Hopefully everyone finds some time to prepare mentally and spiritually for the High Holidays. I’m always in favor of looking over the Machzor before actually reciting the prayers in shul. It’s interesting to note that there are major themes which jump out at you from perusing this fat volume (I, personally think it’s too fat, but I can’t always succeed in getting stuff omitted.). It’s hard to deny the central place that the three major parts of our Musaf service take. These three sections called Malchiyot (monarchy), Zichronot (remembrances), and Shofarot (Duhh!), become the central concepts occupying our concentration on Rosh Hashanah. However, perhaps the most famous Rosh Hashanah prayer is called Avinu Malkeinu (our Father our King), and that presents another reality. God is both sovereign and parent; the Deity commands both love and reverence. This dichotomy must be contemplated on this date of awe. But I’d like to introduce another motif, which I believe doesn’t get its proper due.
I think a crucial sub-theme of Rosh Hashanah is motherhood. Before I get to my central argument, I want to remind people of the many references to motherhood on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The Torah reading on Day One is the birth of Yitzchak. This event is described from the point of view of Sarah. She has waited her whole life for the blessed event and she becomes truly protective of her precious gift. This helps to explain her, less than sympathetic, attitude towards Yishmael who is seen as both a competitor and a bad influence on Yitzchak. The stepbrother must be banished. The companion Haftorah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah is the first chapter of the book of Samuel. This piece describes the plight and prayer of the barren Hannah who is rewarded with a beloved son, Samuel the prophet. The normal, run of the mill, explanation for the inclusion of these stories into our Rosh Hashanah consciousness is to impress us with the power of prayer and faith in God to produce impressive results. But I think that there’s a potent but quiet motherhood agenda being introduced, waiting to be emphasized on Day Two the sequel.
The Haftorah read on the second day of Rosh Hashanah presents one of the most influential and moving images in world literature. The impact of this iconic portrayal on Jewish thinking is profound. Here’s the pertinent passage: A voice is heard on high, lamentation, bitter weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, she refuses to be comforted for her children, for they are not. So says the Lord: Refrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is reward for your work, says the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. And there is hope for your future, says the Lord, and the children shall return to their own border (Jeremiah 31:14-16). The model is set: God can’t refuse the tears of a grieving mother. Mother Rachel in these few sentences becomes the representative of the Jewish nation before God. This idea appears in many Midrashim and it factors into one of the more memorable elegies (Kinot) read on Tisha B’Av. The picture of Rachel ascending from her tomb to pray for her children on the way to exile and destruction has inspired us for centuries and continues to make her traditional grave site a major destination for pilgrims. I believe strongly that this is the prototype copied for the Christian Pieta motif.
I think that a closer reading of this narrative reveals an even deeper concept. Just before this description of the petition of Rachel, we have the following scene: Behold I bring them from the north country and gather them from the uttermost ends of the earth, the blind and the lame amongst them, the woman with child and she who travails with child all together; a great company shall they return there. With weeping will they come, and with supplications will I lead them, along brooks of water will I make them go, on a straight road upon which they will not stumble, for I have become a Father to Israel, and Ephraim is My firstborn (Ibid 8-9). God promises the eventual return of the exiles. The verses again present the very poignant image of motherhood, but God is described as the Father. Rachel doesn’t agree to accept this distant redemption. Her children are suffering, so, she wants redemption and she wants it now. God is so moved by the plea that the Haftorah ends with the following verse: "Is Ephraim a son who is dear to Me? Is he a child who is beloved? For whenever I speak of him, I still remember him: therefore, My very innards are agitated for him; I will surely have compassion on him," says the Lord (verse 19). God’s feeling for the beloved child is felt in the ‘innards’ and this stirs compassion. The Hebrew word for compassion is rachamim from the term rechem which means womb. God’s feelings are awakened in a metaphoric uterus like that of a mother. God is identified at first as a Father but in the end as a Mother.
Traditionally our Sages have refrained from this image for whatever reasons, but Kabala has embraced the feminine side of God for centuries. I think that this idea motivated Rav Amram Gaon (9th century) when he wrote this central prayer to our Selichot service: O merciful One (Rachmana, One with a womb) who answers the poor, answer us, O merciful One who answers the broken hearted, answer us. O merciful One who answers those of crushed spirit, answer us, O merciful One, answer us, pity us, redeem us, save us, show mercy to us, now and in the future redemption.
The rich tapestry of Rosh Hashanah symbols are meant to inspire our love and yearning for our Creator, who is both our Father our King and our Mother our Queen. May we all be granted a happy, healthy, meaningful new year.