One of my oldest friends held a bar mitzvah celebration for his son last night. It seems like just yesterday I was driving overnight from Boston to New York to attend his brit mila, and now here he was already thirteen sharing thoughts on the parsha with friends and family. This kind of telescoped time – where in retrospect it feels like years have taken only days is a common experience for many of us, especially as we age. We see our children and our friends’ children sprout from baby to adult in what seems like moments.
Stories in the Torah also often have this telescoped quality. The parsha begins with the descent of Jacob’s family to Egypt, but within a few verses we are talking about the birth of Moses. Scripture summarizes his youth in a few words: “And Moses grew and went out to his brothers.” He is now a man, standing up to oppression and running away to a foreign land. He starts a family, and again, time passes in a few words: “And it was during those many days.” Moses is now eighty, a father, and about to be called to his mission of bringing Israel out of Egypt. Just as in real life, years pass by as if they are only moments.
Suddenly the story slows down. The next parshiot, indeed the next books, until the middle of Sefer BaMidbar (Numbers), cover only a couple of years. The critical events of the Exodus, the receiving of the Torah and the building of the Mishkan are told in exquisite detail.
In life, we are living multiple stories in parallel, and our subjective experience of time varies according to the vividness of our memories. My own children’s growth and development seems less surprising to me than my friends’, as I was more present for every passing moment. When I think about the intervening years, the story of my children’s lives seems fully fleshed out, yet I was shocked recently to hear that an old friend’s son (whom I have not seen since he was a toddler) was accepted to university. Our experience of time is highly subjective and depends on where we put our focus. The way we tell a narrative of our lives defines how the memories are structured and retrieved.
For a second thought about the Parsha, I want to expand on an idea I learned last night from the bar mitzvah boy. He pointed out that the parsha ends on a low note, with Moses expressing his frustration to God that his mission has thus far caused only increased suffering for his people. What was the point if things only got worse. The young man pointed out that a good story requires tension, and that the heroes need to overcome obstacles to make the reader care about what happens.
This made me think about how this kind of ירידה לצורך עליה – “descent for the purpose of ascent” – is a common occurence in life both on a personal and national level. In order to make a big change, we need to break the status quo, and things can often get worse before they get better. If we don’t have the ability to see the long run and to keep our goals in mind, we can get frustrated and discouraged. Having gone through a big life change in the past couple of years, I know how hard that can be.
God himself understands this and does not reprimand Moses for his complaints. He bucks him up and encourages him, making sure he remembers the long goal of saving his people. Obstacles and setbacks will always come up. It requires faith and persistence, and if we’re lucky, encouragement from support from our family, friends, and God.