Havdala- a distinction: The strange meaning of being human

The siddur is teaching us, indeed forcing us to admit, that we are human beings with the abilities of God but with the psyches of beasts.

October 2, 2017 15:17
Illustrative photograph of Israelis standing in line at a supermarket

Havdala by Pepe Fainberg. (photo credit: PEPE FAINBERG)

EVERY SUMMER I serve as the Rosh Beit Midrash at Camp Ramah in New England. On Saturday nights, we gather together in the forest ‒ 550 campers and 250 staff members ‒ and recite together the “Havdala,” the prayer that separates Shabbat from the rest of the week. During the day that preceded, work ceased ‒ we were not on our computers, we were not driving in and out of camp for supplies, we were not planning the days and weeks ahead. Instead, we spent time speaking to each other, reading books, playing sports, enjoying our beautiful lake and studying Torah. The moment the enormous havdala candle would be put out, these daily routines would immediately be upon us. Regular, creative life would return.

The act of lighting that havdala candle was the beginning of that process. In a midrash that appears in Genesis Rabbah 12:6 (and elsewhere), Adam, the first human being created, becomes frightened at the end of Shabbat; this is his first experience with darkness. Shabbat had been filled with the special light God created on the first day ‒ a holy light whose source was not the sun. Adam fears that the darkness is coming to “bite him.”

God sends Adam two stones from heaven; Adam clashes them together and they make a fire. Over this fire, Adam offers God the blessing, “Blessed are you Adonai, Our God, ruler of the universe, who makes the lights of the fire.” This is the moment, at the end of Shabbat, when Adam begins to act as a human being, manipulating his environment such that it will provide maximum benefit for him.


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