“Goodness is manifest in the sense of security one feels when it is light.”
I entered the Pesachim Tractate today with great relief that the Eruvin Tractate is behind me, but also with some hesitancy about how much patience I will have for a discussion on Pesach that will last for four months. The Tractate starts with an odd discussion of the word “or” which the Koren Talmud Bavli says means light. We are introduced today to this new Tractate through an analysis of the borders between night and day in the context of searching a home for any remaining crumbs of leavened bread right before the start of Passover.
Finding a kernel of something that I can relate to is the way I make sense of the Talmud. I reread Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s introduction to the Koren Talmud Bavli and was reminded that this journey is about finding relevancy in the text to one’s life. Rabbi Steinsaltz said in the introduction: “Whatever is written herein refers only to me, is written for me and obligates me, first and foremost, the content is addressed to me.” This Tractate stretches through March 22nd, which will be a full year since New York City and much of the world went into lock-down due to the spreading coronavirus. We are entering what many predict the most challenging period of the pandemic with the prospect of a cold, dark winter.
This new Tractate starts with a search for leavened bread ahead of the Passover holiday. We are told “on the evening [or] of the fourteenth of the month of Nisan, one searches for leavened bread in his home by candlelight.” There is debate on the meaning of the word “or.” Rabbi Huna says it means light while Rav Yehuda says “in this context, it means evening.” The interpretation of the word determines if one should search for leavened bread during the light on the fourteenth of Nisan, or by candlelight in the evening. We are told that the word “or” can be considered a verb, as in “the morning lightened.”
The voice of the Gemara makes a case for the light, which is a positive interpretation of this Daf Yomi reading. We are told that a person should always enter an unfamiliar city when “it is good,” which Rav said is before sunset while it is still light. This is a practical pronouncement because dangers can be unknowable in the dark. We are told that “goodness is manifest in the sense of security one feels when it is light.” And likewise, one should seek safety and leave the city after sunrise the next morning.
We are told that if someone is virtuous, perhaps by observing CDC coronavirus guidelines, they will be able to enter the World-to-Come where the “light of the sun will be seven times stronger than at present.” King David was convinced that he would enter a World-to-Come that was enveloped in darkness due to his many sins. However, he was forgiven and as a result he said, “even this world, which is like darkness, is light for me.” We live in a world of light and darkness, but no matter what, each morning the light returns, and we have the opportunity to start over again and do a little bit better.
“Or” in the English language is a word that represents options. It represents both the big and small choices we make in life. We decide each day if we want a caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee, or pizza or salad for lunch. We also decide among the truly monumental choices in life, including whether to be safe or to take risks. As I write this there are lines forming in airports in the United States as people are beginning the great migration for the Thanksgiving holiday. The CDC has told people to stay home and for this year, give up on the idea of large, family Thanksgiving gatherings. And yet, there are many people who are moving ahead with their plans to travel and be with family in other states.
I fear for the darkness this will bring in the weeks following Thanksgiving as the virus continues to spread and the numbers of sick and dying increase. There is so much pain that we all have the power within our choices to control. I understand the human need to be with family and friends. I will be having a zoom Thanksgiving with my family and have turned down an offer to be with friends who are what one called “the lonely strays left behind in the city.” I preordered a Thanksgiving dinner just for myself, which is a little sad. But this is a time to truly understand the risks associated with our choices, and accordingly, the darkness that can come upon us if we are on the wrong side of the word “or.”
Everyone needs to make their own choices. I am choosing the light by staying home and being safe even if it will be a lonely Thanksgiving.