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The Dawn Is Up to Us

Our central prayer, the Shema is recited two times a day, once in the evening and again in the morning. The question arises how a person determines when it is evening and when morning. When is the first moment someone can recite the Shema, for example? Is it when we see the first glimmer of light, peering out of night’s darkness? The rabbis of the Talmud argue at length about this question.

One responds, when one can determine between the sky’s blue and white. Another retorts, when one can distinguish between two similar animals, such as a wolf and a dog. The sages respond, when one can recognize an acquaintance from a distance of four cubits (six feet!). Jewish law follows the sages’ majority opinion. (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 9b).

Dawn is not about the glow of red and orange emerging at sunrise. Instead, it is about seeing, and in particular our seeing each other. The distinction between day and night is determined by our ability to see others. Darkness is not so much the absence of light but instead the inability to see friends and acquaintances.

This darkness was the evil that enveloped Egypt during the ninth plague. “Moses held out his arm toward the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where they sat; but the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings.” (Exodus 10)

The ninth plague of darkness was not so much a punishment from God but instead a recognition of the evils the Egyptians brought upon themselves. They did not really see each other. With the exception of Pharaoh’s daughter who rescued Moses, the Egyptians did not see others, in particular the strangers among them, the Israelites.

They did not see the pain of others. The plague was a spiritual darkness.

At yesterday’s inauguration, Amanda Gorman, the young and extraordinarily talented poet, proclaimed:
And yet the dawn is ours
before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we've weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken
but simply unfinished
And I am renewed and likewise declare, lifting any plague is within our grasp. It is simply a matter of seeing one another and recognizing the pain in their eyes.

The breaking of dawn is not about the sun. It is instead about us.