Rosh HaShanah 5781 Sermon: Breaking and Birthing

By: Rabbi Ora Nitkin-Kaner

I want to begin with a story about a birth that happened 2,000 years ago. This isn’t the birth of a person, but the birth of a city—maybe the most important Jewish city you’ve never heard of: a place called Yavneh. 

In the first century CE, the Jews in the Land of Israel were living under harsh Roman rule. In 66 CE, after years of oppression, they rose up in open revolt against the Romans. The rebellion lasted for years, so long that General Vespasian himself finally came to crush it. In the year 70 CE on the 9th of Av, he commanded his troops to destroy Jerusalem.

The Temple, which had been the heart of Jewish life for centuries, was desecrated, then set on fire. Jewish men, women, and children were killed in the streets. The scale of destruction was shocking, unprecedented. And we have stories of rabbis, who, after the destruction, could only sit in the ruins of the Temple and weep. But there was one rabbi who did more than just mourn. There was one rabbi who, even as Jerusalem was burning, dreamt up a new kind of Judaism. His name was Yochanan ben Zakkai. 

Yochanan ben Zakkai recognized that Temple-based Judaism—the Judaism that connected Jews to God through priests and sacrifices—couldn’t survive the destruction of Jerusalem. So, as the city burned, Yochanan did something audacious: he got ahold a coffin. Then he lay down in it, and two other rabbis carried this coffin to the city gates, where guards were stationed. The guards wanted to stab the coffin to confirm that the person inside was actually dead, and were only convinced at the last second not to desecrate the body. 

The coffin was carried into the Roman camp, and set down in front of General Vespasian. And then Yochanan stood up, and climbed out.  This minor resurrection shocked the general and got his attention. Yochanan then flattered Vespasian, stroking to the general’s ego and calling him ‘emperor.’ And then Yochanan made his request: ‘Just give me Yavneh and her sages.’ And his request was granted. Jerusalem was destroyed, but Yavneh—a small town north of the city—was spared. 

Before the revolt, Yavneh had been an insignificant backwater where a few rabbis studied and debated Torah. Their way of life—based around Torah learning—hadn’t really made a dent in Judaism up until that point: the Jerusalem Temple had been the focus. In Yavneh, Yochanan ben Zakkai and his fellow rabbis birthed a new kind of Judaism: the Judaism that we practice, today. 

Temple Judaism had been full of warring Jewish sects, each insisting that their interpretation of Torah was the only right one. In contrast, the rabbis of Yavneh encouraged vigorous debate. This laid the groundwork for what later became the Mishnah, and then the Talmud. Rather than trying to rebuild the Temple, the rabbis of Yavneh created synagogues, and these synagogues became places of Jewish worship, and Jewish study, and Jewish community-building. In Yavneh, Judaism stopped being a centralized, sacrificial cult, and evolved into a more democratic and diverse way of life.

This was the birth of rabbinic Judaism. It was a Judaism that would spread across the Middle East to North Africa, then Asia, Europe, and eventually North America. Our Judaism, us sitting here today, is because of Yavneh. We are its inheritors. 

So what? Why am I speaking with you about Yavneh today? Because we, like Yochanan, are living through a time of shatter in this country. 

We saw the cracks in the veneer years ago. We saw the fault lines in 2016 and 2017, the growing fractures in 2018, 2019. And this year, and these last 6 months in particular, we are seeing chasms. 

On December 31st 2016, American Sikh lawyer and activist Valarie Kaur gave a powerful speech at an AME Church in Washington, DC. She spoke about her fear that her brown son, who was just a toddler at the time, would grow up to be seen “as foreign, as suspect, as a terrorist, just as black bodies are still seen as criminal, brown bodies are still seen as illegal, trans bodies are still seen as immoral, indigenous bodies are still seen as savage, the bodies of women and girls still seen as someone else’s property.” Ms. Kaur said in 2016 that the future of this country looked dark. “But,” she went on to say, “The mother in me asks what if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” 

In light of the devastation of these last 4 years, of these last 6 months, of the nearly 200,000 dead in this country alone because of a willfully incompetent administration that lets its people die in a plague, we cannot pretend this is not the darkness of the tomb as we grieve and as we rage over everyone and everything we’ve lost. 

We are living through a time of shatter. 

