A Study in Contrasts: Thoughts at the Unveiling of Mrs. K.

I wanted to share some thoughts that were on my mind as I sat close to Mrs. K.’s unveiling, with perhaps more time than others to reflect as I was, being a Kohen, unable to enter the actual cemetery.

Parshat Bereishit contains an interesting lesson in contrasts. We learn that because light was good, G-d separated it from darkness: וַיַּרְא אֱלֹקים אֶת הָאוֹר כִּי טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹקים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ. The question presents itself: what does one thing have to do with the other? Why did light’s being good require that it be separated from darkness? One could even wonder whether, being good, it could not cause greater good by remaining with, and thus helping, the “less good” darkness.

Rashi addresses the issue:

וירא אלהים את האור כי טוב ויבדל – … ולפי פשוטו, כך פרשהו: ראהו כי טוב, ואין נאה לו, ולחשך, שיהיו משתמשין בערבוביא, וקבע לזה תחומו ביום ולזה תחומו בלילה

According to Rashi, Hashem was unsatisfied with the mixture of light and darkness into one giant mass, and so He set light’s “techum” in the day and dark’s “techum” in the night. Rashi’s use of the word techum is interesting. A techum, like a gevul, is a boundary; what differentiates the two terms is that a techum is more easily traversed than a gevul. A techum should not be ignored, but it is physically possible (and, at times, necessary) to do so. A gevul is a demarkation which cannot physically be ignored even if one insisted on doing so.

At first glance, it does not appear that Rashi has helped us much – obviously Hashem was displeased with the combination of light and dark and so separated them; we knew all that before reading Rashi. A more careful reading of Rashi, however, reveals more. אין נאה לו ולחשך שיהיו משתמשין בערבוביא – it was not pleasant for it (i.e., the light) and darkness to serve in a mixture. It seems that Hashem’s original goal in mixing the two was to create a beautiful, pleasant scene – one that would in fact be נאה, pleasant – much as the one we enjoy during the few, fleeting moments each day when we still see light and dark mixed in a picturesque sunrise or sunset. Hashem’s original plan was to create a beautiful, נאה world, a world of eternal twilight, a world in which the most beautiful moment of the day would repeat itself continuously throughout the endless expanse of time.

What happened? What caused Hashem to reconsider? Apparently the realization that what makes a sunset beautiful is not the sunset itself – or to paraphrase Rashi, אותו וחושך משתשמין בערבוביא – but that is a sunset is, by definition, a study in contrasts. When a sunset is merely that, a sunset, but not a contrast of two disparate elements which also, at some point in time, exist independently, the sunset at that moment loses its beauty. The contrast of the sun which in its exclusivity reigns over the day with the impending darkness whose techum is night is what causes the sunset to achieve its beauty. Each element is allowed to pass over its assigned techum only briefly in order to showcase the beauty of its being combined with its opposite element. What makes the sunrise beautiful is that we have seen each of each elements separately and thus appreciate the beauty of their combination. In sunset, we mourn the loss of exclusive sun while lamenting the deep darkness to come. Without each side having its own techum, in a world of eternal dawn, that dawn itself could not be appreciated.

We live in a world of beautiful contrasts, and one in which contrasts are beautiful precisely because we have seen their disparate elements as that, disparate. And so we segue on to death and life. We want our loved ones to live forever; at a funeral, we could swear that we wish that was the case. In truth, though, life is only beautiful because its brevity allows us to appreciate life while we have it. Life is a sunset, always temporary, beautiful in its transience. We are always halfway between life and death. Unending life would be as beautiful as a permanent sunset – for without knowing its opposite, life cannot truly be appreciated.

Mrs. K. left us with the beautiful, temporary gift of her presence here with us – and a presence made all the more beautiful by the fact that it was temporary. I was privileged to know her and to be inspired by the care with which she invested every interaction with her students. She eschewed cynicism – the usual copy-room banter about this or that student was notably and decidedly absent from our conversations, replaced with an enviable concern for their welfare, even those of them who could at times be challenging or trying of our patience. Always, the care was there to wash away the urge for cynicism, and I left our conversations feeling very much more motivated to face even the most trying classroom situation with renewed vigor and optimism. As a new teacher, that patience and impartiality was perhaps the most precious gift she could have given me, and one that hopefully will keep on giving.

Spending the past year without Mrs. K., it is the extent to which she treated every student with uncommon dignity and respect, never falling prey to the false god of “candor” – love, not obsequiousness – that I have most marveled about. And it is that which, like a sunset without the sunny day preceding it, I would perhaps least have noticed without Mrs. K.’s absence. Perhaps, as we need the sunset to remind us of the sun’s beauty, we need the sunset of loved ones’ lives to remind us of what generated their beauty when they were alive.

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