The Torah and Haftarah portions we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah are dominated by the theme of long-awaited babies. Sarah experiences the joy of motherhood in her advanced years, long after she thinks it is possible. When she perceives a threat to her son Isaac, coming from Hagar’s son Ishmael, Sarah feels the need to secure her son’s future, and convinces Abraham to send Ishmael and his mother away. Hagar, exiled to the desert, is about to lose faith that she can protect Ishmael and herself from certain death, but ultimately, her eyes are opened to the way she can sustain them both.
In our Haftarah reading, Hannah transforms her despair about her childlessness into an act of prayer that looks so idiosyncratic that she is accused by Eli, the priest, of being drunk. The strength of her prayer leads to her ability to conceive at long last. She bears a son whom she names Samuel.
So the question arises: Why, on Rosh Hashanah, are there all these stories about birth and babies? One of the things I learned is that Rosh Hashanah is not the birthday of the world, as I had once thought, but rather the anniversary of the sixth day of creation, the day on which God creates man. The Torah portions we read today, then, remind us of the miracle of new life and of new generations.
As I was preparing this talk, I had originally wanted to find something else in the text to talk about, but I kept coming back to babies. It finally dawned on me that my focus on babies might have some connection to my latest TV watching obsession: the PBS drama, Call the Midwife. This series is based on memoirs written by Jennifer Worth, a British nurse who served as a midwife in the 1950’s. When she was in her early 20’s, Jenny worked with an Anglican order of nuns in a town called Poplar, located in the poverty-stricken East End of London. Jenny and the other midwives were exposed to conditions that were completely alien to what they had known before: crowded tenements, often with no indoor plumbing, under-age pregnancies, prostitution, binge drinking… and so many babies. This was a time before effective contraception, and in this small town of maybe 8 square miles, there were on average 100 babies born per month. And Jenny and the other midwives would ride off on their bicycles to deliver these babies, day and night, often with very little in the way of sophisticated equipment to help them.
Each episode of the show contains the drama within a drama of the miraculous act of childbirth. There is a purity in the way that the midwives connect with the expectant mothers, joy in the shared effort of welcoming new life.
But Call the Midwife is first and foremost a character study, not just of the colorful Poplar residents, but about the power of that community to transform Jenny, and the other midwives and nuns who worked there. The neighbors in that community became Jenny’s teachers about love, caring and connection.
Today, on this first day of Rosh Hashanah, I am going to talk about babies and birth, and even midwifery, but in a more symbolic way. The central themes of Rosh Hashanah: Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedakah: repentance, prayer and charity…point to our capacity to be fruitful and to multiply. All of us have the potential to be giving birth, if not to children, then to the important work and endeavors that are uniquely ours to accomplish. We can re-imagine giving birth as the realization of our own particular gifts that we are able to bring out into the world. And this fertility is possible, not in a vacuum, but in the context of community. Community is the arena in which we not only learn about our gifts, but also get the chance to become a midwife and encourage someone else’s gifts to emerge.
I came to this symbolic way of looking at baby-making from a wonderful teacher of psychotherapy, Paul Koehler. Koehler believes that the work of the therapist and client is, at its best, a kind of baby-making. It provides the freedom, and even, at times, sense of play, to produce something utterly unique: expanded possibilities for oneself that comes from the ability to accept all of who we are. As a psychotherapist, one valuable way to look at your relationship with a client is to ask yourself: “Are we creating something new here, or, are we stuck rehashing stale and rigid ideas about oneself and others? Can I help this client let go of fear, and encourage him or her to find possibility, even in the places that feel most hopeless?”
During the month of Elul, which has just passed, we are told to read Psalm 27 daily, and in this Psalm we plead: “Let me live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” I didn’t know what “the house of the Lord” meant, but translations of this psalm, particularly one recent translation by Rabbi Yael Levy, have led me to think of living in “the house of the Lord” as growing our ability to discover the truths about our lives: who we really are. Seeing through all of the static of daily life to these truths is incredibly difficult, in large part because it is so hard to look at the unvarnished truth. As my Mussar teacher, Rabbi Ira Stone, has said, we are imprinted with the record of every disappointment and every rejection we have ever experienced. These wounds retain their power, even years after they are inflicted, and we are tempted to move as far away as we can from these parts of ourselves. We don’t want to think about them. We might even believe our only option is to disown the aspects of ourselves that we imagine connects to this pain.
