Two Conceptions of Time
Mircea Eliade, a leading professor of religious studies in the previous century, compared two distinct paradigms for understanding the nature of time – the cosmological approach and the historical approach. According the cosmological approach, time is cyclical; what was is what will be. Time flows in reverse, returning to the world’s primordial form. This concept can be derived from careful observation of nature: the natural cycle repeats annually. Each spring, the world blooms and blossoms, but, with the changing seasons, vegetation dwindles and disappears. The following spring, the world blooms again, renewed. In contrast to the cosmological approach to time, which is widespread among pagan religions, Eliade presents the historical approach to time, which he attributes to Judaism. This conception of time suggests that time marches forward linearly.
One example of the historical approach in Judaism is the story of the flood. Many ancient cultures have a tradition of a flood that wiped out the entire world, but the story eternalized in the Torah not only tells the well-known story, but adds the message that such a flood will never recur; we can rebuild the world and progress.
The significance of the historical approach is the belief in ethics and values. Without the historical context, the world would seem forever unchanging, rendering all human effort moot. Eliade himself, incidentally, identified with the cosmological approach to time. As an anti-Semitic fascist, he could not appreciate the significance of the historical perspective.
However, Mircea Eliade only partially understood the Jewish approach. As a matter of fact, Judaism does not discount the cosmological approach; rather, we add another layer, arriving at an understanding of time that uniquely combines the cosmological and historical approaches. Franz Rosenzweig describes our complex perspective of time not as a line or a circle, but as an upward-climbing spiral.
This complex conception of time and reality is inherent in the description of the holidays in Parshat Emor. The first month of the year on the Jewish calendar, by dint of its historical significance, is the month of Nissan; this is the month we left Egypt and during which we celebrate our historical beginning as a people. However, most Jewish holidays are celebrated specifically in the seventh month from the exodus, Tishrei. In Tishrei there is a holiday every week – in total, four holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shmini Atzeret. The innate connection between the seventh month and its holidays is expressed by the Torah’s repetitious use of the word “shabbaton,” which is used uniquely in reference to the holidays of Tishrei, but none other.
The special status of Tishrei stems from the centrality of the number seven in Judaism. The seventh is always sanctified. Just as the seventh day is sanctified as Shabbat, and the seventh year as “Shmita,” the sabbatical year, so too the seventh month holds an elevated status.
Another reason for Tishrei’s special status is the fact that in this month, according to the most widely held position of the Rabbis, the world was created. In Israel, the yearly rainfall is renewed in Tishrei. The first rains are reminiscent of the primordial rainfall of Eden when the first mist came to quench the thirst of the land: “and a mist arose from the earth and watered the surface of the land” (Bereishit 2:6; Rosh Hashanah 11a).
It follows that there is a certain tension between the historical and cosmological approaches. From the perspective of human history, Tishrei represents the end, while the cosmological prospective sees Tishrei as the beginning. Both aspects of the month are expressed through the content of its holidays.
Sukkot – History and Nature
On the one hand, we sit in the Sukkah to memorialize a historical event – our first steps as a people: “so that your [future] generations will know that in Sukkot I settled the children of Israel when I brought them out of Egypt” (Vayikra 23:32). On the other hand, by sitting in the sukkah we celebrate nature. We leave our houses to live under the stars in a sukkah; the sukkah itself is made from natural material grown from the earth without human intervention (Sukkah 1:4). Over the course of the holiday we each take the four species – lulav, etrog, hadasim and aravot – which represent nature; in the Temple we would bring water on the altar as a request the rain return to nourish the land. In addition, the holiday’s secondary name – “Chag Ha’asif”, the Holiday of Harvest (Shmot 23:16, 33:22) – hints at its connection to nature. Primordial nature is the ideal state of the universe – the world as it was created. We see many allusions in rabbinic writings to creation and Gan Eden in their descriptions of each of the commandments of Sukkot.
Regarding the return to nature on Sukkot, Rav Kook writes as follows:
On Chag Ha’asif… we bring ourselves close to nature. We sit in a sukkah, hold bundles of fresh branches, rejoice in the joy of water, rejoicing in the natural infusion of God’s blessing on the universe, as it comes in the cyclical framework that comprise the iron laws of nature.
The End is the Beginning
In the connection of the two time axes, the cosmological and the historical, is hidden a very deep idea. From the cosmological viewpoint, Tishrei is the time of the creation of the world, but, from the historical viewpoint, Tishrei is the seventh month of the Jewish people’s existence and our exodus from Egypt, the point of time that represents the end of the historical process. The date furthest removed from the beginning of the story (which recurs every year) is identical to the date from which “cosmological time” begins. An essential foundation of the Torah’s vision of “The End of Days” as described, among other places, in Ezekiel (Chapter 47) and Zechariah (Chapter 14), is the universe’s return to its original, ideal state of being, where nature and reality reveal God’s presence and universal sovereignty.
The fact that the endpoint of the historical process marks the return of creation to its starting point illuminates mankind’s place and role in Tikun Olam – fixing the world. Renewed creation differs from the original creation only in that it is not the handiwork of God alone. History gives man the opportunity – nay, the obligation – to take an active role in creation by improving the world around him and bringing it closer to its perfection. This must be the goal of man’s actions throughout the generations. The partnership between God and man sanctifies human activity through which he actualizes his potential as a Tzelem Elokim – a true image of God.
This article was translated from the Hebrew by Yaakov Tzemach
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