Striking images! The Pillar of Cloud and Pillar of Fire that guided the ancient Israelites in the Sinai desert were distinct and disjunct. One by day, one by night. Yet, an oddity in the way the images are rendered in the Biblical Hebrew leads the Talmud to conclude that they overlapped. Just before the Pillar of Cloud departed at dusk, the Pillar of Fire had already descended. Just before the Pillar of Fire departed at dawn, the Pillar of Cloud had already descended.
Clarity and confusion — the fire of celebration and the cloud of second thoughts — can overlap. Likewise, vision and uncertainty; enthusiasm and doubt; day and night.
Life is not always given to stark contrasts, clear alternatives or single echoes. The most striking guides, fire and cloud, intermix.
Just before Genesis records the death of Sarah, it records the birth of Rebeccah. Before Sarah’s sun set, Rebeccah’s sun rose. Later, before Moses’ sun set, Joshua’s sun rose. Still later, on the day that Rabbi Akiva died, Rabbi Judah the Prince, the canonizer of the Mishnah, was born.
No Jewish generation is left without its leader to sustain the community in the next generation. Two leaders, whose ideals overlap, may be master and disciple (Moses and Joshua) or may never even know each other (Sarah and Rebeccah).
If there is no death, there is no coming back to life. So it would seem.
Yet, Rabbi Yechiel Perr records:
“There was an incident on the Long Island Railroad in which a crazed black man, motivated by racial animus, took out a gun and killed six white people . . . Among the survivors was a certain man who had been an awful person all of his life. . . . But when he saw death staring at him down the barrel of a gun, he realized that . . . he should be nicer to those around him. After that incident, he became a kind, gentle and caring person. This is a dead man who was brought to life by suddenly recognizing the truth.”
He came back to life without having died.
Life has many births and many deaths.
Still more. There is life in this world even before birth and after death. Take, for example, the Bluzhever Rebbe (portrayed in Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust, by Yaffa Eliach). When he was 16, he married Perel, the daughter of another chasidic rebbe. It was an arranged match — arranged by the two fathers before their children were even born.
Leadership needs to be envisioned even for the future not yet born.
Then, after the leaders complete their tasks, their children-successors carry on . . . deriving from the original match.
Scholarship challenges the story behind the most moving prayer of the High Holidays, “Unetaneh Tokef” (“who shall live and who shall die”). The story goes that the Bishop of Mainz demanded that Rabbi Amnon of Mainz convert to Christianity. It was the time of the Crusades. Jews were murdered by the Church for refusing to convert. Rabbi Amnon asked for three days to meditate upon the request, whereupon he would return to the bishop.
On the third day, he did not return to the bishop, who had him arrested. Rabbi Amnon suggested that his tongue be cut out for even suggesting the possibility that he would convert. The Bishop instead amputated the rabbi’s arms and legs. When Rosh Hashanah arrived a few days later, Rabbi Amnon asked to be brought to the synagogue. With his last strength, his last breath, he uttered the words of “Unetaneh Tokef.”
Scholars believe that the prayer was actually written centuries earlier in Israel by a poet named Yannai. Why would it be attributed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz?
When a person is pervasively moved by or committed to a prayer or a project, a person is said “own” it. He or she becomes it.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander: “Rabbi Amnon is memorialized in the prayer as a tribute to the countless Jews who paid the ultimate sacrifice during the horrific years of the bloody Crusades. Rabbi Amnon may not have composed the words but he most assuredly established them through his outlook and actions.”
When we own an ideal, a project, a task, a prayer, a vision, we identify with it so closely that it identifies us. It originates outside of us, but becomes us. “We too have the opportunity to become the authors of the prayers we read and the Torah we study.”
What is the ultimate overlap?
Perhaps this: “On the day the ancient Holy Temple was destroyed, the Messiah was born.”
Perhaps this: On the yahrzeit of a beloved relative who shaped us and loved us and whom we loved, the memory of the person becomes so sharp that it is as if he or she were standing in front of us, still alive, still embracing us. Overlap.
Perhaps the ultimate overlap is this:
On Sabbath afternoon, at the time of the last prayer of the Sabbath day, we recite: “As for me, my prayer to You G-d is at this time of ratzon, of favor, of desire or will” (Psalm 69:14). Whose desire? Whose will? The chasidic author, Bnai Yissaschar, writes: If G-d rested from creation on the seventh day, creation began the previous Sunday. If, in the Jewish calendrical scheme, a day begins the night before, the beginning of creation was on Saturday night. If so, G-d’s will to create humanity was before Saturday night — on Saturday afternoon, the same time as the last prayer of the Sabbath day. “Before creation, it arose upon His will, blessed be His Name, to create the world. Thus, the time which precedes the first night is a time of favor, just as it was at the beginning of creation, for it was then that He willed that there be creation.”
Sabbath mincha is the ultimate overlap, between nothingness and creation, between non-existence and existence, not only of me or my loved ones or my descendants or my better side, but of all of creation.
Is this not problematic? Is not Judaism based on the principle of havdalah, of separation, of the distinction between the holy and the profane; between the Sabbath and the week; between right and wrong; between different times, such as a time to eat leaven and a time not to eat leaven but only matzah? Is not the underlying dynamic of Judaism not overlap, but the division of reality into distinct times and the division of behavior into distinct moral realms? Is there not such a thing as fidelity in marriage; as food that is kosher and food that is not; as a portion of my income that does not belong to me, even though I earned it, but belongs to someone else, via tzedakah?
Is not Judaism a religion of distinction between the permitted and the forbidden, and, as I said, between the holy and the profane, and right and wrong? Is not the “deep structure” of Judaism one of distinction, of havdalah, not of overlap?
1. Overlap illuminates the realm of the spirit and the intention, not the world of the act. The act, rooted in havdalah, retains its integrity and centrality.
2. Overlap is a lens on the past, helping us see it as it unfolded in all of its complexity. Distinction is the ideal way to live, to chart our lives for the future.
3. Within certain rhythmic distinctions of Judaism, overlap complements and adjusts the binary. For example, Sabbath and the week are binary. Sabbath is holy, weekdays are not. Yet, the weekdays have the capacity to enhance the Sabbath. It is one Sabbath that is not yearned for, not prepared for, and it is an entirely different Sabbath for which one yearns internally and prepares for practically by scheduling one’s shopping, cooking and laundry in order to be ready for Shabbos spiritually, sartorially and gastronomically.
Conversely, a Sabbath truly accepted for its serenity and link to G-d, enhances the weekdays to come, making them more productive, making one better able to realize one’s goals and serve humanity. In this sense, the Sabbath and the weekdays, radically different though they are, overlap. Distinction itself may be served by overlap.
Pillars overlap: Shabbat 23b.
Sun sets, sun rises: Ba’al ha-Turim, Gen. 23:1.
Rabbi Perr: Mind Over Man, by Yehuda Keilson (Israel Bookshop, 2017), p. 282.
Shidduch prior to birth: D. Spira, “The Bluzhever Rebbe,” Hamodia (Oct. 30, 2019), p. 4.
Unesaneh Tokef: Kenneth Brander, “Owning Our Prayers,” Ohr Torah Stone Newsletter (Tishrei, 5780), pp. 1-2.
Messiah born: Midrash Eichah Rabbah 1:51.
Bnai Yissaschar: The Holiness of Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh, trans., annotated, Kalman Worch (Feldheim, 2017), pp. 238-239, in the name of Menachem Mendel of Rimenov.