Scattered threads of light: a midrash for B’reishit

Written and delivered by Cantor Broekhuysen at Temple Emanu-El of Haverhill in 5780/2019; inspired by B’reishit Rabbah.

Once upon a time, an old woman lived all alone in a cave behind a waterfall. Now there was no sun or moon at this time, nothing but darkness. Mountains grew and fell in darkness; rivers flowed in darkness; earth slept in darkness. The only light in the world was the shawl the old woman always wore. It was made of pure light, knit from her shining hair. It glowed and it pulsed with colour.


Whenever the shawl caught on a rough wall of the cave where the old woman lived, and a thread pulled loose, the people who hunted and ate and slept in the darkness of the world, shivered with excitement. If a thread drifted out of the cave, it was quickly claimed and treasured. And when the old woman went out for a walk, sometimes she’d see a little gleam out of the corner of her eye, and she knew that a thread was woven into a wall, or worn around a wrist.


This woman was very old – older than anyone living. Her bones had grown before the mountains rose up. For a thousand years the old woman lived in the cave, waking and gathering and cooking and sleeping. To grow her food, she stood for hours every day in the gardens outside her waterfall, letting the light of her shawl fall onto the ground and the seeds she’d planted there. Without her presence no green thing could take root and unfurl, no fruit ripen. All the people of the world ate from her garden, and nobody dared stay away from it for too long.


Only a girl and a boy did finally set out on their own, one day. They crossed the mountains and settled on the far slopes, too far to visit the old woman’s garden. They were happy there, in the quiet together. They speared fish and scattered salt on them, dried them and ate them. But once the fish learned to dodge them, and grew scarce, the girl and boy grew hungry. Their world seemed too dark to bear. They muttered to each other, “Why should she be the only one to make the plants grow? Why should we have to live near her, and never grow up? It’s not right! It’s not fair!”


They came back to the old woman’s gardens, in the dark, moving quietly, the way they’d learned. As the old woman slept, they crept in around the rushing curtain of the waterfall. They felt their way inside the cave. And they took the shawl, and they crept out again, their feet soft and cold on the stone floor.


When they reached their new home again, they were breathless and laughing with excitement. Light! They had light! What should they do with it first? The boy wanted to hang the shawl up on a branch so that he could use its light to let him measure and cut wood and build a trap for the fish they ate. The girl wanted to wrap the shawl around her head to light her way, so that she could explore the space around them and for the first time, see where they were living.


They laughed back and forth, and then they started to argue back and forth. Neither wanted to let the other one use the shawl first. Their voices got louder and louder and finally the girl yelled, “Fine! Let’s tear it in half; you do what you want, and I’ll do what I want!” Just as angrily, the boy said “alRIGHT!” They each took hold of a wing of the shawl, and they pulled as hard as they could. With a loud “rrrrrrrrip!” the shawl split in two. As the last threads pulled apart, the light went out.


The girl and boy gasped. Now they had no light. Now they couldn’t grow or catch new food. Now they couldn’t see this new place they lived in. And in their disappointment and their fear, they began to blame each other, and they quarreled again, and their voices rose louder and louder –


And in between them stepped the old woman. When she had woken and found it gone, she had followed the glow of her shawl, like a torch in the woods. And when the shawl’s light went out, she had followed the sound of their angry voices. She took the torn pieces of her shawl out of their unresisting hands. Though they could not see her face in the dark, her movements were not angry like theirs, but gentle. As her footsteps shuffled away, up the hill, into the trees, a faint glow grew again in the fabric held in her hands, so that a little point of light bobbed as she went into the distance.


When she reached her cave, the old woman sat down heavily. She looked sadly at the pieces of her shawl. She took a deep breath. And then she pinched a ragged strand of yarn between her wrinkled fingers and began to pull. Thread by patient thread, she unraveled every bit of that shawl until a little pile of luminous yarn sat at her feet. She bent down and scooped it up, walked outside to her garden – nobody had dared to come near since the shawl had been stolen. Huffing a little, she set it down on a stone near the fence. The old woman seated herself. She watched. And she waited.


A bird hopped down. It snapped its beak shut on one precious thread and, before fear could set in, it flew off. Next, a chipmunk scurried in, and darted back out, a thin band of light wrapped around one paw. The very old woman began to smile, and hum tunelessly to herself, as more animals came, and then a person, and then another. Each approached trembling. Each left with light. Every person came – even the girl and boy who had torn the shawl, nervous but needing. In an hour the pile of threads was gone.


When the old woman stood up to go into her cave and sleep, she looked around her. And in each home, each nest, each branch where a thread had gone, there was a little point of light. Where two and more gathered together, the light was brighter. As she closed her eyes on the first night the world had seen, she was still smiling.


That very first night, every living creature dreamed of the light, now among them. And when they woke the next morning, the very first morning, new green was growing.