Thursday, 31 Aug 2023

Written by Matt Turchin

There is something utterly blissful in that sleep of the early morning. Carried away upon the waves of the sea of dreams, where the lolling swells whisper lullabies and even ominous stormclouds foreshadow no true danger, for they will fade away as the curtain begins to rise against the darkness, and the first shafts of light venture through – Morning: safety and security which can only be found in one’s bed, in the knowledge that all dreams, reverie and terror alike, give way to the realities of the dawning day. But this time, a certain sound cuts through, breaking down the fourth wall and violating that dream stage, like a lightning strike and resounding thunderclap from the other side, that realm of reality. The seascape is bathed in harsh light and suddenly all the fanciful inconsistencies which bely the world of dreams become obvious as we are cast out into the real world. We find our pillow behind us, our covers askew, and in the half-light of that disconcerting moment, caught between false safety and real vulnerability, the fog lifts just enough to make sense of the interruption. The sound is instantly familiar and demands a primal response – it is the cry of a small infant, sending out a message into the world and somehow trusting that this message will be received, interpreted and dealt with by those in charge of her care.

In that moment, when the taste of the sea is still upon our lips and the sensation of bobbing upon the waves keeps us from gaining balance, the question arises: What does she need? Will it be a new nappy? A rearranged blankie? A sip of sustenance? Yet even before embarking on this investigation, there comes a feeling which will immediately bring with it a pang of guilt – ‘In the morning, you shall say “If only it were evening!”’ (Deut. 28:67). If only I could bypass this moment and fast forward to this evening, when she will no doubt be calm and satisfied and I will have the pleasure of new dreams just over the horizon. Or perhaps it is actually a bit of nostalgia: If only it were last night, before I had drifted off into dreams, when all her needs had been met and she was fast asleep, and I did not yet know what pleasure I would find in the folds of my comforter, in the depths of my pillow, rocking upon the sea of dreams.

In another scenario, evening hours threaten to give way to those desperate moments of the intermediate stretch, when darkness will soon reach its peak and give way to the relentless march towards morning, when it feels as if time is being slowly stolen away and here this poor child lays, inconsolable, screaming and wailing without any hint of what is needed, but vocal and demanding all the same, though no explosive nappy change, no bleary-eyed feed nor desperate embrace will suffice. In those moments perhaps the guilty thought arises, when ‘in the evening you shall say, “If only it were morning” – because of what your heart shall dread and your eyes shall see’ (Deut 28:67). Are you pining for tomorrow morning, when all of this will have passed and the child will once again look sweet and innocent, nestled gently in serene comfort, not a care in the world, and you will have stolen those few hours of rest necessary to retake the day? Or perhaps you are pining for the morning with which this cursed day began, when you were still somewhat refreshed, before the screaming commenced, when her requests and demands could be satisfied and the day looked bright ahead.

Every part of our mornings and evening are merely a stretch of moments. The inconsolable child is just a moment. Her pleas are heartbreaking, her needs are urgent, but her world is entirely formed in the present beating of her heart, the rise and fall of each tiny breath, the pangs of her belly and the needs of the hour. For her there is no evening to pine for in the resignation of the morning hours, nor is there a morning to remember as evening gives way to desperation. Every now is precisely that. When her urgent moment has passed, she will sink into the bliss which can only exist in the absence of all worry, hope and nostalgia – the bliss of immediate satisfaction.

When the Torah speaks of wishing for the evening in the morning and for the morning in the evening, our parashah is imagining a future potential time, when the Israelites have crossed over into the Promised Land, when they have taken over possession of the land and made it work for them, yielding its produce. In that very moment, it is imperative they not forget that it was God who brought them to that place, who took them from an enslaved people in a foreign nation and redeemed them, many moments of long ago laced together into a collective history. Remember. But our Torah is also speaking of the future while invoking the actions of the past, all for a singular purpose: to hammer home the blessing and curses which await the people should they follow God’s commands or choose to forsake them, respectively. The blessings are the promise of many moments of joy and prosperity, and the curses, many moments of horrific destruction, loss and grief, excision from the land and God’s protection. The author(s) of the Targum Yerushalmi interpret these verses of curse after curse as a desperate wish to bypass those wretched moments and skip to the good part. Alternatively, in the Talmud (b. Sotah 49a), Rava states that ever since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, each day is more cursed than that which preceded it, and since one can not know if tomorrow will ever be better, in our moments of greatest despair we look back into the golden-hued moments of the past, when everything was wonderful and all our needs fulfilled.

Each of these texts is a product of its own time. Deuteronomy was likely formed in the pre-exilic period, when the First Temple stood and the idea of removal from the land was terrifying, but not present. However the text itself is written from the ancient perspective of those Israelites in the time of the final days of Moses, when everything lay before them as potential. Meanwhile, the Targum Yerushalmi was written in a 1st and 2nd century world which had recently lost the Second Temple, a time in which the reality of the Deuteronomic verses was present and real, a product of recent memory. Living in that lowest of moments, we imagine the verses of our parashah would evoke a hope for a better future, or perhaps even an eschatological dream in which the end of days would bring perfect peace and harmony to an already devastated world. Moving forward a few centuries and transported to the world of the Babylonian academies, generations spent living fractured from the land of the Torah and at the whim and will of other nations taught the Sages that the future is uncertain, and when bogged down by curses we pine for those times gone by, feeling doubly-cursed in the knowledge that we may never return to that time and place, for it is a lost moment among a multitude of lost moments, forever unreachable.

When we are beset by the wailing of the most innocent, the infant whose very survival depends on our responsiveness, even when we are beyond tired, even when we are at our wits’ end, we may be tempted by the nostalgia of a good night’s sleep or perhaps by the promise of a calmer future, but those are moments out of reach – either gone and inscribed in the annals of time or potential and uncertain – and this is the trap. The moment is now. Elul is midway through, the Days of Awe are riding swiftly upon the waves of the pre-dawn light and we are hopping from one moment to the next like frogs from lilypad to lilypad. Where we leapt from is a memory and where we will leap to next is as much an act of faith as any decision we might make, but where we find our feet planted at this moment… that is where we must make our stand. This is where we live. The infant cries, and it matters not what she needs, only that she needs. And somehow, even as our well seems to run dry, there is always one more drop for her. Meeting her needs now is how we secure the future, something which neither recollections of the past nor hopes and dreams alone can ever do.

When her cries shatter the illusion and threaten to break your resolve, awake from your blissful sleep and feed the moment.


Matt Turchin LBC rabbinic student

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.