Thursday, September 14, 2006

Will the Real New Year Please Stand Up?

A Modest Proposal

I would like to submit a suggestion for your review. I propose that we change the date of secular New Year's Day from January 1st to July 1st. After all, July offers warm, sunny weather rather than blizzard conditions. Parades and parties will be that much more enjoyable and memorable. What do you think?

In all likelihood, you will object that the fact that July is the 7th month of the year, not the first, disqualifies it from marking New Year's Day. What sense does it make, you may ask, to celebrate the beginning of the year in the middle of the year?

Surprisingly, however, this is exactly what we do annually on Rosh Hashana! The Torah tells us in Parashat Emor:

And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: 'Speak to the Children of Israel, saying - in the seventh month, on the first of the month, there shall be a rest day for you; a remembrance with shofar blasts, a holy convocation.

The holiday described here is none other than Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which is scheduled for the seventh month of the calendar! The first month of the year has already been designated as Nissan, as the Torah specifies in Parashat Bo:

This month [Nissan] shall be for you the head of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

On the surface, then, it would seem logical for us to observe the New Year on the first day of the month of Nissan. How did the Rabbis arrive at the conclusion that the first day of Tishre - which is described by the Torah as nothing more than a day of shofar blowing - is supposed to be regarded as the first day of the year? Doesn't this seem to contradict what the Torah says explicitly - namely, that the first month is Nissan?

In defense of the Rabbis, we should note that this ambiguity is manifest in the Torah as well. In Parashat Mishpatim, Sukkot, which takes place in Tishre, is described as "The festival of ingathering, at the end of the year, when you gather your produce in from the fields." This is reasonable if we consider the year to have begun in Tishre. However, if the year started in Nissan and is only half over, how can we call the season of Sukkot the "end of the year"? This title should be reserved for the month of Adar instead. Similarly, in Parashat Ki Tissa, Sukkot is referred to as occurring "at the changing of the year," implying that a new year has just begun. How are these statements compatible with the verses in the Torah that describe Nissan as the first month of the year?

Before we attempt to solve this problem, we must examine the source in the Talmud for the view that Tishre is the first month of the year. In Tractate Rosh Hashana 10B, the Talmud states:

Rabbi Eliezer says: The world was created in Tishre. The Patriarchs were born in Tishre. The Patriarchs died in Tishre. Isaac was born on Passover. Sarah, Rachel and Hannah conceived on Rosh Hashana. Joseph was released from prison on Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana, our ancestors in Egypt were freed from hard labor. We were redeemed in Nissan; but we are destined to be redeemed in Tishre.

Rabbi Joshua says: The world was created in Nissan. The Patriarchs were born in Nissan. The Patriarchs died in Nissan. Isaac was born on Passover. Sarah, Rachel and Hannah conceived on Rosh Hashana. Joseph was released from prison on Rosh Hashana. On Rosh Hashana, our ancestors in Egypt were freed from hard labor. We were redeemed in Nissan, and we are destined to be redeemed in Nissan as well.

Traditionally, we accept the view of Rabbi Eliezer. However, it is instructive to consider the Talmudic dispute more carefully. In addition to highlighting a rabbinic difference of opinion, the passage includes a fascinating point of consensus between the two views. Both Sages agree that the month in which the world was created - whether Tishre or Nissan - is also the month in which the final redemption will take place. Why must the beginning of the Messianic Era coincide with the creation of the Universe?

Dual Calendar, Dual Identity

Upon reflection, we can see that the dichotomy inherent in the Jewish calendar - the fact that we simultaneously reckon the year from Nissan and from Tishre - is meant to reveal a dichotomy in Jewish existence itself. The Jewish nation is unique, possessed of its own intellectual and moral tradition and relationship with God. At the same time, we are a part of humanity and of creation. Indeed, our ultimate purpose is not to monopolize the truth and garner benefit for ourselves but to guide the entire human family toward a proper understanding of the Creator.

Following Rabbi Eliezer above, Nissan is the month that represents the beginning of all things uniquely Jewish. Our redemption and constitution as a nation occurred in Nissan. The Three Festivals, which commemorate the miraculous events that attended the creation of the Nation of Israel, begin with Passover in Nissan and conclude on Sukkot, in Tishre.

Natural history, by contrast, began in and is reckoned from the month of Tishre. It is in this month - which happens to be the seventh month of the Jewish calendar - that we reflect on the universalistic aspects of God's dominion and design. The theme of Rosh Hashana is not God's special relationship with the Jewish people alone, but His plan for the entire Universe and for all of humanity. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we refer to Hashem as "King Over All The Earth", not simply as the One who sanctifies Israel. Were we to celebrate New Year in Nissan - a month that represents Hashem's covenantal bond with the Jews - we would lose sight of the dimension of the High Holidays that is even more transcendent and inclusive.

On the High Holidays, then, we observe the intersection of two dimensions of our Jewish identity. We are human beings, first and foremost, and relate to the Creator as part of the human race and the natural order. At the same time, we acknowledge the special purpose God has given us in the world - to sanctify His name through our deeds and foster universal recognition of His sovereignty. In order to properly stand in God's presence on Rosh Hashana and to repent on Yom Kippur, we must have a correct understanding of Hashem and of ourselves. This requires us to consider both forms of God's providence: His involvement with mankind in general and His specific relationship with the Patriarchs and their descendants. It also requires us to address both aspects of our role in Hashem's master plan - as human beings and as Jews.

It is for this reason that Rabbi Eliezer tells us that the final redemption will take place in Tishre, not Nissan. The liberation from Egypt was a providential intervention on behalf of the Jewish people, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although the Jews are responsible for sharing their knowledge of God with all of humanity and inspiring others to worship Him, the Exodus saga remains a chapter of their own unique national history. By contrast, the ultimate redemption will start with an unprecedented, worldwide spiritual revolution. The Jews certainly have a valuable part to play in bringing about this global transformation. However, the direction and outcome of the process will be expressions of Hashem's relationship with the human race in general, not His covenant with the Jewish people in particular. Since the final deliverance marks the fulfillment of God's plan for all of Creation, it is most fitting for it to occur in the month of Tishre, at the time when the Universe came into being.

The Messianic era will represent the achievement of the mission with which we were entrusted at Sinai; namely, our mandate to perfect not only ourselves but the entire world through our study and observance of the Torah.

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