“Lamentations Over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt” by Charles Sprague Pearce, 1877
“Lamentations Over the Death of the First-Born of Egypt” by Charles Sprague Pearce, 1877

Midnight can be the moment that changes the course of history

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Exodus 10:1–13:16

When we were younger — and much less tired — my husband and I used to love to bundle up and watch the fireworks on New Year’s Eve. Some people love fireworks for the display. I like fireworks, too, though they all kind of look the same to me (with rare exceptions, such as the last Fourth of July show over New York City).

For me, New Year’s Eve has never really been about the pyrotechnical aspects of the moment. Rather, it’s about the moment itself.

As each time zone counts down to midnight, there is something magical about a very mundane happening:  the turning over of the seconds, minutes, hours, days and months that lead to a whole new year. New counting.

It’s sort of akin to the excitement I feel when watching the odometer in my car arrive at a big new number. Who cares, really?

But society has taught us that counting matters. And Judaism, in particular, has emphasized ordering our lives around counting — and respect for the moments, days, weeks and months that are so precious.

So I was intrigued to find that as I read this week’s Torah portion, Bo, one line jumped out at me that I had never noticed before.

In Exodus 11:4, Moses reports on a statement God made to him. “Moses said, ‘So said Adonai, At the dividing point of the night, I will go out into the midst of Egypt.’” God promises to smite the firstborn in every Egyptian family.

In years past, I had always focused on the smiting. Or the firstborn part, being one myself.

But this year, I suddenly took note of the time frame.

In the Hebrew, the words are chatzot ha laila. This is translated in modern Hebrew as “midnight.”

There is some debate among our ancient commentators about what time is really connoted here with those words. Though midnight probably wasn’t halfway through a spring night, there is something powerful about the stroke of midnight.

Regardless of the actual time, it represents an important divider. God promises to do something that will forever change the Egyptian people — and, thereby, the story of our own people.

Reading this verse in the parashah reminded me of one of my favorite books, “Freedom at Midnight.” Read it? If not, I highly recommend you order it as soon as you’re finished reading this column. It’s a wonderfully written account of the partition of India and Pakistan. The book is named for the exact minute that India and Pakistan would officially be made independent, thereby changing millions — or billions — of lives.

As I thought of this book, I reflected on God’s promise in our Torah portion to change the course of history k’chatzot ha laila. By smiting the firstborn Egyptian children at midnight, God would cause the hard-hearted Pharaoh to finally let the Israelites go free.

And in that instant, our people would be born.

The future existence of us would be set in motion.

There’s something about taking note of a specific moment — one which freezes in time forever. History provides a number of those moments. They’re not all at midnight. But once you pass the threshold of one of those moments, life is changed forever. There is something tangibly, permanently different about the moment just before and the moment just after the real or metaphorical midnight. It’s a divider.

All this thinking about midnight took me back a few days to our most recent New Year’s Eve. Why do I feel the need to watch the annual ball drop in Times Square?  I’m not alone!

People — lots of them — come out in very cold weather to count down the final seconds to a new year. To mark midnight with hope and joy. Some years, we mark a new beginning with no small amount of gratitude for moving on.

What is it about that moment that matters? Sometimes midnight really is the moment that changes the course of history.

As we begin a new secular year, hoping for a clean break from the previous 365 days, we are reminded that marking time really does matter. And new beginnings really are real. And anything can happen in the year ahead.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.