But what if these so-called defects were really the most powerful part of who we are?
The Jungian psychoanalyst, James Hillman, held the view that we are each born with our own peculiar genius, “like an acorn slowly blossoming…that is fate working through us”. He believed that the trouble in realizing our destiny, is that this “acorn” often shows up in childhood as pathology, as traits gone awry that need to be fixed. Hillman wrote a book examining the lives of great artists like Picasso, Zola, and Faulkner, and he looked at how “symptoms, genius, and destiny all mix together…a kind of preventive medicine, holding you back from a false route…limiting life to the only possibilities that are actually yours.” Hillman believed that we are too often trying to change the essential parts of ourselves…. the parts that are the most powerful and unique. He said, “The puzzle in therapy is not ‘How did I get this way?’, but ‘What does my angel want with me?’.”
The question of what is true within us takes a lot of courage and discernment to answer. So how do we begin to reveal what Hillman referred to as the acorn? Today’s Torah and Haftarah portions contain some clues. The stories we read, about the struggle to give birth, serve as lessons about the doubt and fear that can get in the way of our own ability to see what is true within us, and be fruitful.
In Sarah’s doubts about her ability to have a child, we can hear a familiar refrain, “Who, me? How could I ever do this thing?” Sara protests that she is too old, but when we are faced with something difficult, we have possibly come up with our own variations. Perhaps we say: “I don’t have the skill” or “I don't have time right now” or “I could never have that much patience.” For Sarah, ultimately, age wasn't a factor; she was not only able to give birth but also to nurture her son. In order to take the daring step of discovering and giving birth to our unique gifts, we learn from Sarah that we cannot take refuge in excuses.
In the story of Hagar, there seemed to be no place for her and her baby. The community she had been part of rejected both her and her child, and Hagar viewed this rejection as the truth. In her state of despair, we read that she placed her child “a bowshot away.” That is a considerable distance. In her pain, Hagar can't even look at her child. She is paralyzed by fear, and we read that she raised her voice and wept. But then, we read that God heard the child’s voice. God hears Ishmael, not Hagar, and it was this voice that led God to open Hagar’s eyes. Ishmael represented what was true and essential, not Hagar’s fears. Hagar found the well that she needed to nurture Ishmael, who eventually thrived as the father of the Ishmaelites, the people of the desert. In the story of Hagar, we learn that we need to find the right place for our gifts, and not necessarily taking rejection as the final decision.
Hannah’s source of pain was her childlessness, and she did not try to hide this pain. The text translation reads…"and she was in a bitter mood, and prayed to The Eternal, while she wept and wept.” The sadness and bitterness that Hannah felt became the source of her strength, and we read that Hannah’s prayer reached God because of, not despite this pain. Hannah’s son Samuel became one of the most important figures in Jewish history; our sages describe him as the equivalent of "Moses and Aaron combined."So in today’s Torah readings we see doubt, desperation and bitterness. Even hopelessness. This seems to me a perfect reflection of what happens to us when we are confronted with certain aspects of our own truth. There can be parts of ourselves that seem distasteful, even cringe-worthy. There may be other parts of ourselves, a talent or an interest, perhaps, that feels too scary to explore. We may feel defeated before we even begin. We definitely don't want to make a fool of ourselves. We might say, “Who am I, to do this thing? There is surely someone else who can do this.”
But, as our Torah readings suggest, these sources of pain turn out to have tremendous power. Alan Lew, in his book, Be Still and Get Going, discusses the Torah passage in which Moses sees the burning bush and hears God’s name: “Ehiyeh asher Ehiyeh,” which means “I am that I am”, or “I will become what I will become” Lew writes, “The will of God is expressed in the need of everything and everyone on earth to become what they are, what they are supposed to be.”
