I learn Torah now from 2:30 to 3:30 on Thursday mornings.
This is how it happened: I have a chevrusa (a one-on-one study session) with a genius from Israel once a week. It involves a lot of him talking very quickly and me nodding as if I understand, and we used to do it at 8:30 P.M. his time, 1:30 P.M. my time, when I was in Atlanta. But now I am in Hong Kong, and his schedule cannot change, and so — 2:30 A.M.
So now on Thursday night I typically go to sleep at 10, wake up at 2, go back to sleep at 3:45 (if I can), and get up at 9 (work starts later on Thursday, making all this possible — thanks, G-d!). At around 2:10 A.M. I make a cup of tea and drink it staring out the apartment’s living room window at the lights and the bay. Then I grab a liter of water and a cup, open Google Hangouts, and find our place in my copy of Moreh Nevuchim. There is no sound other than the thankless toil of the air conditioner.
A ring pierces the silence.
I start, resist the urge to look over my shoulder, paranoid. I am worried about…what exactly? I am worried about the cosmic balance upset by this clandestine antemeridian study session. Surely this venture cannot succeed. I, who cannot do anything consistently for more than two days, am going to keep a commitment to learn medieval philosophy at witching hour? An outrage. A scandal. When do I learn during my regular daily schedule, I wonder. I seem to rack up way more hours playing video games and concocting brilliant Facebook statuses….
My teacher’s face appears on my laptop screen against the backdrop of his library.
We do not greet each other.
Greetings are a luxury. Greetings are for day-time Torah, part of the schedule, that hallowed space before work or on lunch break or during the commute. Even out-of-the-ordinary occurrences still occasion a greeting; the order of life itself condones a touch of madness, allowing for a “fancy meeting you here” or even a “good evening, officer.” We expect the unexpected, some of the time.
But when you wake up at an hour normally reached only by accident (“oh look, half a season of Daredevil I haven’t watched!”) to do something good that is totally unnecessary, salutations are the least of your worries.
In the moment before we fail to greet each other, I find myself surrounded by the spirits of all the Yeshiva students I have known who somehow studied Torah for twelve hours a day. My memories of them encircle me, like a strange cross between priori incantatem and the bickering familial spirits of that great masterwork Mulan:
“Philosophy, shmilosophy. 100 pages of Talmud a year! That’s what Rabbi K. says!”
“Yeah, you’re really devoted to chassidus. That’s why you show up to learn it so often.”
“Pesach is coming and I’ve only learned the Alter Rebbe’s Shulchan Aruch with Kuntres Acharon. I feel like such a slacker.”
“You know, this weird middle-of-the-night once-a-week tryst with the Rambam only serves to salve your guilt over all the other learning you’re not doing.”
“You’d know for sure whether to say birchas haTorah before this chevrusa if you were not fundamentally irresponsible.”
But this puritan pantheon, this cruel court, this glowing nimbus of garish guilt implodes the instant my teacher says, “Can you hear me? Good. We are on page…”
The Rambam speaks tonight on the eternality of the world and the nature of volition. Our discussion, like all our Rambam discussions, terminates in that Great Mystery who is the G-d of his philosophy. If the Guide is an intricate chamber of complex, crystalline design, then G-d is its oculus, the highest point to which everything converges, where is found — nothing, a gap, empty space, a window to the sun.
And together, in the night, we taste the sun-Torah. Here, in the Moreh, is a Judaism in which G-d does not move and our goal is to become refined enough to appreciate His stillness. Here is a universe governed by order flowing from the commonsense reality of what is, rather than underlying abstract principle. It is a worldview in which randomness is the opposite of order, an exception that proves the rule, at odds with the modern idea that randomness is the rule that generates the world’s apparent order.
The philosophy of the Rambam can rub us 2 A.M. learners the wrong way.
Because we revel in a bit of randomness. Because disorder is our operation space. Because Purim precedes our Passover.
Because we are the night thieves.
We steal the witching hour for Torah study and a friendly conversation on Jewish belief. When the sun sets we crawl out of our flop houses like goblins, glad to be free of the hateful light of day and its unerring constancy, a tireless reminder of the things we could never be.
We, the night walkers, stride sure in the silver moonlight, ever-shifting, treacherous. Some nights there is no moon, our inspiration dies, and we are full of shame. We reschedule our good intentions or simply roll over when the alarm rings, as we have a thousand times before, unable to care.
So, no, we may not have the riches of the day workers. We yearn for that normal, scheduled, productive life. But as long as we don’t have it, we sleep in our shabby apartments with barely a dime to our name and dream of being men one day and in the night we wake to play and ply our secret trade. At the moment, due to my own weakness, I do not learn in the light. But I learn in the dark. My tower to the heavens crumbles, but I etch holy words upon the ground. In the dark, we still twist wires. As the Dutchmen steal from the sea, we steal from the night.
The day of our national redemption is coming, and Torah after midnight is the perfect preparation. Our ancestors were slaves and idol worshippers who in their toil could not remember the G-d of their forefathers; they could not hack G-d by day. All they had to their name was a little spilled blood when their creator came in the middle of the night, found them awake and ready, and redeemed them.
So if you are like me and your actions are lacking and your devotion is weak and you wonder to yourself sometimes if there has not been some mistake and perhaps you cannot do this at all — take heart. Who you are is not in question, and what is a mere drop of blood in your eyes is not worthless. You are one of the many who in the depth of night find a foothold. By the power of that one good deed, we, too, shall cross the sea.
We, too, will wake up.
Originally posted on Hevria.