How Long Is the Night?

Daybreak

The sunrays are gently coaxing me out of sleep’s grip, but I resist their warm overtures. I clench my eyes shut and pull the covers over my face, hoping to evade the sunshine slanting through the tent flaps.

Just another few minutes, I tell myself. Sleep is safe. Sleep is good. It will shield me.

If I close my eyes tightly enough, I can make out the figure of our little Rivkah scampering after nine-year-old Nesanel. They are running barefoot outside, yet I fear not for their safety. We are surrounded by the Clouds of Glory and I know that my children are well protected.

“Ima!” Rivkah calls from afar. “I finished eating my entire portion!”

My younger self turns around slowly to find our jug of mann. It is nearly empty. By nightfall, nothing will remain.

I try to follow Rivkah and Nesanel into the dusky haziness. But sunshine is fluid. It has this annoying habit of streaming through my self-imposed barricades and wrenching me away from my pleasant dreams. Much as I wish to remain with my younger self, I know that it is impossible.

Boker tov. Good morning.

I stumble through my morning routine, bleary of eye and weary of soul. As soon as I approach the table, my elbow collides with a jug of water and the earthenware vessel crashes to the ground. It shatters into tiny fragments at my feet.

Boker tov. Exactly.

Reuven chooses that moment to return home. Water is lapping at my feet and random clay shards are making themselves comfortable on the ground near me. I suffer the indignity in silence, though Reuven’s amused smile softens the impact.

As I arrange some of the round, white mann in a bowl and place it on the table, a thought punctures my pretense of normalcy. Whom will I serve tomorrow morning, after —?

But I must not think of that.

This morning, I can still set the breakfast table for my husband of 41 years. Right now, that is all that matters.

“Sit, Michal.”

“In a moment,” I mumble, swiping at my eyes with a heavy hand. I busy myself with the clay shards, sweeping them up into a neat pile.

“You can do that tomorrow,” Reuven remarks.

His comment stings. Tomorrow, I will have time. I am sure that widowhood will afford me many long, empty moments to contemplate the shattered fragments of my life.

Our tent is deafeningly, impossibly silent. We sit across from each other, Reuven and I, and we say nothing. Specifically today, when I want to compress years of unsaid words and thoughts into mere hours, I can barely form a single coherent sentence.

Midday

I try to pin the sun in place, but it glides out of my grasp. At midday, it is at its zenith. Half the day has gone. Reuven is studying. He is learning Torah on the last day of his life.

“I must use every remaining moment,” he said earlier. “Now I still have the opportunity to create eternity. Tomorrow I will rest.”

Yes, Reuven. Tonight you will dig a deep, dark pit in the ground and you will rest… forever.

The words he said earlier still swirl around me, weaving a cocoon of belief and faith. “This is a Heavenly decree. It is the Will of our Creator. My fate comes as no surprise, Michal. Thirty years ago, on that long night, we knew that my days were numbered.”

I blink moisture from my eyes and nod slowly, though Reuven has already left the tent. There is no doubt in my mind that his words are true. I am not plagued with questions of why. I am just … hurting.

Thirty years is a long time, but certain memories only become sharper as they are dragged through the years. The happenings of that fateful night have etched themselves in our nation’s collective memory, for their ramifications will only multiply throughout the generations.

It was a day like any other. We were stationed in the Paran Desert, waiting for the return of our erstwhile messengers. Forty days had already elapsed since their departure.

“Nesanel! Wait for Rivkah!” I called out, but Nesanel didn’t hear me. With boyish exuberance, he raced between the tents of our shevet in frenzied pursuit of an unidentified something or someone.

“Ima!” Rivkah whined. “I finished my mann so fast. Why didn’t Nesanel wait?”

Hmm… Why wouldn’t a nine-year-old boy wait patiently for his tag-along little sister? It remains one of childhood’s most enthralling mysteries.

“Come, you will be Ima’s little helper today,” I said.

It was the suggestion I had always used in Egypt, when Rivkah felt trapped in our little hut on the outskirts of Goshen. She enjoyed standing at my side while I chopped some meager scraps of vegetation. Rivkah helped me drown the scraps in water to create tasteless broths that managed to keep body and soul together, just barely.