But Lew goes on to relate the bad news that many of us don't become all of what we are supposed to be. The main reason is fear. Lew says, “We are afraid of our lives, as afraid, perhaps, as we are of our deaths.”
This work of giving birth to our unique abilities and skills is clearly not something that can be done alone. We need each other, to show us parts of ourselves that we might reject or hide, and to embolden us to continue along the path of becoming who we are. And here is where the strength of community comes in.
James Hillman, the Jungian psychoanalyst I quoted earlier, felt firmly that our destiny, the sum of our gifts, only comes to light in the community. He wrote, “Your true self is a self among, not a self apart.”
Engaging with community is a vital part of learning the truth about ourselves, and recognizing our “peculiar genius”. For one thing, community gives us the chance to experiment. And here, I want to quote David Geffen, the music producer and philanthropist, with thanks to my friend Irene McHenry, who shared something that he wrote for the Jerusalem Post:
“My friends, the consensus may be that with aging we rust with “disuse” or grow musty with “stagnation.” But – it can be different. If you have a feeling that there is something special you are endowed with; a talent which can be well-utilized, grab hold of yourself and give it a try. Even if you do not succeed wildly, the effort will add a dimension to your life you never expected.”
And this is one of the gifts that community can give us, if we devote our energies to it. In the Dorshei Derekh community, we have the good fortune of having the energy and talents of generous members who often step out of their comfort zone to try something new. Our lay congregation does a wonderful job. I have seen how people transform over time as prayer leaders. Reading from the Torah is demanding, but we have people who volunteer to do this every Shabbat. People step up to create a beautiful kiddushes. Others, like me, overcome their feelings of terror and give a talk based on the Torah portion of the week. And many have spent time as leaders, doing the legwork and coordinating these various jobs so that we can put together services for Shabbat and holidays throughout the year.
Along with this energy and willingness, an essential part of a vital community is gratitude. When we can access gratitude for the people who volunteer, knowing what it takes to do each and every task, we take on the role of midwife. We can encourage others and let them know that they have given us something valuable. And we can draw inspiration from others to try something new ourselves. In other words, the gratitude and appreciation for peoples’ gifts facilitates their own journey of finding out about their acorn, the work they are meant to do. This is the gift of community.
Margaret Wheatley, an organizational consultant, writes about the journey of giving birth to our own unique gifts. She calls this journey becoming warriors for the human spirit. She writes: “As warriors for the human spirit, we discover our right work, work that we know is ours to do no matter what. We engage wholeheartedly, embody values we cherish, let go of outcomes, and carefully attend to relationships. We serve those issues and people we care about, not so much focused on making a difference, as on being a difference.”
So, as we embark on these Days of Awe with this backdrop of babies, let’s keep in mind the roadmap we are given:
Teshuvah is being able to take a second look at the things that are difficult to uncover, those aspects of ourselves we imagine to be shameful or ugly. Instead of rejecting these things outright, teshuvah encourages us to be curious about these things, to learn what they can tell us about ourselves.
Tefilah, or prayer, is what Rabbi Ira Stone describes as the stance we take in life. Can we become more expansive, and take risks? Can we, like Hannah, dare to pray in a way that expresses our truth, even when it draws criticism from others?
Tzedakah, acts of charity and acts of justice, is described beautifully in the Mahzor, Kol HaNeshamah : “Tzedakah is all about community, reminding us that our own salvation or self-fulfillment cannot exist apart from those with whom we share past, present and future.”
On this Rosh Hashanah, may we all be encouraged to be fruitful and multiply: accepting and incorporating more of ourselves, learning new and surprising things about one another, and savoring the communities that give us the energy and inspiration to do this work.
Sonia Voynow serves as Dorshei Derekh Coordinator-in-Chief. You can read about her work as a therapist at Surviving and Thriving.
Sonia Voynow serves as Dorshei Derekh Coordinator-in-Chief. You can read about her work as a therapist at Surviving and Thriving.