“Happy Birthday Foxy”: Rabbi Freedman Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon

My kids love to play pretend. Nora has a stuffed fox, named of course, Foxy. The other day, Nora declared “Today is Foxy’s birthday.” In fact, most days, it’s Foxy’s birthday. So there we were, making a birthday cake out of wooden blocks (as you do) and I pretended to take a big bite out of my piece when Nora suddenly stopped me and said, “Daddy, you can’t eat that! It’s not real.”

As children (and as adults), we play pretend, we make-believe, and to a certain degree, immerse ourselves in our fiction, even though, at the end of the day, we know it’s not ‘real’. We know we can’t actually eat the wooden block cake, but we suspend disbelief for a moment, and suddenly, that wooden block is a real piece of cake.

Well, in addition to Foxy’s birthday, today is the birthday of the world! On Rosh Hashanah we recite the piyyut, (the medieval poem) Hayom Harat Olam, which declares, “This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You.” Tomorrow morning we will suspend disbelief for a moment and pretend that God created the earth 5,783 years ago on this exact day and that we stand in judgment before that omnipotent Creator. 

Today is the birthday of the world, but it’s not really. From the sages of the Talmud to the medieval commentators like Maimonides, Jews have not taken the Creation story as literal history. 

And yet, we re-read these stories every year. We recite the narratives that they might become our own. We pass them on through the generations. Philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein writes in a commentary in “The New American Haggadah”:

“Stories are easily dismissible as distractions, the make-believe we craved as children… But tonight we are asked to take this faculty of the mind, so beloved by children and novelists, extremely seriously. All the adults who have outgrown story time are to be tutored tonight, with the physical props meant to quicken our pretending, and the ways of the child to guide us. Like the Passover seder, tonight (and through this High Holy Day season) we are all asked to use our imaginations and play a little bit of make-believe.” 

According to the 2020 Pew Research Center’s study, about 40% of Jewish Americans describe themselves as atheist or agnostic; with their affiliation to Judaism focusing on cultural or ethical ties rather than a belief in God. And that number is even higher among Reform Jews.

And yet, all of us are here to immerse in the narrative that God created the heavens and earth. To imagine ourselves standing before God in judgment. Are we really judged by God? Did God really create the world? Is it real? Is it fake? Maybe that binary is not the most helpful way of looking at these ideas.

Jennifer Powell, a librarian in Tuscaloosa, AL recently shared on social media: “I have made it my mission to unteach children that ‘fiction is fake.’ Here are my new definitions I started teaching today: 

Nonfiction = learning through information. 

Fiction = learning through imagination.”

So then the question becomes less about what is real or fake and more of, what can we learn from pretending? How can we be inspired by playing make-believe? How can we be moved by imagining that, Hayom Harat Olam, “This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You.”

As a former parent in our Buerger Early Learning Center, I loved receiving articles and resources from our center director Leah Briggin and our director of Judaic content, Andi Miller. One article was about the benefits of make-believe for our children and noted three ways pretend play nurtures a child’s development. It helps them:

  • Work out confusing and scary life issues: Have you ever witnessed children pretending to visit the doctor? One child dutifully holds the mock stethoscope as the others line up for a check-up. More often than not someone gets ‘shots’. This is a child’s way of exploring an experience that is common and sometimes confusing or scary

  • Imagine what does not yet exist: Think about the kid who creates a shrinkinator, out of blocks. Maybe one day, because of that imagination, that children will be an engineer who actually works on currently non-existent microcomputing technology. 

  • Cultivate social intelligence: Pretend play requires communication and social skills. Through pretend play, children learn to read social cues, take turns, and ultimately create community.

These concepts are not limited to children. As adults, we too can gain the same insight from playing make-believe. And this has been proven scientifically. Our brains are wonderous organs that we are still just beginning to understand. Our imagination can have profound real world effects on our lives. 

Have you heard of phantom limb syndrome? It is a condition in which patients experience sensations, often extremely painful, in a limb that does not exist. It is very common in amputees, and typically is a chronic condition, often resistant to treatment. In one type of phantom limb syndrome, a patient’s phantom hand is clenched so tightly that the phantom fingers and phantom fingernails inflict unbearable pain upon the phantom palm. Many of these patients can’t escape the pain because their phantom fists are paralyzed in this eye-watering clench. Although the phantom hand is not actually ‘really’ there, the pain is very much real. 

A brilliant researcher, Dr. V. S. Ramachandran recently discovered a surprisingly low-tech solution. He had his patients put their remaining non-phantom hand into a box, tightly clenched, mimicking the position that they felt their phantom hands to be in. Inside the box was a mirror. When the patient looked down, they didn’t merely see their actual hand; they saw its reflection as well, which  looked just like seeing the phantom hand. By slowly opening their only real hand, they could make it look as if they were opening both of ‘hands’. And, sure enough, this deceived the brain into thinking that the phantom hand had opened. This relieved the pain.

These patients know that they only have one real hand. They knew that the box contained a mirror. But the illusion (even though they knew that it was an illusion) was what the brain needed to behave appropriately in the real world.

We know it’s not ‘really’ the birthday of the world, we know we aren’t ‘really’ standing before God in judgment… and, if we imagine, if we pretend, this might be just what our minds need to help us in this real world. Pretend play can help us all, just as pretend play helps children; helping to work out difficult life events, helping to imagine a future that has yet to exist, and helping create community. So let’s pretend, Hayom Harat Olam, “This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You.”

