These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Take the Light Away

Posted on October 20, 2012 by Mary Brett Koplen

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Originally posted on CowBird.

Har Nof, Jerusalem: a village of the black-hatted and side-locked sort of faithful, and these are the people we pass this Saturday evening. We walk through the middle of the street, knowing there will be no cars, that the stores will all be closed. I turn to my brother-in-law, his black hat tilted up by the pace at which we walk. I turn to the watch on my wrist. When does Shabbas end? “8:26pm.” My brother-in-law says. Pressed for time to catch my bus back to Haifa, we set out for the station with the intention of making Havdalah en route. I do not turn on my cell phone. I do not bite my nails. I carry my backpack, but my eyes trace the erev line, cautious not to wander beyond. Cautious to keep this Shabbos until it ends.

“There’s a park this way,” my brother-in-law says, “perhaps there will be flowers.” So we turn from street to concrete lane, to park benches, to children who scream and chase each other through the grass. At 8:26pm we find a rose bush. I pull from my backback the water bottle of wine, the matches, and the two birthday candles that will serve as a double-wicked flame. The wine comes first: “Blessed are You, HaShem, our God, King of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine.” This is the first step.

The second step is what the flowers are for. Eyes closed, I press my face into the rose bush. “Blessed are You, HaShem, our Lord, King of the universe, Creator of the different spices.” I gulp them through my nose, hold the scent in the back of my throat, exhale slowly through my taste buds. I open my eyes.

It’s windy in Jerusalem, so it takes two strikes to light both birthday candles. The wax drips and stings my fingers as I tilt the candles to hold the wicks together. The one flame is larger than the separate two, and hisses in the wind. I say: “Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, Creator of the fire’s lights.” I cherish the flame, imprint it on my retina, were it will burn and blur together with every other light I’ve watched for too long. My hands sense the flame.

A year ago I was searching for light or something like it, and happened upon my first Shabbat in Har Nof. As the darkness settled in, I searched for candles, braided wicks, twine: anything I could ignite in one breath and extinguish in the next. But the woman’s hand was on my shoulder, telling me to hesitate, telling me someone else should make Havdalah: “My husband,” she says. “Women bring light into home. We should not take it away.”

A year later with this rose bush, with this water bottle empty of wine, with two birthday candles holding this flame, I look to my brother-in-law, black-hatted, side-locked, faithful. He does not hold up his hands. He does not offer to make this Havdalah himself. I take air into my lungs and hesitate. “Blessed are You, HaShem, our Lord, King of the universe, who separates between the holy and the profane; between the light and dark; between Israel and the other nations; between the seventh day and the six days of the week. Blessed are You, God, who separates between the holy and the profane.”

The birthday candles burn in blessing, the wine sits there sanctified. I hesitate. It’s not good wait on such things. You do not sip blessings. You do not wait for its flame to fade. You engulf them both yourself. Immediately. You draw them in before their holiness fades. I draw breath, but the wind picks up, the fire vanishes, and the day is over as if it had never existed at all.

I close my eyes. My retinas burn.