Birth Day

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Birth Day
Rabbi Benjamin J. Samuels
Rosh Hashanah 5777

“Birth is about radical, creative, life-affirming change. It is about adaptation on a nearly unbelievable scale.” So writes pediatrician Mark Sloan in Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth. “There is no time in life, not even the moment of death, that can compare to the human body’s transformation in the first five minutes outside the womb. … We go from dark to light, from warm to cold, from wet to dry, and begin to breathe through our lungs. We emerge blue and slippery, covered in blood and amniotic fluid, bandy legged, pigeon toed, squinty eyed, and squalling. In a few short minutes, our initial frantic cries are soothed by our [parent]’s touch and familiar voice, our color shifts, we open our eyes and look at the world.”

Hayom Harat Olam. Today, our world was born. Humanity was created.Rosh Hashanah is the birth day of the world, our world. God, and each of us, remember our beginnings on thisYom HaZikaron.

Rabbeinu Nissim teaches in his commentary on Masekhet Rosh Hashanah that it was on this day that Adam and Chava were formed, ensouled and came to life with the breath of God. In Tishrei, the Midrash teaches, the Avot, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were all born, as they were the beginning of hope for the new world after the flood washed away the sins of the earlier generations. The Gemara Rosh Hashana (10) teaches that on Rosh Hashana Sarah, Rachel, and Channah were “remembered.” They were barren and now conceived. On Rosh Hashana, Yosef was freed from the prison where he had waited for twelve years, reborn to a new position and purpose. Per the Midrash, it was also on Rosh Hashana, that our enslaved ancestors cried out in Egypt, were remembered, and the redemptive process began.

The Mishnah Rosh Hashanah (TB Rosh Hashana 32.) teaches, as is our practice: “We do not say less than ten verses each for “malchuyot”, “zichronot” and “shofarot” -- kingship, remembrance and shofar. The Gemara asks, “Why ten?…R Yochanan says: The ten verses correspond to the asarah maamarot -- the ten utterances with which the world was created. The Mishnah Avot teaches that God spoke the world into being through ten utterances, such as“Vayomer Hashem yehi ohr. And God said, let there be light. And there was light.” However, the Talmud notes, if you actually count them, there are only nine instances of Vayomer, on nine utterances appear in the Torah text! The Talmud answers: the word “Bereishit ... In The Beginning” is also an utterance.

Hayom Harat Olam.
Today is a day of new beginnings. And our pre-verbal thoughts, our Bereishit, and all of our utterances, focus on a new year of new beginnings and blessings.

We join together, because nothing new happens in a vacuum, solitary and alone. We need each other to birth the new year and new possibilities.

:וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם לַֽמְיַלְּדֹ֖ת הָֽעִבְרִיֹּ֑ת אֲשֶׁ֨ר שֵׁ֤ם הָֽאַחַת֙ שִׁפְרָ֔ה וְשֵׁ֥ם הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית פּוּעָֽה
רש"י שמות פרק א
:שפרה - זו יוכבד על שם שמשפרת את הולד

The shoresh sh-f-r means to make beautiful because Shifra, says Rashi, would take the newborns and clean and swaddle them and make them beautiful. Baal HaTurim offers another explanation. The name Shifra is related to the hollow reed “shifoferet” – a blowing instrument like a shofar -- used by midwives to resuscitate a newborn who needed help breathing.

פועה - זו מרים שפועה ומדברת והוגה לולד כדרך הנשים המפייסות תינוק הבוכה
(פועה לשון צעקה, כמו (ישעיהו מב יד
הֶחֱשֵׁ֙יתִי֙ מֵֽעוֹלָ֔ם אַחֲרִ֖ישׁ אֶתְאַפָּ֑ק
כַּיּוֹלֵדָ֣ה אֶפְעֶ֔ה
אֶשֹּׁ֥ם וְאֶשְׁאַ֖ף יָֽחַד

I have kept silent far too long, kept still and restrained myself, now I will scream like a woman in labor, I will pant and I will gasp.
There is a connection between Puah and the shofar as well. Vayikra Rabbah brings a midrash to explain a difficult pasuk from ישעיהו פרק מא פסוק כד
:הֵן־אַתֶּ֣ם מֵאַ֔יִן וּפָעָלְכֶ֖ם מֵאָ֑פַע תּוֹעֵבָ֖ה יִבְחַ֥ר בָּכֶֽם

Speaking harshly to a sinful Israel, God says: Why you are less than nothing, Your effect is less than nullity, one who chooses you is an abomination.

The midrash, however, turns this decree of despair into the birth of hope.

ויקרא רבה (מרגליות) פרשת אמור פרשה כז
ז] ר' לוי פתח הן אתם מאין ופעלכם מאפע וגו' (ישעיה מא, כד). מאין, מלא כלום ומלחה סרוחה. מאפע, ממאה פעיות שהאשה פועה בשעה שהיא יושבת על המשבר תשעים ותשעה למיתה ואחד לחיים. ... תועבה יבחר בכם (ישעיה שם /מ"א, כ"ד/), אף על פי שהתינוק הזה יוצא ממעי אמו מלוכלך ומטונף מלא רירין ודם הכל מחבקין ומנשקין אותו.

