D‘var Torah: Parashat Bereshit
Sunset at the Dawn of Time
The Torah tells us surprisingly little about the first human being following the banishment from the Garden of Eden. We know that Adam had two sons, one of whom killed the other, and that he went on to father Seth and other children until he died at an advanced age. But how was it for Adam to experience living in the world after leaving the garden? What was it like to be the first person on earth, and can Adam’s experience of sin and punishment shed any light on our own?
The Talmud begins to fill in this gap at the beginning of masechet Avodah Zarah (8a), the tractate about idolatry and pagan worship. The rabbis explain that two of the pagan holidays on which Jews are forbidden to engage in commerce with their non-Jewish neighbors were actually founded by the first human being. After Adam sinned and was banished from the garden—which took place in the autumn month of Tishrei, according to rabbinic tradition—he noticed that the days were getting progressively shorter. He wondered if perhaps the world were being returned to a state of chaos and disorder on account of his sin. In an attempt to repent, Adam spent eight days in fasting and prayer. But then the month of Tevet arrived with the winter solstice, and he realized that this is just the way of the world: the days grow longer and shorter depending on the time of year. At that point he observed an eight-day festival.
These festivals, which Adam established for the sake of heaven, later became the pagan holidays of Saturnalia and Kalenda.
This Talmudic account suggests that Adam, never having experienced winter, assumed that the whole world was being punished on his account. It was a sort of pathetic fallacy, a literary term for the attribution of human qualities to things found in nature that are not in fact human. With each shorter day, time seemed to be closing in on him, as if the newly-created world were soon coming to an end. His turn to repentance and prayer—perhaps the first instance of Teshuva in human history—was presumably an attempt to save not just himself, but also the world.
Why then, when the days began growing longer following the solstice, did Adam not assume that he had simply been forgiven? Wouldn’t this be the natural extension of Adam’s fallacious reasoning?
Perhaps with the arrival of the winter solstice, Adam came to the realization that he and the world are not coterminous. Although he was created from the earth, he become differentiated from it, and the earth would not be punished for his sins. This is the same realization that every infant must come to when it realizes that its mother is not in fact an extension of itself, but rather an independent being with a mind of her own and feet that can walk far away. An infant is no longer part of its mother, just as Adam was no longer part of mother earth.
Adam was learning a lesson that we all must learn not just in infancy, but throughout our lives: There are aspects of life that we can and must control, and aspects that we cannot and must not aspire to control. We are responsible for our own behavior and we will be held accountable for our wrongdoings; it is up to us to fast and pray and mend our ways. But there are many aspects of our lives that are utterly beyond our control, like the diminishing and lengthening days. Part of what it means to become a mature individual is to learn how to navigate a world in which the ship we steer remains at the mercy of elemental forces we can neither forecast nor forestall. Only when we realize the limits of our own agency can we focus our attention on what we can change in ourselves. And paradoxically, once we do
the hard work of changing ourselves, we often end up transforming our relationships as well, thus widening our sphere of influence. After all, it was Adam’s fasting and celebration that led to the establishment of festive holidays for generations to come. We cannot make the days longer, but we can make other people’s days brighter. While there is much we cannot change about the world, we can nonetheless change ourselves, and, in so doing, transform the world.