The Nature Of Teshuvah

An early rabbinic teaching concerns our place in the world’s time: How should we count the years and account for the crops tithed to the Temple? Each season would begin on the first day of the well-chosen month, except for the new year of the trees, about which there was a difference of opinion:

There are four new years: The first of Nisan is the new year of the kings and of the festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for tithing cattle. Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the new year for tithing cattle is the first of Tishrei. The first of Tishrei, they all agree, is the new year of the years, of the sabbatical years, and of the Jubilees, of planting and of tithing vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year of the trees, according to the school of Shammai. The school of Hillel says that the new year of the trees is the fifteenth of that month. (Mishhah Rosh Hashanah 1:1)

Breaking the first-of-the-month pattern, Hillel insisted—without explanation—that the 15th of Shevat should be the new year for the tithe-able produce of the trees. Later sages explained that the rains of the preceding month continue into the first two weeks of Shevat and, by the 15th of the month, they coax more fruit into the “tithing circle.”

Despite the plausible explanation, I like to think that the splendid 2-week difference in bloom and blossom, together with the luminous full moon, moved Hillel to select the 15th of Shevat as the new year.

Certainly the atmospheric grandeur of Tu (15th) B’shevat attracted the poet, Hava Pinhas-Cohen. For her, Hillel’s new year of the trees is also the new year that best invites teshuvah—repentance and return—that begins with the 1st of Tishrei new year, the only cycle of counting called Rosh Hashanah, “the new year.”

In her poem, This Is The Time, Pinhas-Cohen celebrates what she has been looking for—a season that deeply fits the nature of teshuvah.

Now, the fifteenth of Shevat, this is the time when I’m
ready for Yom Kippur, for a day of fasting, and to make
full teshuvah
and a meeting between me and you,
this is the time to open the windows and search the heavens
after the rain has fallen in its season
and in the secret recess among the trees stirs something hidden from the eye

this is the time for words, to speak them, and in short order, to enact them.
My soul is open to you and there is no man
demanding your time with the rigorous insistence of sages
and there is, in the world, a kind of attentiveness to a divine voice hidden
from the eye that goes forth in her season and Adar brings its rains
and the doors of houses open to one another with bowls of fine flour mixed
with oil and a pleasing scent rises, and a woman and her daughter
who saw the new moon go out/

to the field. This is the night on which the moon above the orchards is full
and the earth is pregnant, and I focus my attention
on banishing from the horizon the ugly and the urban
and to seeking a roof on which to stretch out in soft robes of light
and a bath of rainwater in which to immerse seven times
to shed the form of woman and mother, that night
to don the aspect of a soft bride to greet you/

(she is not a Semite) on my right, the desert, on my left, the sea
and we, by the power of the day and the offering
                                                                   transcend the words
if it is not this way, I’ll go on the tenth of Tishrei
amidst a white congregation with my face of fatigue and rebellion, and with clothes
red with blood, I will give my testimony before
                                                                  the lower court.

The season of teshuvah—repentance and return—ought not be at the Tishrei new year culminating in Yom Kippur, the poet insists. Teshuvah and its seekers are better served when nature informs the nature of teshuvah.

On Tu B’shevat, teshuvah is ascendant and budding, not edging towards winter. Such are the conditions for full teshuvah that includes a deep and honest meeting between me and you. Only here do we learn that the poet is not making her case to Hillel or to readers, but to God. Yom Kippur, aglow with the full moon of Shevat, would still be a fast day. But this fast would be draped in the splendid many-colored coat of a renewed world rather than the white shroud of the last one.

On Tu B’shevat, the world is ready for ripeness, for openness—for open doors, open windows, and open hearts; ready for words—spoken and fulfilled—and for gifts offered in fullness. After the rains, the forest holds the fresh promise of a kind of attentiveness, a divine voice—not the sharp insistence of erudite sages. In the radiant pregnant fullness of Tu B’shevat, the oneness of me and you—the divine and the human—transcends ritual and form. The moonlight rooftop bather sheds the form of mother and of woman. (She’s not even Jewish, so no particular ceremony informs the scene.) Teshuvah has nothing to do with studied ritual or legal nuance. With two indented phrases, the poet marks the contrast between the teshuvah of Tu B’shevat that rises beyond words and rituals, and the dense and tense teshuvah of the fall new year season. In Tishrei, she must encounter the heavy and wearying world of the lower court—that earthly counterpart of the yeshivah shel ma’alah, the celestial court. In the liturgy of Tishrei’s Yom Kippur, both the lower and the upper courts convene to hear testimony.

Hava will stand amongst the white-robed congregation on Tishrei’s Yom Kippur. But the upper court will not assemble until Tu B’shevat, when the buds blossom and the moon is full. Carry her poem with you between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Perhaps, “pray” it in a quiet moment and allow it to shape teshuvah of a different nature.


This entry was posted in Days of Awe, Holidays, Mishnah, Poetry. Bookmark the permalink.

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