In the Middle of The Night

I don’t always remember my dreams but I do remember a nightmare I had. For some reason I was out catching venomous snakes, gripping their bodies with a vise. I had a snake in the vise and was walking with it when all of a sudden it flung its entire body toward me and bit me. Then I woke up. It was 2:30 am and needless to say I could not get back to sleep.

We are afraid of the dark as well as of being vulnerable when we sleep. We ask The Almighty ופרוש עלינו סכת שלומך, spread over us your canopy of peace”[1] so we will be protected at nighttime. The psalmist  says אַךְ-חֹשֶׁךְ יְשׁוּפֵנִי וְלַיְלָה, אוֹר בַּעֲדֵנִי “Surely the darkness shall envelop me, and the light about me shall be night.”[2] Nighttime can be scary. Things that seem easy and doable during the daytime, can be overwhelming, even paralyzing at night.

We know that G-d acts at night as we read in yesterday’s Torah reading ויהי בחצי הלילה וה הכה כל בכור מארץ מצרים, “It was the middle of the night when G-d struck down all the firstborn Egyptians.”[3] The medieval paytan, the liturgical poet Yannai, wrote a poem on this regard which is in our Haggadot, entitled “It Happened at Midnight.” He wrote רב נסים בחצי הלילה, “Most miracles occur in the middle of the night.” We also know that Passover is referred to as ליל שִׁמֻּרִ֥ים הוּא֙ לַֽיהוָ֔ה לְהוֹצִיאָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם, “The night of protection for G-d to save Israel from Egypt.”[4]

On Friday we will read וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יָדוֹ עַל-הַיָּם וַיּוֹלֶךְ ה׳ אֶת-הַיָּם בְּרוּחַ קָדִים עַזָּה כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה וַיָּשֶׂם אֶת-הַיָּם לֶחָרָבָה וַיִּבָּקְעוּ הַמָּיִם. “And Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and G-d led the sea with the strong east wind all night, and G-d made the sea into dry land and the waters split.”[5] Rabbi Avi Killip writes “Set at night, the story becomes more intense, more ominous.” When the Israelites see the Egyptians approaching, they begin to panic. They turn on Moses, suddenly certain that this whole journey was a bad idea in the first place. It wasn’t so bad back there in Egypt after all. At least we were alive. At least we were safe. Knowing that this scene takes place at night makes the people’s sudden panic more relatable. Who hasn’t had the experience of regretting at night a decision that seemed so simple in the daytime? In the middle of the night we find ourselves wondering, why did I need to have a baby after all? Wasn’t I perfectly happy before? Or: What made me think I was ready for this big promotion? Why did we decide to buy or sell that house? Why did I think I was ready for a big move like this one? How will I be able to handle this new responsibility? At night we ask ourselves: What made me think freedom was worth this journey? Wasn’t I happy back in Egypt? In the night, we doubt and panic. And yet, it was during the nighttime that the Israelites were able to get up and leave Egypt[6] and it is at night that they must be brave enough to step into the sea.[7]

At night we pray the Hashkivenu, for G-d to shelter us and enable us to have a full night’s sleep. Who doesn’t know the feeling of waking up in the middle of the night and not being able to get back to sleep either because of a nightmare or a racing mind? Interestingly, in our tradition, G-d is our source of light. G-d guided Israel by a pillar of fire at night.[8] Ben Zoma taught in our Haggadah that the word ֹ כל in the phrase  לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת-יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיך refers to the nights.[9] We are not only commanded to be mindful of G-d during the day but also at nighttime.

The next time you wake up in the middle of the night, let us remember that the moment of our people’s greatest salvation, the Exodus from Egypt, occurred at night. May that give each of us hope that during our long nights we will find moments of redemption that will shine through regardless of whatever difficulty we are facing. Hag Sameach.

[1] Hashkivenu in Maariv service

[2] Psalm 139:11

[3] Exodus 12:29

[4] Exodus 12:42

[5] Exodus 14:21

[6] Deuteronomy 16:1

[7] Rabbi Avi Killip, “When Redemption Comes at Night,” https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/stories-and-redemption

[8] Exodus 13:21

[9] Mishnah Berachot 1:5

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