After the shofar blasts during Rosh Hashanah, we recite the paragraph hayom harat olam. Because the Hebrew root hey-resh-hey refers to pregnancy and because of the tradition that world was created during this season, most prayer books translate the line as “Today is the birthday of the world.” This suggests the feeling of hope and new beginnings unburdened by what may have happened in the past. By considering the translation in the Mahzor Lev Shalem, we will consider how this image is one that pushes us to focus on long standing connections of people who will continue to love us despite anything that we may have done in the past year.
הַיּוֹם הֲרַת עוֹלָם הַיּוֹם יַעֲמִיד בַּמִּשְׁפָּט כָּל יְצוּרֵי עוֹלָמִים אִם כְּבָנִים אִם כַּעֲבָדִים אִם כְּבָנִים רַחֲמֵנוּ כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל בָּנִים וְאִם כַּעֲבָדִים עֵינֵינוּ לְךָ תְלוּיוֹת עַד שֶׁתְּחָנֵּנוּ וְתוֹצִיא כָאוֹר מִשְׁפָּטֵנוּ אָיוֹם קָדוֹשׁ
Hayom harat olam, hayom ya’amid bamishpat kol y’tzurei olamim im k’vanim im ka’avadim. Im k’vanim, rachameinu k’racheim av al banim; v’im ka’avadim eineinu l’kha t’luyot ad shet’choneinu v’totzi khaor mishpateinu ayom kadosh
Today the world stands as at birth. Today all creation is called to judgment, whether as Your children or as Your servants. If as Your children, be compassionate with us as a parent is compassionate with children. If as Your servants, we look to You expectantly, waiting for You to be gracious to us and, as day emerges from night, to bring forth a favorable judgement on our behalf, awe-inspiring and Holy one.
One of the names of Rosh Hashanah is Yom Ha-Din, the Day of Judgement. The author this passage uses the image, but immediately subverts it by remembering that this is judgement which goes against every value of the contemporary legal system. Throughout the day, we invoke God as a compassionate judge using the image of God as a parent and God as a ruler. These are the same images as Avinu Malkeinu. These words paint an imposing picture of God as a stern father or impartial ruler, but in hayom harat olam, we remember that when we relate to God as a parent and ruler we do so in a way that draws upon the most compassionate image of these figures.
The love of a parent to a child is one of the most assumptions in human nature. While part of parenting is developing expectations, and using discipline to help children develop into those expectations, that discipline is based on a deep and abiding love to see the child grow up to be the best person they can be. When we look at the imagery of Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgement, it’s easy to remember the dread of being judged, but we must remember the love that comes before the judgement.
The liturgy may talk about specific sins and turning over a new leaf by refraining from actions that led us astray from the past, but its image of justice is about more than punishing someone based on the clear criteria of their actions. We do not imagine God as an impartial judge. We imagine God as the knower of all secrets, so that God knows our deeper motivation. God would know when we tried our hardest, but still came up short. If we are to imagine God sitting in judgement, then we can imagine God’s discipline as one based in love that is supposed to teach us to develop better character. There is not some sort of cosmic balance sheet where we must pay our debt to society through pain and suffering. Instead, God’s discipline leads us to reflect on our character, and as any parent should, we hope that God will use our mistakes to teach us to be better next time.
Similarly, the image of the ruler is also one that imagines the side of the ruler concerned with the wellbeing of the people. A ruler is nothing without subjects, and so we call upon the gracious side of the ruler to describe our image of God ruling over the earth.
This year, we will connect this prayer to the words of Avinu Malkeinu by using the same, familiar melody to both paragraphs. Using this melody to bridge across the services reminds us of the constant thread of compassion that runs through the liturgy. Though reciting Avinu Malkeinu is one of the most solemn moments of our service, we can use the insight of this paragraph to make it a new demand for God to demonstrate compassion borne out of love and caring. The melody may sound the same, but we can learn a new interpretation. Instead of describing the harsh punishment of impartial judgement, it reflects the loving discipline of future growth.