Remembrance, Childbirth, and Renewal
Remembrance. Childbirth. Renewed hopes and dreams.
All of these are to be found in the Torah reading and haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Sarah, long barren and taunted by her fecund handmaid, is remembered by God. She gives birth to a son, Isaac, and stands in wonder at the miracle of his birth, and her ability to “suckle children” (Genesis 21:7)! And Hannah, long barren and taunted by her rival wife, prays fervently and is remembered by God. She gives birth to a son, Samuel, and sings a long and deep song in praise of God who causes the “barren woman” to bear “seven”. (I Samuel 2:5).
We read these portions every year with the hope that we, like Sarah and Hannah, will be remembered by God in the coming year. We hope and we pray that God will take notice of us, and grant us our deepest desires – whether they be for good health, recovery, peace of mind, security, love, success, or peace in the world. Sarah and Hannah’s experiences become our metaphor for God taking note of us, and remembering us, and granting us only good things in the year to come.
But for me, for many years, these Scriptural readings have been anything but metaphorical. They have been as concrete as concrete can be. Married for seven years – a “barren woman” – four years ago, I could finally cry out in exultation to God “It was this boy I prayed for” (I Samuel 1:27), because after much pain and sadness, my husband and I adopted our son Avi. And this year again, after much emotional turmoil and much hard work, I can cry out in joy, “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children!” (Genesis 21:7), because my husband and I have been blessed with a daughter, Netanya, adopted two days after her birth. No, our physical bodies could not produce these miracles – but miracles they are, because they have made us parents, they are our legacy, and they have brought us tremendous joy. I love the commentary of the Malbim – a late 19th century Russian Jewish commentator – on the passage that states: “Who would have said to Abraham that Sarah would suckle children.” He writes: “It was only for the purpose of delighted laughter and rejoicing that God performed this miracle; the whole world should laugh and be joyous at the wonder.” And that’s what these children have done for us, and for many of the people who know and love us.
And the Sages were wise when they chose these passages for us to read on Rosh Hashanah, because they realized that the birth of children not only affects those who bear (or adopt) them – but everyone who sees them. Children remind us that there is hope in the world – each child starts off innocent and fresh, untarnished by the pains of the world. Each child reminds us that there can be new beginnings; we can renew our minds, our souls, and sometimes even our bodies. Each child reminds us that our dreams don’t have to die; we can keep on trying to make ourselves better, more complete human beings. Each child reminds us that there is hope in the world. Just as the child is born innocent, and full of potential – our world can be redeemed, we can make it better, we can make it safer, we can make it more holy, if we really will it, and work for it to happen.
Children are a miracle, and they remind us that miracles still do happen, and our dreams can still be fulfilled. Let us pray this year for inspiration from our children, that we will work to make ourselves more compassionate and complete human beings, and that we will work harder to make our world resound with compassion and peace.
Shabbat Shalom and Shanah Tovah.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.