Wait till the midnight hour
Bo - Exodus 10:1-13:16
Bo knows plagues, buddy.
The locusts were bad enough,
but dead firstborn? Harsh!
– Ron Kaplan
January 16, 2013
There is something magic about midnight, as any child who has read Cinderella can tell you. It is the witching hour when radiance turns into pumpkins, when dreams die fast.
Edgar Allan Poe expresses this resonance of despair in his poem The Raven, the tale of a man whose yearning for his lost love Lenore is dashed by a “ghastly grim and ancient raven” that inserts its way into his home “once upon a midnight dreary” with the one-word prophecy “Nevermore.” Never mind this life; there is also no life after death, no heavenly bliss where the lovers may find one another again. “Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the man, citing Jeremiah 8:22, no hope whatever? The raven’s answer: “Nevermore.”
Poe’s midnight message chills us to the bone. We have all awakened in the dark and deep of night and thought that the nightmares that disturb our sleep are real; that “nevermore” will we find hope, love, health, or joy.
It is around midnight too when the ghost of Hamlet’s murdered father appears and when Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman visits horror upon unwitting travelers. Nothing good can happen in what we call “the dead of night.”
How interesting, then, to find this week that God chooses “around midnight” for the angel of death to slay Egypt’s firstborn. From Israel’s perspective, however, this is deliverance, so for ever after, Jewish lore associates midnight with good things. A traditional Haggada poem carries the refrain, “It happened about midnight.” At midnight Jacob wrestled with the angel; at midnight Daniel was saved from the lion’s den. Baal Haturim concludes, “The Holy One performs miracles for the righteous — at midnight.”
Christianity too adopted this positive view of midnight. Since God had saved the Israelites then, the New Testament pictured prisoners breaking free from a Roman jail on account of the midnight prayers of Paul and Silas (Acts 16:2), and in 1849, Unitarian minister Edmund Sears wrote the Christmas carol, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”
A novel touch arrived with the spread of coffee in the 16th century. With Jews wired by heavy doses of Turkish coffee, kabalistic masters converted midnight hope into ritual, alongside the promise that midnight was especially apt to find God’s presence among us. Mystical adepts would arise at midnight for a tikun hatsot, a set of readings intended to bring about a better world.
But kabalists were building on more ancient lore: Psalm 119:62, which had King David say, “I arise at midnight to thank You.”
The Haggada poem recalls Isaiah picturing a night watchman’s being asked, “What of the night?” and responding, “Morning comes.”
I like the Jewish view of midnight, where we host God, not ravens, when we shout “Some day,” instead of “Nevermore.”
Iconoclast Walt Whitman said of midnight, “This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into pondering the themes thou lovest best.” Midnight is the magic moment between yesterday and tomorrow, for today is becoming yesterday and tomorrow has yet to arrive — a perfect time to “ponder the themes the soul loves best.” For Jews, those themes are hope, repairing the universe, and the promise of the inevitable day that dawns when night has passed.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD, cofounder of Synagogue 3000 and professor of liturgy, worship, and ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author or editor of 35 books, including the series “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), and winner of the National Jewish Book Award. His latest book is All These Vows: Kol Nidre (Jewish Lights).