They say that you never forget the birth of your first child. The experience is so profound that it is seared into the memory of every new parent. That was certainly the case for me. We were living in Jerusalem. It was right before Yom Haatzmeut and Israeli flags were hanging around the city. My wife’s water broke in the middle of the night, but the real problem was that I had misplaced the special medical documentation she needed to bring to the hospital. I had left it along with my bag in the beit midrash of the Pardes Institute where we were studying. As a senior student, I had been entrusted with the keys to the building, but of course, I had managed to leave them in the same bag. That night I was on the phone for what felt like an eternity as I tried to find someone who could open the building. Eventually we got inside, grabbed the form, and made our way to Shaarei Tzedek hospital. It’s well known that the delivery for a first pregnancy is often more complicated than the ones that follow. Labor is longer, and there are more potential complications. Both were true in our case. Over the course of several long hours, I remember feeling a deep anxiety unlike anything I had ever felt before. This anxiety was combined with a sense of exhilaration for what was to come. In the end, our son Nahum was born, and our lives were never the same.
The Rabbis teach us kol hatchalot kashot, all beginning are hard (Mechilta, Yitro). It’s a statement that we intuitively know to be true. Any desire we might have to start something new inherently comes with risk. We must begin by taking a few halting steps towards a new future not knowing whether we will in fact reach our destination. Furthermore, new beginnings often require a great act of imagination. We have to fully envision the new possibility before it has a chance of become reality. Lastly, a new beginning can only be made possible through the end of what has come before. The pain of loss is always present every time we start anew.
Though new beginnings are hard, they are also intrinsic to being human, created in the image of God. God embodies hitchadshut, renewal, and so must we. In fact, we read in the morning prayers that God renews creation not just on Rosh Hashana but on each day. While there are many traditional prayers and old songs to be found in the siddur, in Psalms we read Shiru L’Hashem Shir Chadash –– that we must compose and sing new songs of praise to God. Rav Nachman of Breslov warns us that heresy only arises among the Jewish people when talmidei chachamim, torah scholars, stop finding ways to innovate in their learning and teaching of torah.
In their own way, new beginnings are holy. The Torah always treats the first of something as special; whether it is the first fruits or the first born child. The reason for this is that the first has an opportunity to be different from what came before it. A new beginning can be full of unbelievable potential, if only we are willing to open ourselves up to it.
The fact that all beginnings are hard actually helps explain an unusual detail about Rosh Hashana. Because Rosh Hashanah commemorates the creation of the world, we would have expected the Torah reading for the holiday to start at the very beginning of the Torah with the words, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Instead, however, we read from the middle of the book of Genesis about the conception and birth of Isaac.
The reason for this is that new beginnings are much different for human beings than they are for God. For God, all beginnings are easy. God speaks and the world comes into being. But for humans, all beginnings are hard, and nothing better captures the complexity of new beginnings than the attempt to bring new life into this world. This point is emphasized by the metaphors of conception, pregnancy, and birth that are found throughout the Rosh Hashana liturgy. In addition to Isaac’s birth, we also read on the first day of Rosh Hashana about Hannah’s desperate desire to have a child and the answering of her prayers. Throughout mussaf, Rosh Hashana is referred to not as Hayom beriat ha’olam, today, the world is created, but rather as Hayom harat olam, today, the world is born.
It is the events surrounding Sarah’s pregnancy and Isaac’s birth that are essential to understanding what Rosh Hashana is all about. At the age of seventy five, Abraham and Sara are called by God to leave their homeland and travel to a new promised land. They are told that their descendants will be many, that they will inherit the land, and that through them all of humanity will be blessed. Abraham and Sarah demonstrate unbelievable faith and courage by answering God’s call and do their best to create a place for themselves in the new land. There are famines. The local inhabitants don’t want them there, but throughout it all, Abraham and Sara find a way to persevere. However, the one piece that is missing is from their lives is core of God’s promise. They are childless and without children, all of their efforts will have been for nothing. Who knows how many times they have tried and failed to have a child? How many countless moments have they raised their hopes only to have them cruelly dashed one more time?
