Tuesday, August 20, 2019 -
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The symbolic womb

AFTER each sequence and series of the call and cry of the shofar, all of us together as a congregation, like a refrain, say, “Hayom Harat Olam,” translated literally, “today the world is pregnant.”

Gestation. In utero. The womb.

What does all this mean, then, on this mystical day of Rosh Hashanah that stretches and compresses two days into a single long one, “yoma arichta”?

It is on Rosh Hashanah that we are at the cusp of our potential.

It is on Rosh Hashanah that we are pregnant with possibility.

It is on Rosh Hashanh that we are being carried — waiting to be born.

Who are we in the womb?

Rabbi Simlai teaches (Niddah 30b) teaches:

“What does an embryo resemble when it is in the bowels of its mother? Folded writing tablets. Its hands rest on its two temples respectively, its two elbows on its two legs and its two heels against its buttocks. Its head lies between its knees, its mouth is closed and its navel is open, and it eats what its mother eats and drinks . . . as soon, however, as it sees the light, the closed organ opens and the open one closes, for if that had not happened the embryo could not live even one single hour.

“A light  burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other . . . and there is no time in which a man enjoys greater happiness than in those days . . . in the months of pregnancy of course.

“It [the embryo] is also taught all the Torah, from beginning to end . . . and as soon as it sees the light an angel approaches, slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Torah completely . . .

“It does not emerge from there before it is made to take an oath ?. . . what is the nature of the oath that it is made to take? . . . always bear in mind that the Holy One, blessed be He, is pure, that his ministers are pure and that the soul which he gave you is pure . . . ”

ON Rosh Hashanah I see an image of the year in round. Like a snow globe, each of us is tucked into our individual and particular worlds, cradled, curved and round and held by all that will unfold for one year at a time.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik comments on the above Talmudic passage:

“There is an obvious question: If the angel makes the baby forget everything he taught it, why did he bother to teach the embryo at all?

“Rabbi Simlai wanted to tell us that when a Jew studies Torah he is confronted with something which is not foreign and extraneous, but rather intimate and already familiar, because he has already studied it, and the knowledge was stored up in the recesses of his memory and became part of him.

“The Jew studying Torah is like the amnesia victim who tries to reconstruct from fragments the beautiful world he once experienced. In other words, by learning Torah man returns to his own self; man finds himself and advances toward a charted, illuminated and speaking I-existence.”

In a sense, our lives are a path of retrieval,  reconnection and return to that pure pure inner point of light, of creation, of who we were at the beginning, and who we are and can become, even if that pureness is only buried now under many layers, deep inside.

On Rosh Hashanah again, we are pure in our potential.

Throughout the year, perhaps it is the specific behavior and act of choosing to study Torah that can bring us back to that moment of gestation. Of the womb. Of being student to an angel. Of our potential shimmering before us.

But on Rosh Hashanah it is organic. All of us are immersed in it, naturally, effortlessly. “Hayom Harat Olam

How can we connect to this call and this voice of who we are and who we can become at the time of Rosh Hashanah? How is it that we can somehow start anew by, perhaps, as the Talmud said, closing what has been opened and opening what has been closed? How is it that we are immersed in this all so naturally?

It is the listening, I think.

ON Rosh Hashanah we listen to the sound of the shofar pierce and blast its primal scream as it shatters all of our veneers and illusions to a thousand smithereens, leaving us bare and yet rich with just us. With just me. Undiluted, unadulterated, out-and-out whatever is left of us after our human and psychological walls of Jericho fall away.

Then our beating hearts surge forward to our lips with “Hayom Harat Olam

Like the “Shmah,” that one commanding word “listen!”, the shofar demands the same of us. To listen. Like that intangible and elusive spiritual inheritance of the Jewish people handed down from our forefather Jacob — “the voice is the voice of Jacob” — we are listeners.

We pause. We listen. We are alone with our inner selves. We return.

To the symbolic womb.

Renewing the oath of our embryo.

On Rosh Hashanah.

May you and your loved ones, dear readers, be inscribed for a ketivah va-chatimah tovah in the book of life for a shanah tovah u-metukah . . . a wonderfully sweet new year!

Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.



Tehilla R. Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park


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