But now my suggestion no longer fit. Our food required no preparation. Our clothing was never in need of washing or mending. I wonder whether these blessings will follow us into the Promised Land.

My musings sputtered to a stop when I see crowds of men striding purposefully towards the center of our encampment. Snippets of conversation floated toward me.

“They have finally returned!”

“When will we move forward? The Promised Land is quite close by.”

“First we must hear their report.”

“Hurry! The Meraglim have gathered before Moshe and Aharon.”

I was impatient with the children that evening, but at last they were all bedded down for the night. Our tent was blessedly silent, with five little beings breathing softly in near-perfect cadence.

“Soon we will be in our Land,” I whispered. “Soon we will settle on our family’s plot in the land of milk and honey.”

But my dreams were uprooted before they could fully bloom. I heard the cries, the shouts, the sheer terror that gripped our nation on that confusing night of 9 Av. Grown men who had survived the horrors of Egyptian enslavement were now crying woefully.

“If only we had died in Egypt, or even in this desert! Why must we be taken to a land where we will all be slain? Wouldn’t it be better to return to Egypt?”

And then the idea that started out as a mere whisper quickly took root. It became a cry, a call for action.

“We will appoint a leader to take us back to Egypt!”

If my dreams were tangible, I would have been buried that night under their sorry remains. In a deluge of tears and fears, our future took a precarious and unexpected turn.

I cannot presume to know or understand what had taken place. We are an exalted nation; a nation of individuals who had glimpsed the Glory of our Creator at the Yam Suf. I cannot understand; nor am I even meant to seek comprehension.

All I know is what happened as a result of our misplaced tears. The ninth day in Av has become an annual day of mourning, of tragedy.

We cried in vain on that difficult night and we will therefore shed tears year after year on the ninth of Av.

So it has been. Thirty years have elapsed since then, but when the summer months creep closer, my heart still quivers with trepidation. The night of Tisha b’Av, scores of men dig deep pits. They dig their own graves. Any man who was between the ages of twenty and sixty on that long-ago night is destined to remain in the desert, to remain buried in its soil. He will not merit entering our Promised Land.

Each year, women are widowed. Children are orphaned. Last year, my sister Dina lost her husband. He went out with all the men to dig his grave in the dark of night. The next morning, most of them came back, but he did not. He was sixty years old.

Now it is my turn.

Reuven is sixty years old and I know that tonight — tonight — he will be taken from us.

Late Afternoon

“Ima?”

“Rivkah, come in, come in.”

My little Rivkah is now a mother many times over. How quickly the years have —

Michal! Compose yourself before you squander these last hours of blessed normalcy.

I scrutinize Rivkah’s face for signs of distress, but she is as composed as ever. Does she not know what awaits us?

“Where are the children, Rivkah?”

She waves her hand vaguely. “Outside. They’re playing with their cousins.”

“Why, has anyone else come to visit?”

“Of course, Ima! You know that Nesanel brings his children every afternoon to give Chanah some respite.”

Rivkah eyes me strangely. She does not realize that I stand at the cusp of tragedy.

“Of… of course, Rivkah. Nesanel is here.”

“Who’s talking about me?” Nesanel exclaims as he strides inside.

I look at Nesanel’s dancing eyes and I am surprised at the vitality they radiate. He is alive — alive! The specter of death does not hover above him, for he was but a child when so many men started counting their days.

“Ima, my little Tzadok asked me the strangest question today.”

Talk talk talk. Chatter and more chatter. When will they leave so that I can —

So that I can — do what?

Prepare myself? Make peace with imminent tragedy?

Foolishness, Michal. The hours will move forward regardless.

“Remember when I asked Abba that same question?” Nesanel asked, with a chuckle.

“Wh-what question?”

Nesanel seems concerned.

“Tzadok asked me why our Shevet is always the last to travel.”

“Oh, of course I remember!” I reply quickly. “You asked Abba that question when you were nine, maybe ten. ‘Shevet Dan is always last!’ you whined. You wanted to be the first!”

