‘Summer nights’: Those very few occasions during a British summer, when it’s possible to stay outside after dark, enjoying the lingering warmth of the day. Interestingly, ‘summer nights’ is not an expression used in the Hebrew Bible. Indeed, there are very few references to ‘night’ altogether. The first creation narrative refers, simply, to the division between ‘day’ and ‘night’ (B’reishit, Genesis 1:5). And then in the Torah portion, Va-yeira (Gen. 19), we find the disturbing story of Lot and his two daughters that follows the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. All the men of the known world gone, and living in a cave, they devise a plan to make their father drunk in order to ‘lie with him’, and so produce children (19:30-32). In the three verses that describe what happened, ‘night’ – lailah – is mentioned four times.
Another Genesis night-time story: Jacob, the night before his reunion with his brother Esau: Having brought his two wives, his two concubines and his 11 children across the ford of the Yabbok, with all his possessions, “Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Va-yishlach, Gen. 32:25). The identity of the ‘man’ a mystery, Jacob emerged with limp and a new name, YiSRa’eL, “…. ‘for you have struggled [SaRita] with God [‘eLoHim] and with men and have prevailed’…” (32:30).
Jacob/Yisrael: the father of the people Israel. And then: the Exodus narrative, which led to the formation of the people in the wilderness at Mount Sinai, speaks of a ‘night of vigil’ [leil shimurim] in preparation for the moment of liberation (Bo, Exodus 12:42); a night marked by a final, deadly night-time plague: “In the middle of the night [ba-chatzi ha-lailah] the Eternal One struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt…” (Bo, Ex. 12:29).
The Book of Exodus closes with the completion of the Mishkan [Tabernacle], and a powerful image: “For over the Mishkan, a cloud of the Eternal One rested by day, and a fire would appear in it [i.e. in the cloud] by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys” (Ex. 40:38). Fire at night: anyone who has gone camping can testify to the importance of the camp-fire; providing a circle of light and warmth in the darkness. All in all, the Torah makes it clear that night is a challenging time.
References to ‘summer’ [kayitz] in the Bible are even more rare – perhaps because in the Middle East the sun dominates much of the year. Nevertheless, Jewish history is scoured by summertime tragedies that took place on and around Tishah B’Av [9th Av], beginning with the devastation of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE (See: Book of Lamentations). And since the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and 9th 1945, respectively, world history, too, is marked forever by summertime destruction. Of course, summer is not defined by these terrible events anymore than by summer nights and holidays. The summer, like all the seasons of the year, is for living Life in all its complexity.