Sustainer of life.
Or maybe each of those destroyed worlds simply couldn’t come to be because this one—our own deeply imperfect but precious world—always lay in wait, and if another had been born, we and all we know would not be here.
Which brings me back to here and now and, at long last, to the moral significance I make of the ancient rabbinic tale I’m telling—namely, the spiritual imperative of reproductive justice for all women and non-binary folks capable of bringing children into the world that we inhabit. With no thanks to the US Supreme Court and the overwhelming majority of our Idaho lawmakers, the intensely personal matter of abortion has become an oppressive partisan political debacle. I’ve spoken and written about the politics and legalities around reproductive rights many times over the last three decades, from this pulpit and in my column for the Idaho Statesman. I have oft-noted that in our tradition, human life unequivocally begins at birth rather than conception, and therefore the mother’s health and welfare take precedence over that of the fetus she is carrying. Abortion bans are, therefore, not only inhumane; they are also substantial violations of Jewish women’s religious freedom, because they impose conservative Catholic and evangelical Christian values even when they directly contradict our own.
But on this sacred morning, I want to shift, now, from the political realm to faith and ethics, and why reproductive justice is a core Jewish spiritual practice. We began with Rosh Hashanah’s defining liturgical proclamation—Ha-yom harat olam—which I have heretofore translated, according to the words of our machzor, as “Today the world was born!” But that’s not the true definition of the verb harat, which actually refers not to birth but conception and pregnancy. The more accurate translation, then, is “Today the world was conceived—today God is pregnant with our universe!” And as we now know, this is hardly her first pregnancy!
So what spiritual commitments follow from this understanding? To determine this, we should note our foundational Jewish obligation to imitate God. In the Holiness code that sits in the geographic and moral center of the Torah, God tells us: “Kedoshim t’hiyu, ki kadosh ani Adonai elohaychem—You shall be holy, because I, Adonai your God am Holy.” To which the Rabbis add: “Just as the Eternal One is compassionate and gracious, so must we act with compassion and grace.” This is our guiding ethical principle: we are to follow God’s example in our own lives. And as our Sages duly note, that privilege empowers us to be co-creators with the Divine—shutafim la Kadosh Baruch Hu b’ma’aseh v’reishit—partners in the ongoing work of creation.
For God, that sacred labor began with the abortion of a thousand worlds before the birth of this one. From this we learn that not every world is meant to be. As God’s partners, we too, are invested with the awesome power of choosing when to birth new life. Like God, women should be empowered to weigh their options with appropriate deliberation and humility and, ask the hard questions—sometimes alone, at other times in consultation with their loved ones : Am I prepared to provide for this potential child for the rest of my life? Do I have the spiritual, psychological and material resources, and the support of a caring community, that I will need to raise a son or daughter at this moment in time? Will carrying this pregnancy to delivery be safe for my own physical and mental health?
If the answer to any of these questions, or others like them, is no—if the pregnancy is untenable and/or undesired—in both extreme cases like rape and incest or more commonly in other more ordinary adverse circumstances, everyone carrying life within her has an inalienable ethical right to determine whether the world she bears is meant to be. She may weep for the lost worlds, as we do with infertility, miscarriage, and other heartbreaking losses—but God’s ordeal in creating and destroying worlds teaches us that in a just and compassionate society, every child is wanted and loved.
Ha-yom harat olam—today God conceived the world—this beloved world, Her one thousand and first, which she chose to deliver into life. My friends, may we offer our profound gratitude for that blessing, for the privilege of being the one She chose, and may we honor Her choice by affirming that power for women everywhere.