You can tell a lot about people based on how they use their time. When we get home from school or work, how do we view our free time? Do we ask ourselves how to waste the night away, how to most easily and enjoyably make it to tomorrow morning? Or do we take full advantage of our every moment, attempting to squeeze out as much potential as possible from each and every day? When the alarm goes off in the morning, do we jump out of bed like a lion, ready to conquer the day, or do we hit snooze again, again, and again? As human beings, we find ourselves stuck within time; so the question we face on a daily basis is: “How will we use our time”?
Although events and decisions occur within time, there is an aspect of reality that transcends time. The Vilna Gaon explains, fascinatingly, that while events occur within time, ideas transcend it. Ideas don’t “happen”; they simply are. They exist beyond the process of time. When thinking about and relating to ideas, we step outside the here and now and connect to something outside the movement of the clock, beyond the passing of time. With this in mind and Pesach approaching, let us explore a fascinating idea related to time and its connection to Pesach.
Pesach: Holiday of Time
Time is one of the predominant themes of Pesach, but expresses itself in such a unique and puzzling manner. On Pesach, we are commanded to eat matzah – unleavened bread – and are absolutely forbidden to eat chametz – leavened bread. This transcends logical explanation, as the only difference between something being matzah or chametz is a single second. This means that a single second can determine your spiritual reality, dictating whether you performed a mitzvah or violated the most severe of prohibitions, whose punishment is kareis – spiritual excision. Why is time such a central aspect of Pesach, and how can a second of time have such significant implications?
Why the Rush?
Let us trace this theme of time through the story of Y’tzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach because the Jewish People left Mitzrayim “b’chipazon” – in great haste (D’varim 16:3). The Jewish People were forced to eat matzah because they did not have enough time to make bread.
The Arizal, a famous 16th century kabbalist, makes an intriguing statement about time and its meaning in the Pesach story. He posits that had the Jewish People remained in Egypt for even one more second at the point of the Exodus, they would have reached the 50th level of tum’ah, a point of no return. Chazal explain that the Jewish People in Mitzrayim were on the 49th level of tum’ah, the very lowest level of spiritual impurity. Had we sunk even one level lower, we would have been lost completely, beyond the point of rescue. The Arizal emphasizes that it was necessary to leave with such speed to save us from falling to this last level. The speed with which we left Egypt was not simply practical; there was something fundamental about it. The obvious question is: What is the importance of time and speed, and why is it so central to Y’tzias Mitzrayim and Pesach?
Before we answer our questions, we must examine the Arizal’s comment a bit more closely. The Arizal says that had we delayed our exodus for even one more second, we would have been completely lost within the depths of impurity. However, the moment of the exodus seems to be the farthest thing from a spiritually dangerous moment. In fact, it appears to be the moment at which klal Yisrael was at an ultimate spiritual high.
The Jewish People had just witnessed Hashem unleash His wrath on the Egyptians through the performance of the ten plagues, a systematic process of openly revealing Hashem to klal Yisrael and the Egyptians. The Ramban explains that all the principles of hashgachah pratis – Divine Providence – were learned from these events. So we were clearly on a very high spiritual level. The night of the exodus was the night of Makas B’choros – the plague of the firstborn. Makas B’choros was unique in that Hashem Himself performed this makah (see Rashi).
On this same night, the Jewish People brought the korban Pesach – the Passover sacrifice – and painted their doorposts with blood, instilling within their hearts the knowledge that Hashem watches over us and protects us. This night saw some of the loftiest moments imaginable – one would expect the Jewish People to be on an equally lofty level. This was the very birth and creation of klal Yisrael, the beginning of their journey to Har Sinai to accept the Torah. How then, and why, would one more moment in this intense holiness have been the destruction of the Jewish People?
If this wasn’t difficult enough, the Arizal takes it one step further. He not only says that if we had gone out one moment later we would have been beyond hope, but even if we had gone out a bit slower it would have been too late. Meaning, the pace itself had to be fast; not only when we left, but how we left was important. What is the meaning of all this?
Perspectives on Approaching the Physical
To understand time, we must gain perspective on physicality in general. Time is a dimension of physicality, and is even emblematic of it in some ways. Therefore, our approach to physicality will shed light on our understanding of time.
Most spiritual schools of thought view the physical world as lowly and dangerous; it should be avoided to whatever extent possible. In order to live a spiritual life, you must escape the physical. Therefore, spiritual systems such as Buddhism prescribe meditation, abstinence, and transcending any hint of physical desire. In such a system, the ideal is to sit isolated on a mountaintop and meditate on your navel.
Avraham, however, taught a novel and idealistic approach to life. He understood that while the physical can be dangerous if misused, the ideal is not to transcend the physical, but rather to use the physical in order to reflect something higher. In other words, he understood the ideal Jewish spiritual system.
