Some readers of this blog might be interested in this D'var Torah (literally "word of Torah" or homily) that I delivered this past Thursday, the first day of Rosh Hashanah, at the Merion Tribute House Service in Merion, Pennsylvania:
Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of . . . . the anniversary of what?
We often think of Rosh Hashanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world, or maybe of the first day of creation. “Hayom harat olam,” – “today is the birthday of the world” – in the words of the liturgy after we blow the shofar during Musaf.
But it’s not so simple. Of course it’s not so simple. In the Talmud, Tractate Rosh Hashanah, the Rabbis debate when the world was created. Some support the first of Tishri – today. Others arguing for the first of Nissan – the month of Passover. But the prevailing midrashic view, captured in Leviticus Rabbah, is that Rosh Hashanah – today – is actually the anniversary of the creation of the first human being on the sixth day of creation. (Put aside the irony that although the first Rosh Hashanah fell on a Friday, in the fixed calendar by which we now abide, the first day of Rosh Hashanah – today – can never fall on a Friday.)
So, if Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of humanity, then, in fact, the anniversary of the beginning of creation falls on the 25th of Elul, almost a week earlier. So maybe we should sing, not “Hayom harat olam,” but “Hayom harat Adam.” Or maybe that’s the point – the microcosm of Adam is the macrocosm.
But let’s move on. According to the midrash, humanity was created at the very end of the sixth day of creation. Or maybe after the very end. The Rabbis wonder why Genesis tells us that on the seventh day, “God finished the work that God had been doing and rested.” What part of the work – the work of creation – was left to finish on what should have been a day of rest? One view is that on Shabbat, God created rest itself. But another view, almost heretical, is that God created humanity at the very last possible instant on the sixth day, so late that, in human halakhic terms it was already Shabbat. Of course, God, being God, can measure time so precisely that from God’s view it was still Friday. But the fact remains that, in halakhic terms, God finished the work of creation by creating humanity on Shabbat.
God, the great procrastinator.
Or let’s try another image. God the long-childless but yearning woman, who gives birth after all hope seemed to have been lost, when it is by all accounts too late. Our Torah reading today, after all, is not about either the first day or the sixth day of creation, but about – among other things – the birth of Isaac to Sarah, the quintessential long-childless (“barren” in the traditional if problematic jargon) woman visited by a miracle so remarkable that she laughs. And the Haftarah is about Hannah, another long-childless woman, who’s prayer for a child has become the paradigm of silent prayer for us all. For these women, birth comes at the last minute – or after the last minute. It is possible only because God’s time is not our time.
And so God too was a once-“barren” but eventually fertile woman, giving birth on what human timekeeping would consider Shabbat, the day of rest, only because God’s time is not our time.
After all, the word “harat,” as in “Hayom harat olam,” is etymologically connected to pregnancy and birth, as in “herayon” and “horeh.” And, as I emphasized in a drash here in this room during Yom Kippur of 2002, God’s attribute of Malkhut – kingship – which features so centrally on these Yamim Noraim, is associated in the Kabbalistic mind with God’s most immanent connection to the universe and with the Shekhinhah, God’s feminine side.
God was a “barren” woman, which is not a pejorative term here, particularly after those six remarkably productive days of creation. An incredible achievement. But this childless woman was still without what she so desired – what Sarah no longer could hope for and what Hannah desperately prayed for – an offspring made in her own image.
And they all lived happily ever after.