Comedian W. Kamau Bell tells the story of his daughter’s favorite tv show, Doc McStuffins. It’s a favorite in our house as well. For those that aren’t familiar with it, it is an animated show about a six year old black girl who is a doctor for her stuffed animals and toys. In the show, Doc’s mom, a black woman, is a real doctor who treats people. The show also has non-animated interludes with black women who talk about their paths into medicine.

One great aspect of the show is that it prepares children for the doctor; it makes them less scared. Through these types of role plays, researchers say, children become more comfortable and prepared for life events in a safe way. We have a magic stethoscope at home and my kids love to play Doc McStuffins with their own toys and W. Kamau Bell talks about how when it was time for his daughter to go to the doctor, she wasn’t scared at all, in fact, she was excited!

Pretending helps prepare us for difficult and challenging situations. It helps us work out confusing, scary issues in our lives. For kids, this might be going to the doctors for the first time. For adults, it might be the existential dread of our own mortality. Hayom Harat Olam, “This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You.” We stand before God in judgment. Tomorrow we will hear the haunting melody of Unetaneh Tokef, a prayer which asks us to consider that our lives are in the balance. “Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water?” Why read such difficult, scary liturgy? In his commentary on this prayer, Rabbi Ed Feinstein writes:

Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water? I sat in shul for years reading these words before I realized the answer. The answer to each of these questions is: “Me.”

Who will live and who will die? I will.

Who in their time and who before their time? Me. Like every human being, when I die, it will be at the right time, and it will also be too soon.

All year long we might pretend that we are in control…but the holiday skillfully strips us of all that.

Unetaneh Tokef asks us to stop pretending that we are in control and instead to seriously pretend that we might die this year. Our tradition offers us props as well like fasting, or wearing a kittel, a white shroud, to help us ‘play dead.’ Morbid, perhaps, but kids do it all the time. They casually pretend, “Ahhh! I’m dead.” It can be jarring at first to adults, but experts say this is developmentally appropriate. In their play, children inherently understand something that we as adults often miss – we can’t ignore the hard parts of life. By normalizing death, by pretending and really immersing ourselves in the imagery, we can better prepare for the inevitable. When we use play and make-believe to face the difficult situations in life, we realize what is most important and we hopefully live richer, more fulfilling lives.

Doc McStuffins really is one of the best shows on TV. It is groundbreaking because it offers role models of black women in medicine. Young people, actually all of us, need images, visions of what does not yet exist in order that we might strive for it. Mae Jemmings, the first black woman to go to space, was inspired by the late Nichelle Nichols, who played Lt. Uhuru on Star Trek. The Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a trekkie and once met Nichelle Nichols. At the time, she was thinking about quitting the show. When King heard this he told her that she absolutely should not. He told her that Star Trek was the only show that he would allow his children to watch. He told her she was crucial to the civil rights movement. King said, “for the first time on television, we will be seen as we should be seen every day, as intelligent, quality, beautiful, people who can sing, dance, and can go to space.”

Kamau Bell notes that after watching Doc McStuffins, his daughter’s image of what a doctor looks like was a black woman. One day he was with his daughter at the doctor’s office; the doctor walked in… and… it was a white man. And she says, “What the… That’s not a doctor. Doctors are black women. Frankly dad, I’m not sure if white men are ready to be doctors. I’ve never seen a white man as a doctor.” 

Star Trek and Doc McStuffins imagine a better version of our world. During these High Holy Days, we are presented with that same vision; a better version of ourselves, a better version of our city, a better version of this world. 

Hayom Harat Olam, “This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You.”

Imagine a world where we all stand equitably before God. By pretending and immersing ourselves in worlds like Doc McStuffins and Star Trek, which are sadly still, all too make-believe, we change perceptions and realities. We need to see those visions of hope, those visions of the future to be able to dream and to be able to make those dreams a reality.

In a recent interview on the theme of imagination, Jewish parenting expert and author, Dr. Wendy Mogel, talked about a research study where audience members were monitored with sensors while watching a production of DreamGirls. She says:

What they discovered is relatively shortly that their heartbeats were synchronized. Émile Durkheim coined the term collective effervescence that as a species, we are designed to respond to each other’s vibrating mirror neurons, and as audience members in a theater, we are experiencing both collective effervescence and a synchronized nervous system, and this is what we’ve been so deprived of during quarantine, to experience watching the musical, or certainly performing in a musical…

When we imagine together, when we collectively immerse ourselves in the same story, we form community. Children use play to cultivate social intelligence according to experts. Put more simply, we all use play to create community. Playing make-believe with a classmate or friend teaches kids how to read social cues, recognize and regulate emotions, and negotiate and take turns. And the same is true for adults; when we worship together, when we share the same narrative, it can have a profound impact on our lives.

We are connecting with one another and it has been so missed. That is what we are doing when we gather in this sanctuary for worship. We are watching the musical and performing in it! We each play a part and we need our entire congregation to be complete.

Hayom Harat Olam, “This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You.” 

There are Jews who believe, and Jews who disbelieve. But I think the majority of us are Jews who make-believe…

Abraham Joshua Heschel famously stressed that we achieve Judaism not through a leap of faith but through a leap of action. And yet, in these Days of Awe, we are asked to take a leap of faith. To make-believe. To pretend because pretending leads to action. It can make us better people and make the world a better place.

This High Holy Day season, suspend disbelief and let’s play pretend together. Let’s make-believe that, Hayom Harat Olam, “This is the day of the world’s birth. This day all creatures stand before You.” 

Happy birthday, world. And happy birthday, Foxy.