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Yizkor: It Was Evening; It Was Morning

Why Does the Jewish Day Begin When We Go to Sleep?

    Rabbi YY Jacobson

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  • October 7, 2014
  • |
  • 13 Tishrei 5775
  • Comment

Class Summary:

Most countries in our industrialized world have accepted midnight as the beginning of our 24-hour "day." The Babylonians, worshipping the sun, reckoned it from sunrise to sunrise; the Umbrians from noon to noon. It was the Jews who started their day in a completely different fashion: at sunset.

Why do our days begin with sunset? Should a new day not begin when we awake, rather than when we retire? Night, it seems, is the end of the day rather than the beginning of a day! Why not commence a new day with light rather than with darkness?

It is one of the stranger Talmudic tales. Fourth-century scholar Rabbi Zeira once found his teacher Rabbi Yehudah, standing at the entrance of his father-in-law’s home in an unusually good mood. Realizing that it was a propitious time to ask whatever he wanted under the sun, Rabbi Zeira posed the following question: "Why is it that the goats usually stride in front of the herd, to be followed by the sheep?"

Rabbi Yehudah’s answer was no less strange. "It is like the creation of the universe: first there was darkness [the goats, who are usually black], and afterwards light [the white sheep]."

What does all of this mean?

Is it not quite perplexing that our tradition designated the prayers of Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret—a day dedicated to intense joy and dancing. In Israel, this is also the day of Simchat Torah, and outside of the Holy Land, it is just a few hours before the onset of Simchat Torah, one of the happiest days of the year when we dance, non-stop, with the Torah, in an outburst of unbridled joy. Yizkor is naturally somber. Yizkor reminds us of a life, or lives, swallowed up by earth. And then just a few hours later—or in Israel a few minutes later—dancing, singing, celebrating? Are we schizophrenic?

It was during the holiday of Sukkos in 1950—his first Sukkos as a Rebbe—that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented the deeper explanation for this structure of Jewish time, where the day begins with night and concludes with daytime. 

The sermon tells the incredible story of a group of 50 American Jewish teenagers visiting Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. Suddenly, they met a couple standing over the grave of their son. When the teenagers heard about a dream the bereaved mother had, they decided to do something that captures the essence of Jewish history, the core of Simchat Torah, the purpose of Yizkor, and the mission statement that kept our people dancing over four millennia.

Optimism

My go-getter coworker asked me, "Andrea, why put off till tomorrow what you can do today?”

I replied, "On the chance that I get fired this afternoon and don’t have to do it at all.”

And then the Fighting Began

“My wife sat down on the couch next to me as I was flipping channels. She asked, ‘What’s on TV?’

I said, ‘Dust.’

“And then the fight started…

“When I got home last night, my wife demanded that I take her someplace expensive… so, I took her to a gas station.

“And then the fight started…

“My wife and I were sitting at a table at my high school reunion, and I kept staring at a drunken lady swigging her drink as she sat alone at a nearby table.

“My wife asked, ‘Do you know her?’ ‘Yes,’ I sighed, ‘She’s an old friend. I understand she took to drinking right after we split up many years ago, and I hear she hasn’t been sober since.’

"’My God!’ says my wife, ‘who would think a person could go on celebrating that long?’

“And then the fight started…”

When Does the Day Begin?

Most countries in our industrialized world have accepted midnight as the beginning of our 24-hour "day." Although 12:00 is in the middle of the night, our society dictates that the night or dark period before midnight ends one day. The remainder of the night or dark period after midnight is the beginning of the next 24-hour day.

The present worldly calendar thus begins the counting of "days" with about six hours of darkness first, followed by twelve hours of light, and ends with six hours of darkness. The midnight-to-midnight system came from Egypt and Rome.

Other cultures determined the start of their day differently. The Babylonians, worshipping the sun, reckoned it from sunrise to sunrise; the Umbrians from noon to noon.

It was the Jews who started their day in a completely different fashion: at sunset. Shabbat does not begin Friday at midnight, or Saturday morning at sunrise; it begins Friday at dusk when the sun sets, and it continues till nightfall of Saturday.

This is often confusing for Jews who don’t realize that Jewish holidays—as do all Jewish days—begin on the evening before. For example, Simchat Torah begins on Thursday evening, and concludes Friday evening, when Shabbos begins.

