The Winter of our Discontent

  • Rav Asher Meir
     YESHIVAT HAR ETZION VIRTUAL BEIT MIDRASH PROJECT(VBM)
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                  THE WINTER OF OUR DISCONTENT

                          by Asher Meir


I.  TWO ROSH-HASHANAS

	The religious and scientific controversy over the age of 
the world has received much popular attention.  However, the 
Gemara relates another disagreement that has more conceptual 
impact - a debate over the world's exact birthday.  The debate 
is found in a braita in Rosh HaShana 10b:

	"Rabbi Eliezer says, the world was created in Tishrei.  
In Tishrei the patriarchs were born, in Tishrei the patriarchs 
died; but Yitzchak was born at Pesach.  Sarah, Rachel, and 
Chana were all granted the ability to conceive on Rosh 
Hashana; Yosef was freed from prison on Rosh Hashana, and on 
Rosh Hashana our forefathers were freed from labor in Egypt.  
We were redeemed from Egypt in Nisan, but we are destined to 
be redeemed in Tishrei.

	"Rabbi Yehoshua says, the world was created in Nisan.  In 
Nisan the patriarchs were born, and in Nisan the patriarchs 
died, and Yitzchak was born at Pesach.  Sarah, Rachel, and 
Chana were all granted the ability to conceive on Rosh 
Hashana; Yosef was freed from prison on Rosh Hashana, and on 
Rosh Hashana our forefathers were freed from labor in Egypt.  
We were redeemed from Egypt in Nisan, and we are destined to 
be redeemed in Nisan."

	Ostensibly, R' Eliezer and R' Yehoshua's debate is of 
little significance.  Why should the exact date of creation 
matter?  One understanding is that Tishrei and Nisan are not 
mere months - they symbolize man's relationship to the natural 
world.

	In Tishrei, the gateway to autumn, man must combat nature 
in order to survive.  In Nisan, the dawn of spring, nature 
helps man live and grow.  The debate of R' Eliezer and R' 
Yehoshua, then, is whether man is fundamentally in conflict 
with his environment (Tishrei) or in harmony with it (Nisan).

	Imagine that Adam and Eve were created in Tishrei - the 
autumn; they oppose nature in two ways.  The first is that 
they are "out of sync" with nature:  while the newly created 
human beings blossom and develop, the world around them 
withers.  The second is that while they depend on nature for 
their needs, nature does not cooperate with them: every day 
there is less warmth, less shelter, fewer fruits and 
vegetables to eat.

	In contrast, if we imagine man's creation in Nisan, the 
exact opposite holds.  The world blossoms in tandem with man's 
development;  the bounty and warmth of springtime aid man's 
early stages as well.

II.  SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE

	Maharsha explains that R' Eliezer thinks the world was 
created in Tishrei because it "is the time of repentance," and 
R' Yehoshua thinks the creation took place in Nisan because it 
"is the time of redemption."  (It is evident that the sages 
agree as to the significance of the two seasons - they concur 
on the dating of most events in the Braita).  It seems that 
redemption is intimately connected with the idea of 
collaboration with nature, while repentance - teshuva - is 
connected with overcoming nature.  The redemption from Egypt 
epitomizes how all creation can cooperate to realize God's 
design for mankind.  The birth of the Jewish people was 
accompanied by many miracles - from the plagues to the 
splitting of the sea - that demonstrate how nature can help 
man.

	The fact that the festival devoted to judgment and 
repentance falls in Tishrei suggests that the kind of 
repentance God seeks from us on the judgment day is that of 
"man against the universe."  We must struggle against the 
yetzer hara - man's earthly nature and baser instincts.  
Judaism recognizes the potential harmony that exists between 
us and our material side, but Tishrei is not a suitable time 
for expressing this harmony.  On the eve of Nisan we have Adar 
and Purim, when we increase our happiness and immerse 
ourselves in the joys that we can acquire from the material 
world.  On the eve of Tishrei we have Elul, where we immerse 
ourselves in introspection, isolating ourselves from the 
material and concentrating on the spiritual.

III.  TISHREI, TESHUVA AND THE WORLD

	From the end of the braita we learn that there is an 
additional dispute between R' Eliezer and R' Yehoshua.  Not 
only do they disagree as to when the world as we know it came 
into being, they also disagree as to when it will end, 
ushering in a new and better world.  Since they agree on the 
symbolism of the times of year, we can extend our 
understanding of the first part of the debate to the second.  
Will the future redemption be a Tishrei redemption, dependent 
on repentance, or a Nisan redemption, which will come even 
without merit like the redemption from Egypt? And so we find 
in Sanhedrin 97b:  R' Eliezer claims that the Jewish people 
will not be redeemed except through repentance; R' Yehoshua 
claims that whether or not they repent, they will be redeemed.

	According to R' Eliezer's "Tishrei" view, our "battle 
against nature" has very far-reaching implications.  If we 
succeed in "holding our own" against a hostile environment, 
returning to God despite the many pitfalls and temptations of 
the withering world, we effect the perfection of nature itself 
- the final redemption.

	In other words, the "Tishrei" approach is that our 
repentance can transform the world.  This connection between 
the repentance of the individual and the rectification of the 
world as a whole is illustrated by Rambam in his Laws of 
Teshuva (3:1-2).  Rambam says that Rosh Hashana is not only 
the time of judgment for the individual, but also that for the 
world as a whole:  "If [the world's] sins should outweigh its 
good deeds, the world is immediately doomed."  Our teshuva can 
save the world; our lack of teshuva can destroy it.

IV.  CONCLUSION

	Every month in the Jewish calendar has a unique 
character. Tishrei, when winter begins to fall, symbolizes our 
periodic necessity to confront the hostile elements in our 
environment - not only the material, but even more the 
spiritual. The fact that we are not yet in perfect harmony 
with nature and society implies not only an ability to resist 
their imperfections, but also an ability to overcome them, to 
perfect the world as a whole through our individual 
repentance.


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