This morning I want to think with you about intermission. Technically an intermission is an interval between parts of a play, movie or concert. But what would you say if I were to ask you what the purpose of an intermission is or was?
What you said:
In theory intermissions give audience members an opportunity to socialize and to talk about what they had just seen, it presents a pause to anticipate what might be coming next in the show. You’ve shared this common experience of ran hour or more and even if during intermission you discuss the events of the day, you do it through the filter of what you’ve just seen. That purposeful pause has always been an integral and much enjoyed part of the theater experience.
But that experience is disappearing. There has been a lot of talk about radically rethinking the way we do intermissions because of the way intermission has changed. The last time I was at a Broadway show, I think it was Book of Mormon or Annie with my kids, the very first thing the theatergoers sitting next to me did when the curtain came down and the lights came up was power back on their phones to check their messages. They then proceeded to spend the next 15 minutes of the intermission with their face buried in their phones or talking on the phones in the lobby and aisles. They missed the entire intermission, they had no break at all, no opportunity to process or share what they had just seen, no convivial sharing of anticipation or excitement about what might be coming next.
We are unwilling to pause, even when that pause is purposeful, planned, convivial and as necessary as a quick trip to the rest room.
The Rabbis conceived of intermissions in a different way. In every important occasion they added a transition period, an intermission that is generally marked with ceremony and ritual. Transitions are challenging spiritually so they require a thoughtful pause. If we instead rushed from one stage to the next without moment to reflect and plan, one experience would bleed into the other the colors no longer remaining distinct but running together, muting each other without differentiation.
The purposeful pause is sometimes referred to rabbinically as bein ha shemashot the time in between. It is not quite day not quite night, it is a time of its own and is a magical time a time when magical things are imagined and created. We need that intermission the rabbis say because it is during intermission that talking donkeys are created, when desert wells of water appear, when the tools of God’s creation are fashioned.
The Rabbis understood that there was danger in taking a break. If you give people an intermission, they may not return to the path on which they were previously. They may question or challenge or leave the path altogether. But they also understood the human need for a purposeful pause, for not running headlong from one year, one experience, one stage of life into the next. People say it to me all the time regarding shiva and the year of mourning – they see the psychological wisdom of the tradition in providing a twilight time between death and returning wholly to the pursuits of life. Even Bar and Bat Mitzvah parents say it to me after the fact – they are so appreciative for the ceremony and ritual that allowed them to pause, step back and embrace or at least adjust to the extraordinary transition of their child becoming an adolescent.
These purposeful pauses are also present in our Jewish calendar cycle. The in between time of Friday afternoons when Shabbat has not yet begun but is coming shortly. The way the rabbis built hachanah le Shabbat, preparation for Shabbat into the day itself to help transition to the new experience. How we get into the right frame of mind for Purim by having the Fast of Esther immediately before. How the hours before Passover are spent without bread and without matzah, an intermission even from our regular food to allow us to anticipate what is coming next.
We find ourselves now in a Jewishly sanctified intermission, the Shabbat between one year and the next. Look at the wisdom of the rabbis. It is a hard thing to do to see the passage of time so they ordered a month-long period to help us process what we’ve experienced in the previous year and anticipate what is coming next. And like an intermission it is done communally, convivially, with something sweet and a nice drink. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be, as they are each year, the largest gathering of am yisrael. That is an amazing thing. We best pause, reflect, repair, and ready ourselves for what comes next.