Why is it this way? Why do Jewish holidays, and all their days, begin at nightfall? Should a new day not begin when we awake, rather than when we retire?[1] Night, it seems, is the end of the day rather than the beginning of a day! Why not commence a new day with light rather than with darkness?

What is more, why does each of our days consist of 24-hour periods, which consists of both night and day? Would it not make sense for our days to be divided by the clear demarcation of light and darkness—each morning a new day; and then each evening a new and separate day?

Goats and Sheep

It is one of the stranger Talmudic tales:[2]

שבת עז, ב: רבי זירא אשכח לרב יהודה דהוה קאי אפיתחא דבי חמוה וחזייה דהוה בדיחא דעתיה ואי בעי מיניה כל חללי עלמא הוה אמר ליה א"ל מ"ט עיזי מסגן ברישא והדר אימרי א"ל כברייתו של עולם דברישא חשוכא והדר נהורא.

Fourth-century scholar Rabbi Zeira once found his teacher Rabbi Yehudah, standing at the entrance of his father-in-law’s home in an unusually good mood. Realizing that it was a propitious time to ask whatever he wanted under the sun, Rabbi Zeira posed the following question:

"Why is it that the goats usually stride in front of the herd, to be followed by the sheep?" 

Perhaps the last thing we would expect Rabbi Zeira to ask would be a mundane fact of animal husbandry. Rabbi Yehudah, however, was not fazed. Good-humoredly, he explained that this phenomenon reflects the order of creation.

"It is like the creation of the universe: first there was darkness [the goats, who are usually black], and afterwards light [the white sheep]."

Rabbi Yehuda was, of course, referring to the story of creation in Genesis, read on Simchat Torah and again on Shabbos Bereishis, where at the end of each day of the six days of creation it says:

וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם אֶחָד... וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שֵׁנִי... וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שְׁלִישִׁי...

 "And it was evening, and it was morning; day one", "And it was evening, and it was morning; the second day;" "And it was evening, and it was morning; the third day;" etc.

By mentioning evening before morning, the Torah defines the 24-hour “day” as beginning with the evening, followed by the morning.[3] That is why, Rabbi Yehuda said to his students, the white sheep follow the black goats; day follows night.

This is a perplexing tale. A treasure-trove of wisdom had opened up for Rabbi Zeira — he had the opportunity to inquire into the deepest secrets of the universe and from one of the greatest sages and scholars of the time! — and instead he quizzed his master about goats and sheep?

No less strange is the response of his great master. What in the world is the connection between goats leading sheep and the order of creation where night preceded day?

Sadness or Joy?

Is it not quite perplexing that our tradition designated the prayers of Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret—a day dedicated to intense joy and dancing. In Israel, this is also the day of Simchat Torah, and outside of the Holy Land, it is just a few hours before the onset of Simchat Torah, one of the happiest days of the year when we dance, non-stop, with the Torah, in an outburst of unbridled joy, unparalleled at any other occasion of the year. Even reserved, “cold,” intellectual Jews, loosen up on Simchat Torah and allow their legs to dominate over their heads…

Yizkor is naturally somber. When we remember and reflect on our loved ones who are not here any longer, grief fills our heart; nostalgia sets in. Yizkor is associated by some with deep regrets, by others with the memory of a profound void carved into their souls. For all of us, yizkor reminds us of a life, or lives, swallowed up by earth.

And then just a few hours later—or in Israel a few minutes later—dancing, singing, celebrating? Are we schizophrenic?

Why not Begin with Sunrise?

The answer to this question is contained in the Torah reading of Simchat Torah, where we repeat six time the same phrase—and it is recited by the entire congregation during the reading of the Torah:

וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם אֶחָד... וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שֵׁנִי... וַיְהִי-עֶרֶב וַיְהִי-בֹקֶר, יוֹם שְׁלִישִׁי...

"And it was evening, and it was morning, one day… And it was evening, and it was morning, day two… And it was evening and it was morning, day three…”

It was during the holiday of Sukkos in 1950—his first Sukkos as a Rebbe—that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented the deeper explanation for this structure of Jewish time, where the day begins with night and concludes with daytime.[4]

Ups and Downs

Everyone[5] agrees that life is full of ups and downs. We go through periods where the sun is shining upon us and we feel on top of the world, only to turn a corner and be faced with difficulties and obstacles that drag us down. But it isn't long before something pleasant comes our way to pick us up again.