Think, how many mitzvos are commandments of the mind? Almost none! You can count them on your hand: Believe in Hashem, love Hashem, be in awe of Hashem, don’t be jealous, and just a few more. The overwhelming majority of mitzvos are physical actions that connect you to the spiritual source, Hashem! The act is physical, while the spirituality and mindfulness is contained within that physical act. We eat matzah, shake a lulav, blow shofar, and wear t’filin; all actions, all physical. We don’t believe in transcending the physical; we believe in using the physical to connect to the transcendent.
The Condition: Control
The only condition is that we must maintain control and focus while using the physical. In other words, our root must be transcendent, in the spiritual, and only then, while simultaneously maintaining that foundation, can we come down and use the physical. This is why the first stage in the process must be transcendence; only afterwards can we then come down and use the physical. First we have Yom Kippur, where we transcend as mal’achim, then we have Sukkos, where we come back down and embrace the physical parts of life. We start with the first night of Pesach, a night of transcendence, and then we descend into the physical world, where we build (count) our way to Matan Torah. Without rooting ourselves in the transcendent, we risk getting stuck within the physical.
Applying This to Time
Applying these concepts to time, we can understand the importance of using time, controlling it, rather than allowing it to enslave us. We have two options: We can either let time pass us over and be pushed through life by time, or we can pass over time and transcend its limitations. The key is to use time, not to be used by time. We need to learn how to ride the waves of time, harnessing all the dormant potential within each moment. When you’re passive in life, everything goes slowly; time becomes quicksand. A life without goals, without a schedule, where moments of life don’t mean anything, is a life stuck within the trappings of time. Such a person can “kill” time, can waste an evening just to get to tomorrow. One who values time, who rides time, views time like money. It’s currency; you get to choose how you spend it. Every day we get 86,400 seconds, and how you use your allotted time determines what kind of life you live.
Pesach: Harnessing Time
This is the theme of matzah. Chazal (in the M’chilta) state that “Mitzvah haba’ah l’yadcha, al tachmitzenah – When a mitzvah comes to your hand, don’t let it spoil,” or more accurately, don’t allow it to become chametz. Chametz is the result of adding time to the baking process of bread. As the Maharal explains, this statement of Chazal is telling us not to allow any extra time to get added to our mitzvos either; otherwise, the mitzvah becomes stuck in time. Fascinatingly, the word mitzvah has the same shoresh – root – as matzah; and the word tachmitzenah has the same shoresh as chametz. Just as on Pesach we mustn’t let our food – our matzah – to get stuck within the trappings of time, so, too, we shouldn’t let our spiritual commandments – our mitzvos – get stuck within the trappings of time.
Pesach Night: The Formation of Klal Yisrael As a Nation
We can now begin to answer our original questions. Pesach night was the inception of klal Yisrael as a nation. As the Maharal explains, the korban Pesach was about becoming one as a nation. We used a one-year-old calf, it had to be eaten in one house, as a single chaburah – group – it was roasted, as opposed to cooked, because roasting makes the meat become one as opposed to cooking which makes the meat fall apart, it was roasted whole – not as cut up pieces, and its bones could not be broken. All of these details of oneness reflected the oneness that was being created on that night. Klal Yisrael was becoming a single nation, one with Hashem.
The Root Must Be Perfect
Every process contains multiple stages. The first is the spark of creation, which is followed by a slow process of expressing that seed, and then finally, the finished product. Take, for example, the growth of a tree. First there is the seed, which goes through a slow growth process as that seed is expressed, and finally there is the tree itself. A human being goes through this same process, as well. Every person begins as a zygote, a single cell, which grows and develops into the end result – a fully formed human being.
In every process of creation, the root, the seed, is the most important and potent phase. This formative stage is the most delicate. Any error or imperfection present at this stage will have cataclysmic results! For example, if a boy cuts his finger at the age of seven, it’s not that bad. However, if there is even a minor glitch in the DNA of a zygote, even a single chromosome missing, everything can go wrong, the results can be catastrophic! (This is the same principle we used to explain Nadav and Avihu’s sin.)
Forming the Root of Klal Yisrael
Therefore, when forming the root and seed of klal Yisrael, we needed to be perfect, transcending all the limitations of time and space. We needed to move biz’rizus. Our food needed to transcend the limitations of time and space, and so did our very movement itself. This is the secret of matzah and this is the secret to understanding the Arizal’s cryptic statement.
Had we moved one second slower or a moment too late, then our very root would have been stuck within the trappings of time. Our “zygote” had to be constructed within the dimension of z’rizus – beyond the constrictions of time and space. We were creating our DNA, everything had to be perfect. Now that we were rooted beyond time and space, we could receive Hashem’s Torah, something also rooted beyond time and space. Only once we are rooted beyond time and space can we then come back down and use time and space to reflect something higher.
This brings us full-circle to how we began this article: Torah and ideas exist beyond the dimension of time. May we be inspired to fully harness the potential of our time, to use time and not be used by time, and to enter Pesach and the mitzvah of matzah with the mindset of connecting to ourselves, to all of klal Yisrael, and to Hashem Himself.