Evening and Morning: In-the-middle-ness

Posted on November 29, 2017 by

A blog post by Associate Director Tracie Guy-Decker. Read more posts from Tracie by clicking HERE.

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that circulates about my mentor in graduate school, Paul Mendes-Flohr. He was born in America to immigrant parents, and spent his entire adult life in Israel. In his 60s, Paul retired from teaching at Hebrew University Jerusalem, and took a position at the University of Chicago. In his first year at Chicago, he was invited to join a colleague (and former college classmate at Brandeis), for Thanksgiving dinner—his first ever. Excited to partake of this most American of holidays, Paul is said to have rung the doorbell at his friend’s home promptly at the designated time.

When his friend and colleague answered the door, Paul was confused. His friend greeted him by asking him why he was there. “I’m here for Thanksgiving dinner, of course.”  “Paul, today is Wednesday. Thanksgiving is tomorrow.” “I know, it’s erev Thanksgiving—isn’t that when we have Thanksgiving dinner?”

In Genesis 1:5, it says “God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” Because of the order of the times of day listed in this verse—evening then morning—Jewish days are counted from sundown to sundown. That mode of counting was so ingrained in Paul that it didn’t occur to him that this secular American holiday would assess the day differently.

A sunset, c. 1943. Arthur Gutman Papers, JMM 1998.24.256

But, at least for me, sundown to sundown is not exactly the most intuitive way to mark the day. The human rhythms of wakefulness and sleep mean the sundown-to-sundown day is bisected. Emotionally, going to sleep feels like the end of a day, and waking the beginning.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the consequences of sundown-to-sundown being a unit of time, since the recent holiday season that started with Rosh Hashanah and ended in Simchat Torah. In particular, on Simchat Torah, I was struck by a fundamental wisdom in the bisected day—the day that contains an end in its middle. On Simchat Torah (Joy of Torah), the liturgical year is concluded. We read the final verses of Devarim, Deuteronomy, and then start at the beginning again with the first verses of Bereshit, Genesis.

It’s a little unusual. Though double portions do happen occasionally, weekly portions do not include the verses from multiple books. Throughout the year, when we reach the end of a book of Torah, we finish a book one week and start the next book the following week. But when we finish the whole of the Torah, we do not let our reading of the Torah be “finished,” even for a single week. Rather we start it over immediately.

Flag for the celebration of Simchat Torah. JMM 1990.165.1

Interestingly, the first portion of Genesis read on Simchat Torah after the final verse of Deuteronomy includes the verse I quoted above, “And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.” This year as I listened to the Genesis verses being chanted, a lightbulb went off for me: oh! Because we’re always in the middle of it. Life, like Torah, does not have neat endings. It’s always moving—doubling back, moving ahead, picking up where it left off—it’s always in the middle. It was one of those moments where you see the elegance in something you’ve been looking at your whole life and deepen your appreciation for it.

Once I saw this in-the-middle wisdom of sundown-to-sundown and Simchat Torah’s double portion, I started seeing it everywhere, especially at JMM. Before I started working here, I thought of history museums as focusing only on the past—on things that had ended. Now that I am in the middle of it, I see that our approach is much more sundown-to-sundown than it is awakening-to-falling-asleep. At JMM, we look at the past to help us all understand the present and to shape the future.

We are always in-the-middle.

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1 Comment

  1. Mary Anne Newkirk says:

    What a profound insight, Tracie! Thank you for sharing it!

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