This week, the phrase “Ma-ariv aravim,” (the name of the prayer at the beginning of the evening service) just keeps floating in my head since we turned the clocks back last weekend. On Sunday, I glanced up from my computer in the late afternoon, and noticed the rosy, burnished colors in my backyard. I went back to the screen. Moments later, when I looked up again, it was near total darkness outside. How had that happened so quickly? When exactly was nightfall? When was it still dusk? When was it twilight? It’s so hard to tell.
Of course, I’m reminded of the Sondheim lyric from “A Little Night Music,” in the second act, as the characters are waiting for sunset, so they can get on with their night music, “Perpetual sunset is rather an unsettling thing.” What is it that’s so unsettling about twilight?
In her commentary about the prayer, Maariv Aravim, and specifically the phrase about how God “opens the gates with wisdom” in the evening, scholar Ellen Frankel notes that the prayer acknowledges God’s power to disrupt what seems to be the orderliness of the daytime, when we can see things clearly, and bring on the more chaotic, indistinguishable night time, a world without light. It’s not like our human lightswitches, when we can make light appear or disappear suddenly, all at once, decisively. No wonder dimmer switches and transitional lenses cost more. They go against our instincts.
We humans do like clarity. We like to pin things down. As witnessed by our atomic clocks and dependence on alarms, we like to know when things begin and end. We Jews like distinctions, too. We distinguish between holy and not holy, the pure and the impure, the cuds and the hooves, the fins and the scales.
Clarity is like a sort of security for us. So, of course the transitional times of dawn and dusk are unnerving. They expose our raw edges, like torn cloth, when we much prefer hemmed seams. Transitions are individual notes that demand our attention, when we much prefer clean cutoffs, with no messy, lingering sounds.
If God does indeed “open the gates with wisdom” at the transitional time of evening, that is the wisdom? Perhaps the wisdom is that there are times when life is supposed to be messy and transitional and therefore, unsettling. It’s true that it’s at those uncertain times that the light gets interesting, and the colors get deeper. Photos so rarely capture this shifting light; how could they? They are, by definition, in transition and not prone to “click…got it!" But painters spend careers trying to get it right. Ask Monet, who painted the same scenes over and over, in different light.
Just like when I looked up and suddenly it was actually dark, those less-defined moments go by very quickly, and we can easily miss them. “Maariv Aravim” presents us with an opportunity to open our eyes to the shifting colors and shadows that God arranges for us. Each night, we have a way of trying to mark that moment, as inaccurate as it is, by breathing out a blessing of the One who “rolls light away from darkness, and darkness away from light, waiting for the next transition to daylight again.
Or, as Sondheim put it:
The light is pink
And the air is still
And the sun is slinking behind the hill.
And when finally it sets,
As finally it must,
When finally it lets
The moon and stars adjust,
When finally we greet the dark
And we're breathing amen,
Surprise of surprises,
It instantly rises