On a day-to-day basis, we don’t see always see the gradual changes in our lives. Just think about what happens when you look at pictures of yourself from ten years ago. “Wow, did I look young! How did I get so old?!”
That’s why we need ritual, since it allows us to mark moments of change that are hard to see in the moment. No one suddenly says, “Today I’m an adult because I now know about all the responsibilities.” And yet we celebrate becoming bar or bat mitzvah. No one suddenly decides, “Today, I’m getting married because now my relationship is going to be radically different.” And yet we celebrate weddings.
Indeed, most of life is analog, where distinctions aren’t always so clear — one day bleeds into the next, which then turn into months, which turn into years. Rituals allow us to turn the analog into the digital, marking that one specific moment we want to recognize.
That’s also what we see in the prayer Maariv Aravim. It’s a prayer said in the evening, thanking God for creating darkness and light, and how we can see the difference between the two. And the words of this prayer reflect the gradual movement from one stage to the other: m’shaneh itim (“changes the times”), goleil or mipnei choshech v’choshech mipnei or (“rolling light away from darkness and darkness in front of light”), u’maavir yom umeivi lailah (“causing day to pass and bringing on the night.”) Even the phrase maariv aravim is transitive: “who evenings the evening.”
As we see the light fade, and the sunset transform from bright blue to orange and pink to near-black, it is an awe-inspiring experience. But it’s not until it’s over that we look back and say, “Now it is truly is night.” And as the day gradually ends, we can take a moment to mark the transitions we might not recognize otherwise.
After all, we don’t always notice the gradual changes we see in life, but we take time to celebrate becoming an adult, or getting married, or graduating from one stage of life to the next. Maariv Aravim reminds us that we don’t need to wait for once-in-a-lifetime moments to acknowledge the change we often miss — we can do it each and every night.
Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman is the founding director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.