The question is: which one wins the day, the ups or the downs? In other words, is life a series of disappointments dotted by the occasional glimmer of hope, only to be crushed by another surge of gloominess? Or are we on a journey upwards, with challenges along the way to make us even stronger in our quest for truth?

Does darkness extinguish light, or does light conquer darkness? Does night follow day or day follow night?

The Jewish view is clear. "And it was evening, and it was morning." First the night, then the day. Darkness is a pathway to the sunrise hiding behind it. A challenge comes our way only to help us tap in to and reveal our inner powers that have until now remained unfathomed.

That's Jewish time: the comfort in knowing that no matter how dark it may seem, it is light that will have the last word.

No Independent Legitimacy to Night

This is why the Torah does not designated night time as an independent day, nor does it even allow us to begin the day with sunrise and conclude it with night time, or midnight. The darkness of night must never be perceived by us as possessing an independent substance; darkness, in Jewish thought, is always nothing but a prelude, an introduction, a forerunner for light. Night is the precursor for day. Night exists. Darkness exists. At times it is dense, thick, and heavy. But it is never the end. It is always the beginning. “And there was evening, and there was morning;” “and there was night, and there was day.” Night is the beginning of a journey; it has a purpose: to transform it into light; to use it as a prelude for a new light, for a new beginning, for new horizons, for new discoveries.

When we are lost in the wilderness of our psyche, we are given the opportunity to chart a new path. When one door closes, another opens. We just need the courage to pass through it.

Some people actually say it differently: “Remember, whenever one door closes, another slams in your face.”

You know the old saying: Why are New Yorkers so tense and depressed?

Answer: You would also be, if the light at the end of your tunnel was—New Jersey…

And yet, Judaism still maintains, that a third door opens somewhere…

This is the deeper meaning in the exchange about the goats and sheep. Goats are tough and stubborn animals; sheep are docile and easy going. Why are the goats in the lead? Asks Rabbi Zeira. This is no simple question. It is a serious dilemma: Life has its tough moments, its nights, and its docile moments, its shining days. But the tough ones seem to be stronger and always ahead!

So Rabbi Yehuda tells him: This is the order of creation. First darkness, then light. Why? Because the entire purpose of darkness is to create a new light. Night has no true and eternal reality on its own, other than as the genesis of a new light, the light that we create from our challenges and difficulties.

Birth and Death

This idea reflects our entire life narrative.

“And there was evening, and there was morning.” When we are in the womb of our mother, we are in the dark. It is night time. But then comes birth—when we emerge into a bright world, where we see the light of day. Birth is the morning that follows the evening of pregnancy.

But then, we die. It is night again. The body of our loved ones are, again, interred and concealed in the earth, eclipsed by the dense opaqueness of silent earth. “And it was night.”

But in Judaism, the day never ends with night. The soul does not die, it lives on for eternity. And will even return back to life after the coming of Moshiach.

But there is more. Reflect on the yizkor text. We mention our loved ones who departed, and then we make a pledge for tzedakah, for charity. Strange? No? Must we always talk about money? We are talking about the dead, forget the money for a few minutes!

Yet there is a profound message here.[6] As I say yizkor, I shed a tear for my loved one who has passed on. I miss my father. I weep for my children who will not the grandfather they had. “And there was night.”

But, in Judaism, night must be followed by day. My sadness is real, justified, deep, and tough. But that is only the beginning, never the end. “And there was evening and there was morning.”

So when I say yizkor, I immediately add: I am going to do something for my loved one in this world! I am going to continue his or her legacy; I will ensure that their ideals, values, dreams, love, and inspiration lives on through me and my loved ones. I will do a mitzvah for them. I will create a project for them. I will give tzedakah for them. I will ensure that my own evening produces a new morning! I will turn my loss into a momentum for a new chapter in my life and in my community.

We do not dance just a few hours, or a few minutes, after yizkor because of denial or indifference. It is because our mission statement as Jews has always been: And there was evening, and there was morning!

You might have heard of the MC who introduced the guest speaker: “Our speaker needs no introduction. What he needs is a conclusion.”

We all need conclusions. And that is what matters most. What is our conclusion? “And there was morning; and there was day; and there was light.”

G-d’s Picture

A small child walked daily to and from school. Though the weather one morning was questionable and clouds were forming, this child made the daily trek to the elementary school.

