Today is the birthday of the world!
Earlier I was scanning my facebook page, and I noticed one post which not only affirmed this but said it was also Talk Like A Pirate Day.
And so I read these responses to the original post:
Arrgghhh, maties, have a great new year!
shiver me shofars!
And now that I’ve brought it up, let’s get it out of our systems. L’shana tovaaaar—everyone, say it with me……
Today is the birthday of the world!
And while Rosh Hashanah, traditionally, recalls for us God’s creation of the universe at the beginning of time, it does so only to deepen our wonder and appreciation for the new beginning that is before us, personally and collectively. And so it was that a moment ago we said together:
In the twilight of the vanishing year,
we lift up our hearts in thanksgiving.
Our souls are stirred by the memory of joy
as the new year begins.
I’ve come to learn that another Rosh Hashanah tradition is reading the story of Sarah giving birth to Isaac. You would think that the traditional reading would be the one from Genesis, the creation story, majestic with lines like, “And God said, let there be light…” Brilliant with refrain after refrain of, “And God saw that it was good.” Yet Rosh Hashanah, even as it is the birthday of the world, puts particular and special emphasis on the birthday of the human world, the birthday of history. It affirms our Unitarian Universalist First Principle of the inherent worth and dignity of all people. Thus the traditional story that is read: the story of Sarah and her giving birth to Isaac.
The context is this: Long after the Flood and Noah, God spoke to a faithful man named Abram and said, “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.”
“I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you.”
Abram was supposed to have been 75 years old when God said all this to him, and God kept on saying it, in one place and then in another, throughout his and Sarai’s long journey. But despite all the assurances, Sarai—equally aged—remained infertile. Being the practical person she was, at one point she told Abram to go sleep with her maidservant, saying “perhaps I can build a family through her.” A child was born, named Ishmael, but born with him was also conflict and strife. Besides being practical, Sarah was also very human, with her own hopes and dreams, and Ishmael’s birth only sharpened her desire for a child of her own flesh until it cut like a knife. Ishmael, with her maidservant mother, eventually found themselves banished, and they would have died unless God had stepped in to preserve them.
God is stepping into people’s lives a lot in these old stories. And he does so again, years later, in the lives of Sarai and Abram. Once again, like a broken record, God repeats his promise—and to make the deal even more solid he renames them Sarah and Abraham, names we know them better by today. “This is my covenant to you,“ God intones… But this time, Abraham counters with silent laughter. As the Bible puts it: “Abraham fell facedown; he laughed and said to himself, ‘Will a son be born to a man a hundred years old? Will Sarah bear a child at the age of ninety?’” It’s just impossible. How can the birth—the birthday of a new human world—happen, when the father and mother are seemingly sterile?
Well, we know it does happen. Years of infertility—year after grinding, hopeless year—can’t stop the miracle. God makes the seemingly infertile fertile. From two aged people, Abraham and Sarah, he is able to raise up an entire nation, a great nation. And even if this particular part—the God part—is sheer symbol and metaphor, the greatness of Israel is real. The greatness of the Jewish spirit. Here and now, we celebrate it. The world’s birthday. The birth of a people and a history, against all odds. Isaac is born. He is.
One year before it happens, three visitors come near Abraham’s tent—and here’s the key part of the whole story. It is a hot day, and Abraham is moved by the sacred law of hospitality to refresh them with food and drink and rest. Somehow these three visitors turn out to be the Lord, or the Lord speaks through them—the Bible is a bit confusing on this—and this is how the conversation goes:
“Where is your wife Sarah?” they asked Abraham.
“There, in the tent,” he said.
Then the LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife will have a son.”
Now Sarah was listening at the entrance to the tent, which was behind him. Abraham and Sarah were already old and well advanced in years, and Sarah was past the age of childbearing. So Sarah laughed to herself as she thought, “After I am worn out and my master is old, will I now have this pleasure?”
Then the LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Will I really have a child, now that I am old?’ Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”
Sarah was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”
But the LORD said, “Yes, you did laugh.”
Yeah, I know that Abraham laughed as well—but if you will recall, he did so silently, just to himself. For Sarah, on the other hand, it’s out loud, uppity, no-holds barred, blunt. Loud enough to be heard outside the tent, even though she’s inside.
Sarah the skeptic. Sarah the wonderfully human. Sarah whose very own body gives birth to Isaac and to an entire nation even if to her it seemed absolutely and utterly impossible, even if she was tired of all the promises she’d heard, yada yada yada, over all the long years.
There’s lots we could tease out of this story, as rich as it is. But the one thing I want to focus on is what can be on our minds and hearts as we face a new year and the task of beginning again the world that is our personal life, or the world of our families, or the world of our collective life as a congregation or a city or a nation. Just as for Abraham and Sara, promises are set before us. Promises that justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Promises of happiness and wellbeing in our families. Promises that we can be happy and healthy in our own lives. We have heard all the promises. Rosh Hashanah itself is one of these promises, that hope can be reborn to us in the new year! We have heard all the promises before.
But at least for me, there are times when all the promises seem repetitive and empty, and I’m feeling as sterile as sterile can be, and I don’t believe. At the thought of new birth, at the thought of beginning yet another year, all I want to do is … laugh. Just like Sarah. Be loud, uppity, no-holds barred, blunt, just like her.
There were dreams that came to naught….
and times when we refused to dream.
Some of our days were dark with grief.
Many a tear furrowed our cheeks.
We look back with sorrow, as the new year begins.
We all have different stories of this and feel it with varying levels of intensity. Last year might have been just great for some of us. But for others of us, there were challenges. Adversity. Financial difficulty. Job loss. Sickness. Others hurt us, or we hurt them. We made mistakes, and we feel horrible. Then there’s the larger world. International crises of one type or another. National crises. Politics. People putting Hitler mustaches on photos of our President—and there is more ugliness to come.
Give me a great big Sarah laugh, right now!
All of this is why the great writer Elie Wiesel once said, “The true task of life is never merely beginning—it is beginning again.” This is why Rosh Hashanah is so important. It puts us honestly in touch with our inner Sarahs—and yet it shows us that, through this very same inner Sarah, we can and we will give birth to a new world.
Yet we look ahead with hope,
giving thanks for the daily miracle of renewal,
for the promise of good to come.
Our job here and now is nothing less than to connect with our inner Sarah. All that honesty, all that spunk. Keeps us grounded. Keeps us real. But don’t stop there. We must never forget how the story ends for Sarah, and how it can end for us. Against all odds, Sarah gives birth. Clearly, we don’t have the benefit or the challenge of Abraham’s God stepping directly into our stories, visiting our tents for food and drink and rest. But for those of us who are God-believers of some sort, we know that God is an ever-present source of renewal that is always available to tap into if only we stop long enough to focus and to listen. And for all of us, God-believer or not, we are healed and made whole by the power of friendship, the energy of compassion and kindness, the grace of the world’s beauty, the wisdom of teachers around us and those who have gone before us, the gifts of religious traditions like Judaism and, of course, Unitarian Universalism. Each and all help us to take life one step at a time, one day at a time, trusting that as we step forward, we will be met with whatever we most need in that moment. We can begin again. One step, one day at a time.
Sarah, 90 years old, in her mind too old ever to give birth, does. We can face a new year and begin again, full of hope. Each of us, in the way that is proper and appropriate to our unique life situations, can give birth to Isaac. That’s the job that Rosh Hashanah gives us. Give birth to Isaac.
You know what Isaac the name actually means? Laughter. He will laugh.
With laughter, we enter into the new year.