“Most of one’s knowledge is acquired at night.” So writes R Moses Maimonides (Rambam), the 12th century philosopher and halakhist. (Rambam, Laws of Torah Study 3:13). Quoting a series of rabbinic teachings, Maimonides goes on to sing the praises of nighttime Torah study. “And whoever occupies herself with the study of the Torah by night – a mark of spiritual grace (hut shel hesed) distinguishes him by day.” In a similar vein, R Shimon b Lakish, the great 3rd century Talmudic sage, opines that “the moon was created only for study!” (lo ibarei sihara ela l’girsa!) (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 65a)
Barbara Brown Taylor, celebrated Episcopal priest and author, shares a similar insight in her stunning book “Learning to Walk in the Dark” – “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.” Movingly, Reverend Taylor describes “the gift of lunar spirituality, in which the divine light available to me waxes and wanes with the season.”
What, then, is the special ‘knowledge acquired at night’? What, exactly, does ‘the gift of lunar spirituality’ contain? What do we learn from the moon, both her light and her darkness?
Parashat Bo brings to us the moment of the Exodus itself, the long anticipated departure of the children of Israel from Egypt, from Pharaoh, from slavery. They will spend 40 years, a full generation and more, journeying toward freedom. And notably, the long march to the promised land begins with their ‘learning to walk in the dark.’
Departure of the Israelites – David Roberts (1829)
“In the middle of the night the Lord struck down all the first-born in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh who sat on the throne to the first-born of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the first-born of the cattle. And Pharaoh arose in the night, with all his courtiers and all the Egyptians—because there was a loud cry in Egypt; for there was no house where there was not someone dead. He summoned Moses and Aaron in the night and said, ‘Up, depart from among my people, you and the Israelites with you! Go, worship the Lord as you said! Take also your flocks and your herds, as you said, and begone! And may you bring a blessing upon me also!’”
Elsewhere, the Torah describes the departure from Egypt as a daytime affair. In Bo, however, the great moment of redemption happens at night. As Aviva Zornberg puts it, “The night intimates a different kind of freedom, paradoxical, uncanny in many of its dimensions…To leave by day, ‘with hands high’: this is the stuff of epic. But the night is another country.” On that night, the Israelites receive the gift of lunar spirituality; on that night they acquire wisdom; on that night they come to be distinguished by a hut shel hesed – a mark of spiritual grace. “Strange how the night moves.”