As the day progressed, the winds whipped up, along with thunder and lightning.

The mother was worried that her child would be frightened walking back home from school, and she herself feared the electrical storm might harm her child.

Following the roar of the thunder, lightning would cut through the sky like a flaming sword.  Being concerned, the mother got into her car and drove along the route to her child's school.  Soon she saw her small child walking along, but at each flash of lightning, the child would stop, look up at the sky and smile.

One followed another, each time with her child stopping, looking at the streak of light and smiling. Finally, the mother called and asked, "What are you doing!"

Her child answered:

“I'm smiling for G-d; He keeps taking pictures of me."

A Scroll on Mt. Herzl

It all happened on a simple day back in 2011.[7] A group of 50 Jewish teenagers visited Israel in a program known as “Write on For Israel,” in which these youngsters spend a few intense weeks learning much of the history and the reality of Israel, as a training program for them to become spokesmen for Israel at their future schools and campuses.

A few years ago, as their visit was coming to an end, just a few hours before their flight back home to the US, the kids visited Mt. Herzl, gazing at the thousands of graves of Israeli soldiers killed in battle over the last seven decades.

Suddenly they noticed a mom and dad standing at a grave, weeping silently. One of the boys approached them, introduced himself, and inquired about the person buried in the grave.

They said it was their son Erez. Erez Deri, the son of Penina and Gidon Deri, was killed in 2006 following an operation in Jenin. He went in to Jenin, the center for dispatching suicide bombers to murder as many Jews as possible, to take on the killers. His tank turned over and he was killed.

Erez’s mother said:

“Our dream was to bring Erez to the chupah… to watch him get married and begin a family. But in 2006, our dream was shattered. Our family has been devastated as a result of this tragedy.

 “Last night, Erez came to me in a dream. He said: Mother! We bring our children into chupah. But there is one more thing we “bring in to the chupah:” A Torah Scroll. When we complete writing a Torah, we lead it under a chupah, just like a groom and bride, and we bring it in to a shul, singing and dancing, just like a wedding.

“You can’t bring me into marriage. But you know what? Why not write a Torah in my name and you will bring that it to a chupah—it will be like marrying me off!”

And the mother continues: I awoke from the dream. But we are a simple family, not wealthy. We are also a secular family, and do not know much about writing a Torah Scroll. I do not even know where to begin. How do I write a Torah for my son Erez? So I came to here to my son’s grave to pray…”

The teenager approach the director of their group, Rabbi Yutav Eliach, and asked him one question:

How much does it cost to write a new Torah?

$35,000. Or, 130,000 Shekel, he said.

The teenager shared the story with the entire group. They all decided right there at Mt. Herzl to donate the Torah for Erez.

 They did the math. If each of the 50 students gave or raised $700 it would cover the entire project.

Many of them stuck their hands into their pockets and gave Rabbi Yutav the $700. The others pledged to deliver him the money they would raise upon their return to the US.

A few month later, a surreal scene took place in Maale Adumim, a town close to Jerusalem, where Erez’s family lives. It was Sunday, March 4, 2012. With music blasting, 50 New York-area teens from Write On For Israel, danced up the streets of this West Bank community with a Sefer Torah they brought from the United States. The Torah was donated to a local synagogue in memory of one of its young members, fallen IDF soldier Erez Deri.

The 50 students fulfilled the promise made to Deri’s parents following a chance meeting at Mount Herzl a few months earlier.

“We started as strangers and returned as extended members of the Deri family,” said Daniella Greenbaum, leader of the fundraising effort. “It was beyond exciting to see the joy that we brought to these parents and to affirm the idea that we are all members of Am Yisrael, responsible for one another.”

At the celebration, Penina Erez, said to the students: I feel the presence of Erez at this celebration. I feel like I brought my child into the chupah! I feel like he is dancing with us. A terrible burden has been lifted from our family.

A few months later, the family celebrated the wedding of one of Erez’s brothers.

“And there was evening; and there was morning.”

A New Dawn

When the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented this above insight into the Jewish day-structure it was Sukkos of the year 1950, just a few short years after the greatest destruction of Jewish history. Mounds upon mounds of ashes, the only remnants of our six million brothers and sisters (can we even wrap our brain around that mind-staggering number?), left a nation devastated beyond words, and what seemed to many lifeless beyond hope. Never had Judaism's everlasting light come closer to being extinguished. The Shoah destroyed the core of Jewish life: men, women and children who were the most vibrant, animated elements of the Jewish people. An entire world went up in smoke. As much as we talk about it, it is still surreal.

