Thursday, September 29, 2022

Rosh Hashanah Morning 5783/2022: Not Every World Is Meant to Be

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’reshitIn 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 elohaychemYou 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.

Rosh Hashanah Evening 5783/2022: Let the Earth Teach You Torah

Tomorrow, as on every Rosh Hashanah, Jews everywhere will proclaim, “Ha-yom harat olam—Today the world was born!”  We will celebrate with apples and honey and the sounding of the shofar.  Yet one guest will be conspicuously absent from the party—the birthday girl herself.  Instead of feting the earth that houses and sustains us, we confine our New Year concerns to our Jewish lives—missing the mark and making teshuvah, what we’ve done and failed to do.  While these matters are, indeed, important, our narrow focus on ourselves is deeply problematic.  After all, the world is 4.5 billion years old and home to an estimated 8.7 million species of flora and fauna, not to mention the countless seas and sands, peaks and plains.  Our human existence amounts to the blink of an eye.  And from the perspective of the mountains, to which the psalmist raised his eyes for help, our vaunted Jewish history is but a watch in the night.  


How and why have we come to this place, where our Rosh Hashanah rituals largely ignore the holy Creation they purport to acclaim?  

It wasn’t always this way.  In the beginning, and for most of our history, we lived in intimate reciprocal relationship with the More-than-Human World.  Our planet was enchanted, a living ecosystem of plants and animals, rocks and rivers, inseparably bound with one another. Our biblical ancestors conversed with snakes and stones, marked time by the circle of the seasons, and reveled in mountains and brooks that sing for joy and leap like young rams. Of course there were also devastating storms, deadly disease and dangerous predators—but they, too, were part of the animistic earth we all shared together.

With the rise of Greek philosophy, this changed.  Hellenism gave us many gifts, from the foundations of modern science to the Passover seder.  But its disenchantment of nature came at a high cost.  Aristotle reconfigured our mutual relationship with our environment into a hierarchical Great Chain of Being, with humans on top, manipulating the lower-tiered animals, plants, and minerals.

With the scientific revolution, the Western world grew even more alienated from the Creation.  While most indigenous cultures maintained the old ways, Europe abandoned them.  Rene Descartes conducted torturous experiments on animals, who he insisted were unthinking and unfeeling automatons.  Newtonians drew a strict distinction between mind and matter, with us as actors and the rest of the world inert stuff to be acted upon.  Hence the perspective that dominates our culture to this day, which envisions nature as a collection of objects rather than a communion of subjects.  

For the most part, the Jewish world followed this path.  We turned away from rabbinic and kabbalistic texts that celebrated other beings as embodied souls or nefashot, fashioned, like us, in the image of God.  While our greatest sage, Moses Maimonides, insisted that the Holy One did not form the world for humanity’s sake, we nevertheless enthroned ourselves as kings and queens over a diminished Creation.

And so here we are today, lost and lonely residents of a planet brought to its knees by our unsustainable lifestyles.  Our estrangement from the natural world is sickening both ourselves and our environment.  Author Richard Louv defined our modern malady as “nature-deficit disorder.”  And here’s how native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko diagnoses the Western worldview in her book Ceremony:

They see no life.  When they look

They see only objects.

The world is a dead thing for them. . . 

The deer and bear are objects.

They see no life.

They fear.

They fear the world.

They destroy what they fear.

They fear themselves. 

Living this way, it’s no wonder we fail to invite the world to her own birthday party.


But all is not lost.  Slowly but surely, a new paradigm is emerging that marries a stunning, cutting-edge approach to the life sciences with the rich and ancient spiritual vision of an animistic earth.  Twenty-five years ago, eco-philosopher David Abram published his pathbreaking book The Spell of the Sensuous, which teaches that our humanity is inexorably formed in concert with the More-than-Human world. Abram notes:

Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth—our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese.  To shut ourselves off from these other voices. . . is to rob our senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence.  We are human only in contact and conviviality with what is not human.

Scores of recent scientific discoveries corroborate this insight.  Thanks to ecologist Suzanne Simard and her students, we now know that trees and grasses communicate constantly with one another, sharing information and resources through vast underground fungal networks that many now refer to as the “wood wide web.”  Genetic research reminds us of the kinship of origins and substance that we share with all living beings.  Rigorous medical studies show that our bodies, minds and moods benefit significantly from time outdoors, interacting with the More-than-Human World.  As the eminent biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer writes in her best-selling book Braiding Sweetgrass:

We are all bound by a covenant of reciprocity: plant breath for animal breath, winter and summer, predator and prey, grass and fire, night and day, living and dying.  Water knows this, clouds know this.  Soil and rocks know they are dancing in a continuous giveaway of making, unmaking, and making again the earth. . . all flourishing is mutual.  The moral covenant of reciprocity calls us to honor our responsibilities for all we have been given, for all that we have taken.

