When Was the World Created?
It was taught: Rabbi Eliezer said, "The world was created in Tishrei."...Rabbi Yehoshua said, "The world was created in Nissan." (Rosh HaShanah 10b)
This seems to be a most fundamental dispute. Nevertheless, the Tosafos commentaries attempt a resolution:
Rabbeinu Tam says, "Both views are 'the words of the living God' [both are true]. One may say that in Tishrei it occurred to God to create the world, but He did not actually do so until Nissan." (Tosafos, Rosh HaShanah 27a, s.v. "K'man matzlinan")
This is comparable to a view espoused by Rashi:
In the beginning Elokim created the heaven and the earth. (Bereishis 1:1)
Elokim created - it does not say God [the four-letter Divine name] created. For initially, it arose in God's thought to create it with the Divine characteristic of strict justice [indicated by the name Elokim], but when He saw that the world could not endure in this mode, He preceded the characteristic of Divine mercy [indicated by the four-letter name] and twinned it with strict justice. This is as the verse says: On the day on which God Elokim [both names] made earth and heaven (Bereishis 2:4). (Rashi loc. cit.)
We may suggest that this is the same concept as that mentioned by the Tosafos. God, as it were, decided to create the world in Tishrei. The mazal, or astrological sign, of Tishrei is scales, which symbolizes the atmosphere of din (judgment) which prevails during this month. The world could never have survived the Divine scrutiny which this implies, so the actual creation was postponed until Nissan, a month in which mercy prevails. Nissan would be the month in which God would eventually enact the Exodus from Egypt, a tremendous display of chesed toward His people.
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Let us consider the dispute in the Gemara a little more carefully. Note that it was Rabbi Eliezer who claimed that the world was created in Tishrei, the month of din. We may suggest that this reflects his allegiance to Beis Shammai. The root of Beis Shammai's view is strict din, which is the theoretical ideal, the intellectually correct path. This approach is shown by the following, well-known story:
It once happened that a gentile came before Shammai. He said to him, "Convert me on the condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I am standing on one leg." Shammai chased him out with the builder's plumb line that was in his hand... (Shabbos 31a)
A plumb line is an instrument with which a builder measures a construction to ensure that it is exactly level. It symbolizes Shammai's approach to the would-be convert: he required complete perfection, which he clearly did not detect within him.
In contrast, Rabbi Yehoshua claimed that the world was created in Nissan, the month of chesed. This reflects, if not an ideal approach, then a realistic one, in which the actuality of the physical world and its defects are taken into consideration. We are accustomed to considering the Hebrew names of people and objects as indicating their true essence. As such, we may even suggest that the names of these sages, Eliezer and Yehoshua, reflect their worldviews.
Yehoshua comes from the word moshia meaning "savior." There is another similar word in Hebrew, eizer, which we could translate as "helper." Let us understand the difference between these terms. An eizer does just that - he assists his friend. One party makes some effort, then a friend comes along to help him out, and between the two of them they achieve what needs to be done. This is demonstrated by the following verse:
If you see the donkey of someone who hates you crouching under its load, and you would hold back from helping him, you shall surely unload it with him.(Shemos 23:5)
If the owner of the donkey says to a passerby, "Since the mitzvah devolves upon you [to unload the animal], if you want to unload it, then unload it," he is exempt, for the verse says with him. (Mishnah, Bava Metzia 2:10)
We see that an eizer assists someone, rather than doing something for him in its entirety. On the other hand, Yehoshua comes from the word moshia, "savior" - someone who does something for another person even if he has to do it completely. It is the word which applies when the helped party does nothing at all to assist the helper. We see this from the verse which describes the salvation of God at the sea:
God saved [vayosha, from the same root word as moshia] Yisrael on that day from the hand of Egypt... (Shemos 14:30)
Yisrael did nothing for themselves at the sea. It was a miraculous salvation from God. When a person takes some action to help himself, then God is an eizer, a helper to him. In this situation, the recipient may even qualify for the merit of din, for this is how din functions:
If God did not help him, he could never prevail. (Sukkah 52b)
God has made His help essential to the running of the world. This means that everyone, even the greatest tzaddik, must have help from God to succeed. As such, one may merit the quality of din even when God helps, but only if one starts by helping oneself. Thus Rabbi Eliezer promotes the din thesis about the world - that God created it in Tishrei. In contrast, when God helps a person entirely, He acts as a moshia, a complete savior. This is an act of profound chesed and mercy on His behalf. We now see why it is Rabbi Yehoshua who claims that the world was created in Nissan, the month when God's chesed is most evident to mankind.