“And Abba said that we are lucky. We are privileged because it’s our job to pick up any possessions that are left behind by the other Shevatim.

Rivkah smiled softly, adding, “I remember how Abba made us feel so special then. ‘Think how sad a little boy like you would be if he loses one of his treasures. We make him so happy when we return it!’ Remember, Nesanel?”

Nesanel nods. “I told Tzadok those exact words, in the name of his Saba. He seemed very satisfied.”

“I suppose Tzadok will remember his Saba fondly,” I say quietly.

I want them to know, to be with me in these last hours. I wait for comprehension to dawn.

But Rivkah is straining to see how her children are faring. She has not heard my remark.

“Yes, Ima. Tzadok is very fond of his Saba,” Nesanel offers while balancing his youngest child on his knee.

Dusk

The shadows are lengthening outside our tent and then slowly bleeding into each other until they become one.

Rivkah has gone home to put her little children to bed. I didn’t say anything before she left.

“Go in peace, my daughter,” Reuven murmured.

Rivkah looked up for a moment, but her attention was arrested by soft little hands, and her eyes were drawn to round little faces. She is building our future, every minute of every day. She did not realize that a strand of her past is slowly, slowly pulling itself loose and drifting away.

Now Nesanel has also begun gathering his troops.

“Zecharyah, come here immediately. Hold onto Shmuel’s hand so that he doesn’t run away again. Stand up, Menasheh. We’re leaving. Say laylah tov to Saba and Savta.”

The children throw hurried “good-nights” over their shoulders as they rush toward home. Nesanel smiles apologetically and rushes after them.

“Nesanel.”

Reuven’s voice is soft, yet strong.

“Come back, Nesanel.”

Nesanel must notice the slight quaver in his Abba’s voice. He bends over to Zecharyah and whispers something in his ear. I watch as Zecharyah throws back his shoulders and motions his younger siblings to follow him.

Nesanel returns to the entrance of our tent and stands there, waiting.

“Tonight is the ninth day of Av,” Reuven says.

“Yes, Abba.”

“Where — where will you be tonight, my son?”

Nesanel is confused. “Well, I have a nightly study session with—”

My grown-up little boy stops mid-sentence. “Abba, you know that I don’t have to go along with the men tonight. I was only ten years old at the time of… of the event.”

No one says anything for an interminable moment. Life and death are dancing amongst us, hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder. Father and son, past and future.

“My son, maybe you will accompany me part of the way. I — I do not wish to go alone.”

“B-but — Abba! Haven’t you gone every year for the past — what is it? Twenty-five or thirty years?”

“It’s thirty years, Nesanel.”

Silence takes over again, but this time I can almost hear the heartbeats beating erratically as life drains away.

“Don’t you know how old Abba was then?”

Nesanel’s face crumples.

“N-no, Ima. I never… I never wanted to ask.”

But now he knows. He knows that his Abba is sixty years old. Tonight, our tears will not be in vain.

Nesanel says nothing. He sits near Reuven until it is time to go.

I, too, have nothing to say, nothing to add.

They stand at the entrance to our tent for an eternity and then they are gone. I strain my eyes to see the two figures walking side by side. I no longer see Reuven and Nesanel. I don’t see an Abba and his beloved bechor. Now all I can see is darkness.

Midnight

I sit in my empty tent and I cry.

Reuven has gone to a better place; a world of truth and clarity. He knows why this had to happen.

But I am still here, wandering in the desert for so many years. A day for a year, a day for a year. Nothing in this world occurs without reason. It is all planned to the minutest detail.

I cry. I cry the tears of a widow. I cry for the generations who will continue to shed tears on the ninth of Av.

Elokai!” I call out. “Take my tears and gather them, one by one. Pour them into that Heavenly cup, to join the many tears that have poured forth from pained eyes and shattered souls.”

I know not when the tears will dry up, when this night will become a time of rejoicing. I worry about the future; I wonder about the past. I have no answers.

“But, my Abba, King of kings, I know that sometime in the future, that cup will be filled to the brim. And then, at the time of our greatest rejoicing, we will have no questions.”