The Hebrew word for shatter is shavar. Shavar also means brokenness, destruction, calamity. It’s from the word shavar that we get the shofar call shevarim: Three cries, three articulations of grief punctuated by gasps. 

Shevarim is the sound of this moment: not just the new year, but this moment, September 19th 2020 in the United States of America. 

Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘Look! Things are not ok!’

Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘How do we get through this?’

Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘This hurts! This hurts! This hurts.’

It feels, right now, like we are in the darkness of the tomb. It feels, lately, like death is winning, like destruction is everywhere. It feels like we are moving from crisis to crisis, barely able to catch our breath. It hurts. And there is devastation. And things are not ok.

And so I need you to remember Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, in a time when everything around him was on fire, sidled up alongside death in order to give birth to a legacy that is ours, today. I want you to remember Yochanan, who climbed into a coffin in order to birth the Judaism we needed. Our religion, us gathering here today, was midwifed by one person, 2,000 years ago, who had an audacious vision for a life that included mourning what was lost, but also imagining how different the future could be.

Like Yochanan, we are living through a time of shatter. 

This shatter means that we may never regain the lives we had before. We have to grieve all that’s being lost. But grieving should also be accompanied by dreaming. Because living through a time of shatter now doesn’t mean that there is only loss ahead. It means that we also have a chance, more than ever before, to be dreaming and building towards the future that we know will be different, whether next month, next year, in five years, ten years, in the lives of our children or our grandchildren our or great-grandchildren.

Coming back to the Hebrew word for shatter, shavar. The Hebrew for crisis also comes from shavar. The word for crisis is mashber. But: mashber also means birthing stool. In our tradition, in our language, crisis, and birthing stool, are one in the same.

Every person who has ever labored to push out a baby knows that birth is messy. That birth is dangerous. That it is painful, so painful. And that it is powerful, and awe-inspiring. And we give birth again and again because ultimately, the hope of bringing new life into this world, of bringing about a new world, is worth it. 

Labor is a crisis that shatters bodies and hearts. It takes all our energy, all our effort. And it is the purest moment of creation that we as humans know.

It’s no coincidence that much of the Torah we read on Rosh HaShanah retells stories of difficult births and new worlds longed for. We have Sarah, who gives birth to Isaac at age 99. And Hagar, who births Ishmael, and then saves his life with a prayer. We have Hannah, who pleads to God for a child after years of infertility, and gives birth to Samuel, who becomes a prophet. And of course, the alternate Torah reading for today is Bereshit, literally the story of the creation of our world.

Rosh HaShanah, with its stories of shatter, of breach and of birth, reminds us of all that’s possible.

Almost four years ago, Valarie Kaur suggested that this era is the darkness of the womb, and not the tomb. I think, now, we can see that it’s both. This is breaking, and birth. This is shatter; and with it, the tearing of the veil to make way for a new vision. 

Rosh HaShanah is the birth day of the world, the anniversary of the moment the Holy One spoke life into existence, and named it ‘good’. Rosh HaShanah reminds us that we are God’s partners in creation. Rosh HaShanah, more than any other day, is the time to begin birthing new visions and new worlds.

I want you to remember all our ancestors, Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, Yochanan, and all those whose names we don’t know who labored after them. All our countless ancestors who dreamed and birthed and did not stop dreaming, did not stop creating, and named us as their inheritors of a tradition that reminds us, never more than today, that we are made in the image of the One who creates light out of darkness.

Trust this. Trust that this is a birth. We will need to breathe life into it. We will need to give it our patience, our fierceness, our imagination, the whole of who we are. 

It will be messy. And it will be worth it.

May we, and the world we are birthing, be inscribed together in the Book of Life. And let us say, amen.

Questions for discussion:

“Shevarim is the sound of this moment: not just the new year, but this moment, September 19th 2020 in the United States of America. Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘Look! Things are not ok!’ Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘How do we get through this?’ Like the shofar, we are crying out: ‘This hurts! This hurts! This hurts.’”

What are you crying out right now?

Whose cries are being heard, and whose voices are going unheard?

“Almost four years ago, Valarie Kaur suggested that this era is the darkness of the womb, and not the tomb. I think, now, we can see that it’s both. This is breaking, and birth. This is shatter; and with it, the tearing of the veil to make way for a new vision.”

Do you agree feel that this is a time of shatter?

What new vision are you dreaming up?