Or, to put this in philosophical terms, we are moving from Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” to the South African wisdom known as Ubuntu: “I am because we are.”


Over the past year, this paradigm shift inspired me to become a forest therapy guide.  But there’s no training required to re-orient relationship with our living planet and the beings with whom we share it.  You need not be a scientist, philosopher, or naturalist to affirm that all flourishing is, indeed, mutual.  There are many practices that lead toward that end.  As the poet Rumi taught: There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.

Leave your phone behind and walk a forest trail.  Or wander, wherever the woods and wild places take you, for to wander is to re-kindle wonder, which is the beginning of awe.  Have a conversation with a spruce or sagebrush, a rock or a river—you need not go beyond your own backyard to discover what Shakespeare named as tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.  Take off your watch and shoes and sit outdoors in silent solitude.  Drive a little out of town, turn off your lights, and enjoy the glory of the dark night sky.  Watch birds—or fish or frogs or any other of the countless miraculous creations that surround us every moment of every day.  Such experiences are a form of teshuvah, returning and re-enchanting us, as they fundamentally shift the way we see the world and our place in it.

The paths and possibilities are limitless—you can choose one that’s well-trodden or blaze your own.  As Mary Oliver so eloquently put it in her short poem, “Instructions for Living a Life”:

Pay attention.

Be astonished.

Tell about it.


As for individuals, so, too, for the Jewish people as a whole, with whom we gather across the globe on this joyous day—the seeds of our return to right relationship with the More-than-Human-World are already sown within the sacred wisdom of our tradition.  Our collective calling in this decisive hour is to cultivate those seeds anew.

At every Jewish funeral, we pray that the soul of the deceased be woven into the web of life—v’yitzror b’tzror ha-chayyim et nishmatam.  That prayer powerfully affirms our commonality with all of the Creation; our challenge is to not just die but live by this truth for all our days.

How might we start?  Perhaps by making Shabbat a bigger part of your week, to take a break from the technology that so frequently forms a barrier between ourselves and the natural world.  Come Sukkot, build a sukkah and eat out under its canopy.  Plant trees for Tu B’Shevat and parsley for Pesach.  Nurture gratitude by reciting blessings over rainbows, rivers, and shooting stars—and the food that sustains you.  Follow in Solomon’s footsteps and learn the language of birds—crows and ravens communicate in astonishingly sophisticated ways.  Join us in Kathryn Albertson Park for tashlich later this afternoon. Or just step outdoors and breathe, because to breathe is to praise the Holy One and the Creation.  As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: 

The name of God, YHVH, for which we usually substitute the term Adonai, is actually the sound of breathing.  We breathe and the trees breathe.  We breathe in what the trees breathe out.  And so we breathe each other into existence. . . 

Long ago, God urged Job, “Let the earth teach you Torah”—it’s time we return to this wisdom.  Let us now listen and learn.


Which brings us back to today, Rosh Hashanah—Ha-yom harat olam—the birthday of the world.  At first pass, our liturgy for this occasion doesn’t much feel like a celebration of the Creation’s miracles.  How many shall pass on and how many will be born; who shall live and who shall die—it’s not exactly candles and cake.

But these prayers, and others like them, can, indeed, express a heartfelt commitment to our covenant of reciprocity with the wild world—because they address not only Jews or humanity but all beings.  To recite these weighty words is to affirm that we are all bound up with one another, for the answer to the question they ask—who shall live and who shall die—is all of us—plants and insects and animals, mountains and rivers, the whole of Creation.  We’re all born, we all die—and after we die, we’ll live again, for we are all stardust, ever re-imagined and re-formed, inseparably woven into the web of life.  As Walt Whitman told his readers:

If you want me again, look for me under your bootsoles.

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,

But I shall be good help for you nevertheless.

Today, with reflection, reciprocity, and deep humility, we call ourselves into being, together with the More-than Human world. For even as we speak, our shared earth is being born as it ever will be, again and again.  It is delivered through the unending song we sing in concert with all of God’s Creation. We hear that music today in the sound of the great shofar, in the still, small voice that follows, and everything in between.

So let us join the joyful chorus of all beings with whom we share this precious earth:

Zeh hayom asah Adonai nagilah v’nis’michah bo—

This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!