Family and continuity

God the Mother conceived the world 5,767 years ago. What kind of fertility do we yearn for at the New Year?

September 21, 2006 11:18
4 minute read.
Family and continuity

rosh hashana 88. (photo credit: )


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A new year brings hope for health, abundance, creation, a new page and the start of new life. Thus the verse "Today the world was conceived," recited during the blowing of the shofar in the Musaf service, embodies a recurrent theme of Rosh Hashana. This verse declares that God, the Mother of the World, conceived the world 5,767 years ago today. With the rise of Jewish feminism, the silenced voices of Jewish women began to emerge. Women's commentaries often present a different and unvoiced angle of a holiday, mitzva or text. Employing a feminist perspective to explore the meaning of Rosh Hashana demonstrates that the excessive emphasis on the topic of judgment has resulted in ignoring the symbols of fertility and stories of pregnancy and birth also associated with the New Year. The Sages believed that Sarah, Rachel and Leah were "visited" (conceived their children) on Rosh Hashana (B. Rosh Hashana, 11a). The sages therefore chose a Torah portion and Haftara reminiscent of the conception, pregnancies and births that were formative events in terms of the nation's continuity and future (B. Megilla 31a). Every autumn this tie heralds a prayer and heightened anticipation of fertility for all levels of existence. Yet, Exile, the uprooting of Jewish culture from its cradle, somewhat unraveled the bond between the religious-existential content of Jewish culture and the landscape of Eretz Yisrael. And what kind of fertility do we yearn for at the New Year? In order to answer this question, we must first ask how the Sages understood the problem of infertility. In addition to the extensive references in the Torah reading and Haftarot to the infertility stories of the matriarchs (Sarah - Genesis 21, Hannah - I Samuel 1, Rachel - Jeremiah 31), the Sages also included the patriarchs in this theme. They held that Abraham and Isaac were also barren (B. Yevamoth 64a). Why did the Sages maintain that Abraham was infertile when he had a biological son, Ishmael, who was born years before Sarah conceived, and why did they use the term "uprooted" (akur) instead of "barren" (akar)? The history of the relationship between Abraham and his eldest son Ishmael is painful. The Torah does not hide the sadness, injustice and suffering it entails. Yet despite the blood ties and emotional bond between the two, Abraham and Ishmael belonged to different cultures and worldviews whose gap often cannot be bridged. Thus, the Talmud implies that the biological dimension of parenthood is marginal as compared to its educational and spiritual aspects. Abraham, albeit a biological father, is considered uprooted until the birth of Isaac. An uprooted person is a refugee, torn from his roots. Such was our forefather, Abraham, who left his birthplace and went to the Land of Israel where he hoped to fulfill his vision of faith and build a moral society that abided by this vision. Lacking continuity, barren people are stripped of both a future and a past. According to the Babylonian Talmud, despite being a biological father, Abraham was barren or uprooted because he had no offspring who identified either with his past, or with the path he traveled. The link between barrenness and uprootedness in talmudic language indicates the connection between past and future in Jewish thought. The past, however glorious it may be, is meaningless if there is no future, no continuing generation to take that familial and national past and perpetuate it - that is, make it fit for the next generation. Barrenness, in line with this intrinsic grammar, is a condition of alienation, loneliness and spiritual emptiness, primarily indicated by one generation being severed from the other. Without Isaac, the moral and spiritual path of his parents would have been lost forever. The problem of uprootedness and barrenness has become even more acute in modern times. Industrial society pays lip service to "family values" but actually cultivates a split between parents and children. The emphasis on achievement and competition, both in religious and secular spheres, results in parents' and children's emphasis on their individual careers and hobbies and less time devoted to doing things together as a family. As a result, little attention is paid to cultivating traditions that were passed within our families throughout the generations. Geographical uprooting and spiritual barrenness serve the economic and political interest of a society ruled by mass communications and globalization. Consequently, our spiritual struggle against barrenness/uprootedness is much more difficult than that of our forefathers and foremothers. Our sole remaining hope is found in the same root ('a-k-r): we must seek out the fundamental principle (ikar), the value and tenet of existence needed in our lives, and adhere to this belief. Each person finds his or her fundamental principle in a different way: Sarah discovered laughter (Genesis 18:12) - joy despite hardship - which released her from barrenness. Hannah prayed from her heart, "casting words upwards" (B. Brachot 31b). This prayer connected her to an enormous internal strength which overcame the limitations of her biological fertility. So it should be in our lives: we must try to search for paths that lift us up and take us away from the the "secondary" pettiness (tafel) that we confront. A feminist-feminine reading of the traditional Torah portions read on Rosh Hashana highlights the realization that whoever clings to the trivial, whoever is not prepared to uncover the truth, and to direct his or her heart toward the fundamental principle (the ikar) of one's life, actually intensifies a barren and uprooted experience. Those incapable of giving precedence to the essential in order to be rescued from a state of uprootedness will remain barren, and by so doing will widen the circle of the uprooted. This wisdom, passed on to us by our foremothers and forefathers, is designed to lead us to the ikar inherent in our private, communal and national lives. Rabbi Dr. Einat Ramon is the Dean of the Schechter Rabbinical Seminary.

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