We have a lot of maxims in our culture that simply aren’t true.
Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over, expecting different result. No volume of the DSM lists that as a criteria for mental illness. In love, opposites attract. People aren’t magnets. Similarities attract, differences compliment. People fear what they don’t understand. No one is afraid of being in a plane crash because they don’t understand gravity. What people actually fear are perceived consequences. But there’s one particular motivational proverb I want to single out because it is at odds with the most essential moment in the whole Passover Seder. It’s always darkest just before the dawn.
A couple of years ago I was at a seder and the host was concerned about keeping the meal/service going. It was set in his mind that we had to eat the last of the dinner, the only remaining part of the Korbon Pesach (the Passover offering) aka the afikomen, by midnight. So it’s 11:15 and we’re just getting to the main course. Remember: always eat before an Orthodox Pesach seder. The dad’s trying to keep it moving along, but c’mon, you can’t keep Jews from their food! But tick tock, the clock is ticking.
Then I think, we got home from shul at 8:30, the seder didn’t start till 9:15. If shul had to be so late because sundown was so late, how can we possibly get this thing done by midnight?
Then it hits me. Midnight probably isn’t referring to pacific standard time midnight but a midnight calculated by the rabbis (fyi, from here on out, I’m going to refer to ‘calculated by the rabbis as halachic). There must be a halachic midnight. I ask the host about this and it dawns on him as well. Sure enough, we find out halachic midnight is referred to chatzos and is around 1 am. He breathes a sigh of relief.
Half and Half
So what’s the deal with chatzos? Literally meaning half of, chatzos is the dividing point of the night, equally between sunrise and sunset. There’s a riddle I was told in elementary school. How far can a dog run into the woods? The answer. Halfway. After that, the dog is running out of the woods. Once we reach chatzos, we are no longer getting deeper into the darkness of night, but instead are now headed towards the sunlight of day. Our direction is now changing. It’s not darkest just before the dawn, it’s darkest at chatzos. By the time we reach dawn, we’re well on our way from the darkest point.
But when we are about to make that switch, when it really is the darkest, the change of chatzos is virtually imperceptible. There are other important halachic times and for most of them, we can identify when they occur through observation. It’s sunset when the bottom of the sun touches the horizon. We leave Shabbos when three (of a certain type of) star are visible. But we can’t detect when chatzos occurs.
Chatzos on Pesach
Clearly the metaphor of darkness to personal troubles is understood. Our turning points happen when we can’t see them and it’s a train of brightness that comes, not some sudden spilling out of goodness. That comes later, well into the ramp up. But why am I making this point during a Pesach blog?
It’s no coincidence that the plague of the first born occurred at chatzos. Exactly at chatzos. The Jews having their Pesach seder had to finish their meal, the korban Pesach, before that moment in order to evade the angel of death. So if the afikomen represents that korban, then obviously we should finish bargaining with the niece who found it behind the refrigerator and eat up before this important moment.
Sure, it’s important to reenact the experiences of our ancestors (actually that’s a very important part of the seder). But the deeper lesson is that the korbon Pesach, which is tied to the final plague, occurred at chatzos. Chatzos is the fulcrum to redemption. It was at that moment that the Jews were officially free when Pharaoh finally lets go. Granted they don’t leave until the next day. The splitting and crossing of the Yam Suf doesn’t happen for a week. And they aren’t truly free until they arrive at Mount Sinai and get the Torah 49 days later. But their direction, their destiny, their mozel shifted at that the moment of chatzos.
I’ve said before that Jewish holidays aren’t about commemoration. They give us the chance to seize a spiritual opportunity that is only available at that time of year. So at chatzos on Pesach night, you have the ability to tap into that opportunity to turn it all around and pivot from slavery to freedom, from exile to redemption. You’re just going to have to appreciate the moment with a mouthful of matzah!