I wrote this a week or two ago and read it to a group of friends Erev Shavuot at my Jerusalem apartment, as part of a session of learning focusing on Ma'ariv (the evening prayer service), the moon and the stars. It marked the end of shloshim, the marker of 30 days since my mother's death, and my movement from one stage of mourning into another, in which I will be trying to increase my movement back into the community, although I remain a mourner for the rest of the year. Part of that movement is getting back to spending time with the international community of friends that I am lucky enough to have, and which expanded due to this week's ROI Summit. Wherever you are, I'm grateful for you, and I wanted to share this with you. Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.
Over the last three weeks, I’ve gone to shul twice a day for three services – Shacharit in the morning, and then one joint Mincha and Maariv service. (I admit having missed about three of these services due to airplane travel, but mostly, I manage to get there.) And while I read the words, I have started remembering things that my mother used to say about different phrases and words in the prayer service. But while some of these memories are hazy – and I hope they’ll clarify with time and meditation – I have been repeatedly struck by phrases in the Ma’ariv service, which my mother loved so much she told me about them repeatedly. I never asked her to expand upon her relationship to prayer in general, and to all of the prayer services, but I can try to explore – as I say the words daily - why my Ema liked Ma’ariv.
But Ma’ariv is something else. While it builds on three of the same sections – Shma, Shmoneh Esreh, and aleinu – there’s no repetition. Ah, brevity. Use words wisely, not wordily – my mother the editor would have approved. Plus, the Shma is preceded by poetry and the service ends with the faith affirmations of the kaddish, which focuses on praise for God and God’s role as creator of life.
My mother often spoke about one of the central metaphors of the paragraphs which come before the Shma in Ma’ariv. One particular concept, “golel ohr mipnei choshech” (rolling light away from darkness) and “golel choshech mipnei ohr” (rolling darkness away from light), resonated with her. This concept of light and dark being parts of each other, in a set and fixed way, one being rolled away to make room for the other, is as true of physical light and dark as it is of hope and sorrow.
Writing this now in Jerusalem makes me think about the nighttime in this town, and how it often seems to contain a visible light within the night’s darkness, indicating that in all places, but especially here and for me, especially now, our concepts of light and dark exist on a continuum.
In addition to the energy and poetry of the images that I think drew her to Ma’ariv, she also saw it as an opportunity to remember a humorous preamble that – although not intended as a joke intro to the service, emerged from a story she used to tell about her father, a Conservative rabbi. In his congregation, when they began their Ma’ariv service, they’d start with the traditional first line: “V’hu rachum yichaper avon velo yashchit,” (Translation: God, being merciful, forgives iniquity and does not destroy.) An overenthusiastic congregant had the habit of repeating some words fervently. After my grandfather, usually the chazzan for such services, intoned “yichaper avon velo yaschit,” the congregant shouted “yashchit!” which means “He will destroy,” leading my grandfather, to clarify, “LO yashchit!” (He will not destroy). Which led the other guy to say, “Yashchit!!” And my grandfather would counter with “LO yashchit!!!” I don’t know how long the back-and-forth looping happened, but for the sake of the comedy narrative, let’s just say it went on forever.
My mother loved that story – of someone so fervent he felt the imperative to shout whichever word was last, without thinking about what it means to repeat a word at the end of a phrase. I think she really enjoyed this as a writer and editor, and telling the story also gave her an opportunity to remember her father, who had to seize that moment – as an educator and spiritual leader - to correct the meaning from destruction to “not-destruction.”
My mother was thoughtful in both written and verbal interactions, always considering how her words would land with other people, always trying to protect her children from the negativity in the world. For this reason, I think that the Ma’ariv intro, post-Barchu and pre-Shma, particularly appealed to her. It paints an image of God as protector, spreading a shelter over us, as a constant creator, with every sunup or sundown imitating God’s own creation work. The imitative creative act of having children (called, of course, procreation), and of protecting and teaching the next generation, reminded her that creation is an ongoing process that, although divine in origin, provides an important role for us as human beings.
Ma’ariv continues. “With a word, God brings the dusk, opens with wisdom the gates of dawn.” Each day is designed, organized, not randomly strung together, but in a skilled, thoughtful, deliberate, wondrous succession. In a life which was increasingly difficult for her physically, my mother really responded to the idea that there’s an order, both natural and divine, to the waxing and waning of light, hope, strength and faith. The darker times are hard, but aren’t eternal. With every night, there is the promise of morning. If dusk can be brought by God with a word – then we should be aware that words have great power. If the gates of dawn are drawn open with wisdom – there is intention behind God’s actions. With every rolling of light away from darkness, there is a rolling of darkness away from light.
And in understanding this, in trying to make that separation, one becomes aware that light and dark are a neverending circle. One is not the other. Dark is not light. But they are nonetheless intricately connected, and will, soon and always, continue in that cycle of eternal reunion. Personal humor. Verbal brevity and wordplay. A sense that the prayers contain deliberate images and words laden with intention and sensitivity. It’s no surprise that the things I notice in texts are things that remind me of my mother.
So, about the shul 2x a day thing. When I decided to take on the responsibility of Kaddish, I did it just for the shloshim, for the first 30 days after the funeral. Like I said, I’ve been pretty faithful, because living in Pico-Robertson or Baka, it’s pretty easy for me to do. So easy that I’m trying to continue it as long as I can. But there’s a voice in the back of my head. Or maybe not in my head at all, but from somewhere near my lungs or heart or something cardiovascular that pumps the words through me: “Esther, what are you crazy? Get back to your life!” That’s my Ema yelling at me to not waste my life in shul on her account. She would probably also take this opportunity to remind me that I’m single, and so although I might have more time to devote to a year of Kaddish than my brothers, with their families, might, this doesn’t mean I should take up residence in local minyanim for the next 12 months.
So then I have to explain to the voice inside me what I’ll explain you now: first of all, I’m already aware that I’m single, so thanks for the reminder. And then secondly, to issue a promise I will get back to living my life, as soon as I’m able. But I will incorporate these prayers – either with a minyan, or with a group of peers, or in contemplative reflection – as long as they remain meaningful for me.
Right now, analyzing these phrases brings me comfort, but with your presence here tonight, you’re also helping me mark small steps toward my return into the community, my rejoining of my life, just as my mother would want me to. So thank you for being here, and thank you for listening.