I have for many years been fascinated by liminal spaces. These are threshold places, where we transition from one state or status to another. The huppah is one prime example. The bride and groom enter the space of the huppah as single, and dwell in that liminal space for twenty minutes or so. While they stand there, as the wedding liturgy is pronounced over them, their status changes, and when they emerge from the huppah they are not single anymore.
Mikveh is another liminal space in Jewish life. A person enters the waters of the mikveh and they are not Jewish, but after immersion they return to their family as a full fledged Jew and member of the Jewish community. The mikveh water is the threshold place where that transformation happens and the person crosses over from one state of being to another.
There are many other examples. It is not a coincidence that the mezuzah is placed at the liminal space of a home, the place where we cross over from the outside world to our own homes and vice versa (in halachic (Jewish legal) language, from the ‘rishut ha’rabim’ to the ‘rishut ha’yachid’ – from the public to the private domain).
Judaism has also long been interested in liminal moments – points in time that mark a transition from one state to another. Morning and evening services acknowledge the change from darkness to light and back again. There is a moment when the workday week ends and Shabbat begins, and another moment that marks Shabbat’s conclusion and the beginning of ‘secular’ time. Passover is a festival that uses sacred time to recall a liminal historical moment: when the Israelites left slavery behind and became free. Shavuot also asks us to relive a cross over moment from Jewish history, when Torah came into the world, changing it forever. Rosh Hashanah is perhaps Judaism’s transitional moment holiday par excellence, celebrating the ending of one year and the beginning of the next.
December 31st serves the same purpose in our secular lives. New Year’s Eve is a holiday with far less gravitas than Rosh Hashanah. It is commonly marked by a festive evening gathering, football games on TV, and a midnight champagne toast. But it is a liminal moment in our year nonetheless, and we do feel the sense of wonderment that comes with the close of a year’s time in our lives. We think back and we look forward, perhaps even making a resolution or two about what we hope the next year will hold. More than anything else we wonder at the passage of time. 2018?! That seems like an awfully big number. Wasn’t it just the 1980s? Am I really that old? Actually, forget about me – are my children really that old?! New Year’s Eve doesn’t necessarily help us understand how we got from here to there, but it does remind us that we have traveled through 365 days of life. And that it does sometimes truly feel like it all happened in the blink of an eye.
The 19th Psalm captures Judaism’s sense of the sacred liminal moment: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day to day makes utterance, night to night speaks out. There are no words whose sounds goes unheard, their voice carries to the ends of the earth, their words to the very end of the world…”