Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon – 5777

Rosh Hashanah Day One 5777 – given by Rabbi Lev Meirowitz-Nelson
Hayom Harat Olam. This is the refrain we will soon say at the end of each of the
three sections of Musaf. Hayom Harat Olam. Six of the seven different machzors I
have at home translate this as some variation on, “Today the world is born.” But one
of them translates, “Today the world is conceived.”

The six other machzors are following a history of rabbinic interpretation, where the
rabbis bring examples of places in the bible where that word, harah, means to give
birth. But the simple meaning of the word is to conceive, as we read in the Torah
this morning. “God remembered Sarah as God had promised, and she conceived and
bore a son.” Vatahar Sarah vateled ben. In fact, that word har also means
“mountain,” which gives us a visceral image: literally, Sarah became a mountain. So
there might be room for a third translation in there: today the world is pregnant.
I want to explore these three translations with you for a few minutes, because I
think they can be a useful metaphor for some of the changes facing our
community—and give us a better idea of what Rosh Hashanah is all about.
Before I go any further, I want to note that there are many ways to become a
parent—in vitro, surrogacy, adoption, becoming a step-parent through marriage, to
name just a few—and, indeed, being a parent is not the be-all and end-all of life.
Some of us choose not to be parents, and others of us have that choice made for us,
against our will. Similarly, we know full well that it is not a straightforward, linear
process, that infertility and miscarriage are real tragedies that affect people in this
very community. In spite of that, Hayom Harat Olam—when God conceived the
world, or was pregnant with it, or birthed it, there was no physical body involved, no
uterus, no ultrasound. We all know people who have gone through this process,
even if it is not our own lived experience, and I hope the metaphor can be useful for
all of us.

Last summer, this shul unexpectedly entered a new stage of its life with the
retirement of Mr. Keisler, our long-serving and much-loved synagogue director. It
was a moment of conception, irreversibly reshaping the course of what was to
follow. Over the course of the year, we have been partners in a communal
pregnancy, as we worked together to shape and nurture a new creature—FJC as an
egalitarian Conservative shul. This morning marks our first Rosh Hashanah
davening together as a united community where gender does not determine the role
people play in the service. In some respects, this morning is a birth. Mazel tov!
Together, we are the proud parents of a reinvented synagogue.
And yet, in other respects, our pregnancy is not over. Don’t just think in human
terms of 9 months. African elephants are pregnant for 22 months. The frilled shark,
I’ve learned recently, can carry its young for three and a half years before giving
birth. That’s a lot of heartburn!

This year, we find ourselves facing new challenges. After examining our finances
carefully, the board determined that we could no longer afford to pay Cantor
Schwartz the salary he deserved, and so, for the first time in some 25 years—longer,
even, than Mr. Keisler served us—he is not on this bimah leading services. This is a
great sadness for many of us who love him and love the music he brought to prayer.
Cantor Schwartz is an incredibly humble man who did not want any public thanks
or celebration of him—he would be mortified if he knew I was speaking about him
at this moment, so please don’t mention it to him if you happen to see him. This past
year, he also showed himself to be extraordinarily flexible, leading us in egalitarian
services even though that was not his personal practice, because he saw that was
what the community needed to thrive.

I suspect that Cantor Schwartz’s departure is not a birth pang, one of those intensely
painful contractions that announces the baby is on its way imminently, that the
process is nearly complete. I suspect, rather, that it marks another stage in our
collective pregnancy. At Kol Nidrei, I’ll talk more about the challenges that face this
community, as well as the strengths with which I believe we will rise to meet them.
For the moment, let’s focus on our experience davening together on Shabbat and
holidays for the coming year. In addition to my continuing to lead two Shabbatot a
month and Yizkor holidays, and on top of Yoshie Fruchter’s talented davening as
cantor for these High Holidays, we have a terrific team of laypeople who will be
stepping up to lead us in prayer from week to week, just as they have stepped up
this past year to handle the Torah reading. They will lead us in new directions, find
new ways to make our davening meaningful and beautiful. It will not be the same as
when Cantor Schwartz was with us, but it will be something new and differently
good.

That is one of the lessons of pregnancy—indeed, of any major change. Change
inherently involves loss. And even when the new growth is something delightful and
long yearned-for, it is ok to acknowledge the loss that mingles with celebration. We
see that in this morning’s Torah reading. Abraham and Sarah rejoice at the birth of
their son Isaac, and yet Abraham knows that the new arrival displaces his beloved
Ishmael. He mourns the loss of the family configuration he knew before.
Which brings me to my last point about this whole metaphor of conception,
pregnancy, and birth. We love stories that have a beginning, middle, and end—“The
all lived happily ever after.” Indeed, we rely on such stories, at a very basic level, to
structure our lives and help us understand our world. That’s why the Torah mixes
story with mitzvot, rather than simply being a law code. But real life is messier.
There’s never an “end” to the story, after which everything goes back to “normal.”
Every year of our lives is its own unique time-period, with new challenges and new
rewards. Each year, like each day, is a transition that follows from what came before
and sets us up for what comes next. Our morning liturgy praises God as
“hamechadesh betuvo bechol yom tamid ma’aseh breshit”—the One who, in divine
goodness, renews each day the work of creation.

So, Hayom Harat Olam. Is today the day the world is conceived, when in a flash of
inspiration we dream of all we wish to do in the coming year and set it into motion?
Yes. Is today the day the world is pregnant, when we cope with discomfort, looking
to the future with mixed anxiety and anticipation, and grieving a little for the past
that is gone, never to return? Yes. Is today the day we give birth to a new year, doing
the intense, short-lived, extremely hard work that is an investment in our long-term
future? Yes it is. And together we can be the parents—the midwives—the
children—of the Flatbush Jewish Center.