The Meshekh Chochmah and others cite this midrash as a source for why we blow 100 shofar blasts. 99 cries of despair and the 1 final expression of hope. If we are soiled and sullied on the day of our rebirth, rather than cast us aside as an abomination, hashofar meshaperet -- we are cleaned, coddled and kissed, like a new born child -- full of hope and possibility, fresh and new to the word.

Kohelet is suspicious of new beginnings. Shlomo HaMelekh in his old age teaches:

:קהלת פרק ז (א) ט֥וֹב שֵׁ֖ם מִשֶּׁ֣מֶן ט֑וֹב וְי֣וֹם הַמָּ֔וֶת מִיּ֖וֹם הִוָּלְדֽוֹ

The Midrash Yalkut Shimoni teaches (7:1.) … and the day of death [is better] than the day of one's birth." When a person is born, everyone rejoices; when he dies, everyone cries. But that’s not the way it should be. When a person is born, everyone should be crying, because it is not yet known whether or not he will follow a proper path in life. When he dies, everyone should be rejoicing, since they know that he left this world in peace after living a good and proper life. To what can this be compared? To two ships that were in the ocean laden with merchandise. One ship was coming to port, the other was leaving. People were praising the ship coming into port. Others stood by amazed and said, "Why are you praising this ship and not the other?" In reply they said to them, "We are praising the incoming ship since we know this ship has departed in peace and arrived at its destination in peace. But what the future will bring to the ship that has just begun its journey we do not know. "So it is with a person who is born: we do not know the nature of his future deeds. But when he leaves this world we know the nature of his deeds.”
And yet, new beginnings are about opportunity and hope, clean slates and untarnished promise. The Jerusalem Talmud teaches:

תלמוד ירושלמי (וילנא) מסכת ראש השנה פרק ד הלכה ח
ר' לעזר בי ר' יוסה בשם ר' יוסי בר קצרתא בכל הקרבנות כתיב והקרבתם וכאן כתיב ועשיתם אמר להן הקדוש ברוך הוא מכיון שנכנסתם לדין לפני בראש השנה ויצאתם בשלום מעלה אני עליכם כאילו נבראתם בריה חדשה

Lazer son of R Jose said in the name of R Jose bar Kussrita: In all other sacrifices the Torah states “and you shall sacrifice” but here (Rosh Hashana) the phrase “and you shall do/make” is used. God says- since you have entered before me for judgement on Rosh Hashana and you have left in peace, I look upon you as though you have recreated yourselves anew. (JT Rosh Hashana 4:8).


What constitutes the worthy life and how do we achieve it? These are essential questions which we must ask concerning our dreams and aspirations for our child(ren), as well as regarding ourselves. In the Talmud, our Sages of old framed this inquiry in two-fold fashion: prospectively at the start of life, and retrospectively at the end of life. Let’s look at two rabbinic texts that explore the worthy life. The first is a blessing recited upon the birth of a child, the second is an imagined interview at the end of one’s days.


Upon the arrival of a child in our lives, both parents and community alike are full of hope and dreams for the child. If we were granted one wish to make on behalf of the child, for what would we ask? Our tradition, in fact, does give us an opportunity to make this one wish and share a hope-filled blessing with the child.

The traditional blessing recited at a brit or a baby naming goes:

כְֹּשֵם ֹשֶנִּכְנַס לַבְּרִית כֵּן יִכָּנֵס לְתּוֹרָה וּלְחוּפָּה וּלְמַעֲשִֹים טוֹבִים

Just as this child has entered the Brit (Covenant), so may s/he enter into Torah, Chuppah (the marriage canopy), and Ma’asim Tovim (good deeds).


Now that we have reflected upon what constitutes the worthy life and the milestones of the human life course, let us consider a parent’s obligations in preparing her or his child for this journey. The below Talmudic text speaks directly to this task. Let’s compare the traditional and modern translations provided and discuss what is included and what perhaps should further be included.

Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 29a

תנו רבנן: האב חייב בבנו למולו, ולפדותו, וללמדו תורה, ולהשיאו אשה, וללמדו אומנות וי"א: אף להשיטו במים

Traditional Translation:

A father is obligated to circumcise his son, to redeem him, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife and to teach him a trade. Some say that he must also teach him to swim.

Modern Translation:

A parent is obligated to enter her/his child into the covenant, to educate them Jewishly, to raise them to be capable of committed, loving relationships, to prepare them for the workplace. Some say that a parent must also teach her/his child to swim.

Every one of us in this sanctuary has been born to a purpose, has specific somethings to accomplish in this world. This is true of us on the day that we are born, and it is also true today, on Yom Hazikaron, when we remember our begining, on Hayom Harat Olam, on the birthday of our world, on the day that we are reborn.

We can fulfill the purpose and be agents for...

As we blow the shofar, we sound the baby’s cry to which we are confident our Divine parent with respond with love and compassion.

As we sound the 100 blasts, we recall he painful moment of birth, which ends with hope and joy, and the making beautiful the lives we inhabit.

A new year is born. It is the opportunity of a life time.