Reverberations from the shadows
D'var Torah

Reverberations from the shadows

Do you remember how reassuring it is, after a seemingly endless dark night of vampire killing, when — at last — the rays of sunlight begin to paint the horizon with the dawning of a brand new day?

Neither do I, but I have certainly imagined that sort of relief following the sleepless tossing and turning of an anxiety-fueled corridor stretching through the shadowlands. A new day arrives with the dawn, certainly, and with it come new opportunities. That is an experience we all can grasp viscerally.

But surely, we all know that in the Torah, the day starts the evening before: “There was evening and there was morning, one day.” This schema is reiterated throughout the Talmud, as well, beginning with its very first words: “From what time do we recite the Sh’ma in the evening?” It has become such a commonplace definition of the passage of time that we hardly even notice that the two definitions are inconsistent. Days DO begin in the evening, and they DO begin in the morning, even in the Torah. In this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, we read about the Tamid sacrifice, the “perpetual” offering given in two equal parts each day, morning and evening (Ex 29: 38-39), in that very order.

But I’ve buried the lede, for in the opening words of Tetzave, the same daily occurrence of lighting the lamp (leha’alot ner tamid) occurs “from evening to morning” (Ex 27: 20-21).  We might be tempted to brush the distinction off — it’s just words. In a tradition that says the universe was created by 10 speech acts and Sinai’s focus on Ten Dibrot (utterances), however, we ought not be too cavalier regarding words.

The difference, of course, may be a distinction without importance, since they both describe the daily progression of time as “Tamid” — perpetual — like a deli case filled with rows upon rows of black and white cookies, end to end. But we’re Jews, so we know they are black-and-white cookies, not white-and-black. Or are they?

If the day begins at dawn, then the world belongs to human society, to logic and effort, to striving workers engaging in commerce in the streets of town. If, however, we begin when the lights go out, human civilization is no longer the measuring stick of the world. Fear breeds in the wilds of night, setting the tone for each day when most people are asleep. This distinction is laid out in the psalm for Rosh Chodesh (Psalm 104).

For most of us, the repetitive tasks of life lull us into viewing life as the Tamid sacrifice is described, beginning with the morning, doing our jobs and making our plans for a day’s worth of activity, ruled by the ticking of the clock and the frustrations of our daily commute. We sometimes forget the shadow side of experience, where neither time nor life are givens. These are occasions when our very first priority must be lighting a flame, simply to survive.

For Jews, time is tricky. The talmudic tractate Megilla describes the elasticity of when Purim — the only biblically ordained holiday tied to a historical event that occurred on a specific date — is to be observed. Unlike other chagim, the various activities of Purim may be spread out over more than a week’s time, depending on lots of variables (where you find yourself, how many people can you gather, is there a wall, is there a tradition, is there a Shabbat). And as this year demonstrates, whether or not an extra month has been added to the calendar.

This year is a shana me’uberet — a year pregnant with an extra lunar month — that puts off Purim and yahrzeits until the second Adar. This Shabbat is thus not only Parshat Tetzaveh, but also Shushan Purim Katan, a shadowy prequel to what will occur, a ’lil Shushan Purim. Shushan Purim, you may recall, is the day after the regular celebration at having survived almost certain annihilation, fighting another day in the Persian capital and resting and feasting a day later than their compatriots in the hinterlands.

For me, personally, the date is fraught. Years ago, my brothers and I stood by our mother’s bedside on Purim as she slipped into a coma that made no sense. Three days before, she had been going about her life normally, but a cascading series of blood chemistry issues forced her into the hospital and forced my younger brother to call me and Richie to rush to Los Angeles from New Orleans and Tampa. I was able to speak with my mom before her coma. My big brother, Rich, who arrived a few hours later, never got to see her alive again. She teetered on the brink of death that afternoon as the hospital’s family liaison, dressed absurdly in a fake beard and clown costume, tried to prepare us for her death. She held on until after sunset, setting her time of death and yahrzeit on Shushan Purim, rather than Purim itself. But the timing was, in a sense, arbitrary. It had been coming, stalking her invisibly.

We believe that by doing our daily routines, we can wrestle and eventually subdue time itself. But we’ll never know when it viciously leaps out at us in unpredictable moments. Better to realize that both sides of the black-and-white cookie actually taste the same, better both to prepare daily sacrifices and to kindle the nightlight, because you never know which version of “regularity” you will face. Complacency is a psychological gift that ought not be squandered by regarding it as the only possibility. October 7, in a sense, had always been coming, waiting in the wings. Do what you can to live life, says our Torah portion, but don’t forget the shadows, the penumbras and echoes, even from future catastrophes, that may arrive at any time.

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