When Abraham and Sarah are nearly a century old, they finally receive word that they will have a child. Each responds to the news in the only way plausible- they laugh. They laugh because Abraham and Sara know that they are far beyond the age when such things are possible. Philosophers have long noted that laughter occurs when there is a fundamental incongruence between reality and our expectations. We conceive of the world as functioning in a certain way and then our eyes or our ears offer us a depiction of reality that appears otherwise, and we laugh.
Many of the Biblical commentators note that when Sarah laughs after overhearing the angels telling Abraham the news she will become pregnant, it is a laugh of scorn. Like most of us, she has become so wrapped up in the world as it is that she simply cannot conceive that things can be different. Sara’s laugh is the way that we often respond to the idea of a new beginning, especially one that asks us to make a significant change. However, Sarah’s initial laugh is not final. When her son is born, she laughs once again, this time with a laughter full of joy. The birth of her son has brought about the fulfillment of her hopes and dreams despite her long held belief in their impossibility. She then makes a statement that has important implications for our own attempts at new beginnings. She proclaims, “God has brought me laughter, All who hear will laugh with me.” (Bereshit 21:6) First, Sarah acknowledges that a new beginning requires God’s assistance. Its not something that we can do solely on our own. We must take that leap into the unknown knowing that the only thing we can hold on to is our faith. Second, on a deeper level, Sara also recognizes that her experience can serve as inspiration for others. She says, “all who hear will laugh with me.” It is only when we have seen the impossible made possible by others can we attempt to do the same.
Pregnancy, of course, does not always have a positive outcome, something my wife and I are intimately familiar with. Commenting on the famous verse from Kohelet that “There is a time for birth and a time for death” the midrash (Kohelet Rabbah 3:1) explains that every labor and delivery contains 99 parts death and one part life. In fact, the Hebrew word for crisis, mashber, is the same word that is used for the birthing stool. The most difficult part of any new beginning is that it is inevitably accompanied by risk and loss. To begin something new means letting of what was. This can be terrifying and most of us spend our entire lives doing all that we can to prevent it from ever occurring.
After our twins passed away, I didn’t want to try to have another child. All I could think about was what it would be like if we were to go through the same trauma again. Like Sarah, I laughed with scorn at the very idea of it. However, I was blessed that my wife was like Abraham. Despite the risk involved and despite the pain we still carried with us, she had the faith to believe in what might be possible. Like Abraham she laughed with joy at the chance to bring new life into this world, even when there might be the possibility of death. Today, our daughter, Orya, brings us so much light, for if laughter is the most authentic expression of joy then there is nothing more beautiful and joyous than the laugh of a young child. In the end our daughter’s existence was only made possible by our willingness to leap into the dark unknown in order to attempt once more to make a new beginning for ourselves.
We should never underestimate just how hard this is. This is notion is evocatively depicted by author Chaim Potok’s in one of his lesser known works, titled In the Beginning. Potok is famous for his depictions of Jewish life in the mid-twentieth century America. His books often explore the antagonistic encounter between traditional Judaism and modern secular life. “In the Beginning” recounts the story of David Lurie, the son of European immigrants, who is torn between his loyalty to the Jewish past and his passionate desire to create his own future as a professor. There are many beginnings in the book: the new lives of those Jews who left everything behind to come to America, the start of David’s own life, and the new intellectual endeavors he experiences while growing up.
The book opens with words from the midrash, those words we all know to be true: Kol Hatchalot Kashot, “All beginnings are hard”
David, the narrator, continues by giving examples of how this has played out in his own life:
“I can remember hearing my mother murmur those words while I lay in bed with fever. ‘Children are often sick, darling. That’s the way it is, with children. All beginnings are hard. You’ll be all right soon… I remember bursting into tears one evening because a passage of Bible commentary had proved too difficult for me to understand. I was about nine years old at the time. My father told me: ‘You want to understand everything immediately?’ ‘Just like that? You only began to study this commentary last week. All beginnings are hard. You have to work at the job of studying. Go over it again and again.’
David concludes his reflection by explaining that this is something that he recounts to himself when he stands before a new class at the beginning of a school year or when he is about to start a new book or research paper. All beginnings are hard… And sometimes, he adds what he has learned on his own: ‘All beginnings are hard, especially a beginning you make by yourself. That’s the hardest beginning of all.’”
Its also the new beginning we are called to make on Rosh Hashanah. May we all find the courage and strength to do so.