Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Thresholds of Time

by Susan Weinberg

There is a sixth dimension beyond what is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space, and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears, and the sunlight of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination.

Many of us grew up with this rather poetic statement from the Twilight Zone delivered in a timbre of voice that we can still hear in our mind. We’ve talked in the past about twilight as a liminal place, the space between day and night. In this passage it is defined as a place of imagination, perhaps a place of creativity engendering both fear and possibility.

Our discussion today focused on thresholds as they relate to time. The rabbi asked us what our favorite time of day was. Many defined that time relative to light, often preferring morning light or light at dusk. Some preferred early morning when no one else is around, perhaps when they could be most present to themselves without distractions. "When is night?" he asked as we sought to find that arbitrary moment that constituted night.

The concept of time thresholds is deeply embedded in Judaism to an extent I had not fully appreciated.  Times are detailed for the earliest use of tallit, the latest shema, afternoon prayers and of course when Shabbat begins. Today we can google this information, but what did they do before watches and clocks? When my watch was recently being repaired, I couldn’t go an hour without looking at that empty wrist. How did we determine time without an instrument, be it a watch or an iphone?

We turned our attention to the Talmud where we learned that twilight is called bein hashemashos, the time from sunset until three medium-sized stars appear. Since we don’t know whether this period belongs to day or night, we treat it conservatively and are not to light Shabbat candles during this time.

Halakhah, Jewish law, often sets the times when holidays begin or certain acts must occur. To this end they make use of the proportionate hour. The number of hours of light are divided by 12 to arrive at a proportional hour.

We turned our attention to our handout (Bameh Madlikin-Shabbat) where we discovered three measures of time in the ancient world. R’Yehuda tells us that bein hashemashos has arrived when the bottom of the sky has darkened, but not the top. When both are equivalent in color, night has arrived. R’Nechemyah proposes that after the sun sets, night arrives in the time it takes for a man to walk a half-mil, a Roman mile, which takes approximately 9 minutes. R’Yose asserts that it is in the blink of the eye and we cannot determine day from night. Rava tells us to light the Sabbath candles when the light is still visible above the palm trees. I assume time zone adjustments account for different trees of the region or we would be waiting a long time. On a cloudy day we are to look to the rooster or ravens or a wild gourd that bends towards the sun.  The natural world guides those without watch pieces.

The Pirkei Avot 5:10 teaches that ten things were created on the eve of the first Shabbat at twilight, a time of ultimate potentiality. Each contributes to significant transitional moments in our history.  There is the mouth of the earth, the well and the donkey, the rainbow, manna and Moshe’s staff, the worm that helped build the temple, letters, writing and the tablets of the ten Commandments, Moshe’s burial place, Abraham’s ram and some say the tongs that made tongs. It is as if a writer mapped out all their plot points prior to creating their story. (handout-Halakic-Times)

We concluded with two thought-provoking poems on the theme of time, A Man in His Life by Yehuda Amichai and A Prayer for Twilight by Devon Spier.(handout-Halakic-Times)  The rabbi left us with a question to consider. What is the bein hashemashos for us as artists when we find creative inspiration?

The second part of our discussion was artist-led. Noam Sienna explored the threshold between art and scholarship, a place where he resides. Noam spoke of how each area informs the other through a feedback loop. He spoke of how he grew up in that world as both of his parents are engaged in art and scholarship. It was a short step for Noam to focus on the bridge that connects these two areas. By making his own paints and cutting his own quills, he felt that he developed deeper insight into his understanding of manuscript creation. He shared with us some of his work on micrography and his re-creation of damaged ketubot. Rather than passing through the threshold to a new world, Noam lives between two worlds drawing from both of them.

Sarah Routman led the second part of the hour with an exploration of the broken heart. Sarah’s training is in photography and creative writing. A divorce after 34 years, caused her to consider the threshold of being broken and how we reassemble ourselves after being broken. She introduced us to an exercise where we were to select a heart that she had created out of various found materials. We were asked to write of a time we felt broken, then break the heart. I struggled with two pliers, ultimately cracking my heart in two. We then were given an opportunity to mend it. While hoping to wrap mine in wire into a thing of beauty, my heart had other desires and kept splitting apart. Finally I sheathed it in a fishnet bag, a figurative net under its fall in this world to capture its broken pieces.  I found myself hearkening back to a line in the poem by Spier that seemed quite appropriate to our task, “And the fall and climb out of the breach, that break us and assemble us whole in the same breath.”