And there was evening…

What happened next will one day be told as one of the great acts of reconstruction in the religious history of mankind. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, as well as other great Jewish leaders and survivors, refused to yield to despair. They all declared with a resounding voice:

And there was morning…

Our greatest night must be followed by our greatest day! For every Jew lost, let us create two new ones. For every yeshiva burnt, let us create two new ones. For every community decimated, let us create five new ones. For every synagogue torched, let us create ten new ones. Let the light of Yidishkeit burn like never before!

So they said yizkor. And they said it with deep pain.

But then—a few hours later—they began to dance!

“And there was evening; and there was morning!” 


[1] Remember that before the discovery of electricity, when nightfall came, people went to sleep. Their lives followed the rhythm of the son.

[2] Shabbos 77b

[3] See Talmud Nazir 7a

[4] Sichas Simchas Beis Hashoavah 5711 (1951). Letter dated 7 Tishrei 5711 (Igros Kodesh vol. 4). See there for an extraordinary explanation in the argument between Rava and the other sages in Nazir 7a on the definition of time and a passing day. Cf. Torah Or end of first Maamar Veatah Tezaveh—on the difference between Moses and Aaron: For Moses, the flame is constant; for Aaron, it is “from evening to morning.”

[5] The next section is from a lovely article by Rabbi Aron Moss: http://www.jewishmag.com/90mag/question/question.htm

[6] This ideas is explained at length in Sichas 20 Av 5729 (1969). In that talk, the Rebbe said that this idea seemingly constitutes one of the most powerful ideas in the Jewish religion—how our lives here on earth impact all of the world and souls above.

[7] My thanks to Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm (Oslo) for sending me this moving story. Part of it has been written up in the Jewish Week: http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new_york/write_students_dedicate_torah_israel

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    Shemini Atzeres/Simchas Torah 5775

    Rabbi YY Jacobson
    • October 7, 2014
    • |
    • 13 Tishrei 5775
    • |
    • 0 views
    • Comment

    Class Summary:

    Most countries in our industrialized world have accepted midnight as the beginning of our 24-hour "day." The Babylonians, worshipping the sun, reckoned it from sunrise to sunrise; the Umbrians from noon to noon. It was the Jews who started their day in a completely different fashion: at sunset.

    Why do our days begin with sunset? Should a new day not begin when we awake, rather than when we retire? Night, it seems, is the end of the day rather than the beginning of a day! Why not commence a new day with light rather than with darkness?

    It is one of the stranger Talmudic tales. Fourth-century scholar Rabbi Zeira once found his teacher Rabbi Yehudah, standing at the entrance of his father-in-law’s home in an unusually good mood. Realizing that it was a propitious time to ask whatever he wanted under the sun, Rabbi Zeira posed the following question: "Why is it that the goats usually stride in front of the herd, to be followed by the sheep?"

    Rabbi Yehudah’s answer was no less strange. "It is like the creation of the universe: first there was darkness [the goats, who are usually black], and afterwards light [the white sheep]."

    What does all of this mean?

    Is it not quite perplexing that our tradition designated the prayers of Yizkor on Shemini Atzeret—a day dedicated to intense joy and dancing. In Israel, this is also the day of Simchat Torah, and outside of the Holy Land, it is just a few hours before the onset of Simchat Torah, one of the happiest days of the year when we dance, non-stop, with the Torah, in an outburst of unbridled joy. Yizkor is naturally somber. Yizkor reminds us of a life, or lives, swallowed up by earth. And then just a few hours later—or in Israel a few minutes later—dancing, singing, celebrating? Are we schizophrenic?

    It was during the holiday of Sukkos in 1950—his first Sukkos as a Rebbe—that the Lubavitcher Rebbe presented the deeper explanation for this structure of Jewish time, where the day begins with night and concludes with daytime. 

    The sermon tells the incredible story of a group of 50 American Jewish teenagers visiting Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. Suddenly, they met a couple standing over the grave of their son. When the teenagers heard about a dream the bereaved mother had, they decided to do something that captures the essence of Jewish history, the core of Simchat Torah, the purpose of Yizkor, and the mission statement that kept our people dancing over four millennia.

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