Zoë Lang

Amorphous time

When the Israelites prepared to leave Egypt, they knew what they needed to do, yet could not have known what would follow - a sentiment that resonates today (Bo)
Syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, January 7, 2021. (AP Photo/ Jae C. Hong)
Syringes containing the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine sit in a tray in a vaccination room at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, January 7, 2021. (AP Photo/ Jae C. Hong)

The notion of time becomes remarkably amorphous in early chapters of the Book of Exodus, referred to in generalities, instead of specifics. Exodus 2:11 takes place “some time after” Moses grows up; in Exodus 2:23, “a long time after that,” Pharaoh dies.

Amorphous time might also aptly describe how many of us feel now. As the pandemic has stretched out over almost a year, we are still living in a world that lacks the usual chronological markers. We are not celebrating simchas or commemorating losses with our communities, as we typically do. Opportunities to gather together remain severely curtailed, often relegated to digital means. We may feel stuck in routines that are out of the ordinary, routines that we have cultivated to cope with this unusual and peculiar moment. What brings an end to this sense of atemporality in Exodus? We are told in Exodus 7:25 that seven days elapse during the first plague. The plagues bring devastation and wreak havoc for the Egyptians. They also restore demarcations of time. 

Rashi’s commentary on Genesis 1:1 famously mentions a verse from this week’s parshah pertaining to marking time: “This month shall be for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you” (הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה, Exodus 12:2). Rashi notes that this is the first commandment given to the nation of Israel, and therefore it would make sense to begin the Torah here.

Within the context of Exodus, however, this verse has additional significance, as it stipulates that keeping track of time becomes the responsibility of the people from then on. Yet despite having a mandated framework, the Israelites may still have felt temporally disoriented. The people are told that they must adhere to a specific timeline for the upcoming Passover: the lamb will be slaughtered on the 14th (Exodus 12:6), then they must celebrate “sacred occasions” (מִקְרָא־קֹ֔דֶשׁ) at the start and end of a seven-day period (Exodus 12:16). But they are not told what will happen once Pesach is over.

How can the Israelites be ready for what is coming after these events? They cannot, a sentiment that may resonate with us today.

Over the past year, we have all experienced a bewildering number of short-term accommodations that were made in an attempt to slow the pandemic: cities, counties, and even entire countries have gone into lockdown, with various strictures put in place affecting our workplaces, communities, and homes. However, we could never be entirely sure what the outcome of these efforts would be. To draw an analogy with the experience of the Israelites in Egypt: we knew to make preparations; we did not know what would follow. 

In Exodus 12:40-41, time comes into sharp focus as the text marks the end of bondage in Egypt: “The length of time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was 430 years; at the end of the 430th year, to the very day, all the ranks of the LORD departed from the land of Egypt” (וּמוֹשַׁב֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָשְׁב֖וּ בְּמִצְרָ֑יִם שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָֽה׃ וַיְהִ֗י מִקֵּץ֙ שְׁלֹשִׁ֣ים שָׁנָ֔ה וְאַרְבַּ֥ע מֵא֖וֹת שָׁנָ֑ה וַיְהִ֗י בְּעֶ֙צֶם֙ הַיּ֣וֹם הַזֶּ֔ה יָֽצְא֛וּ כָּל־צִבְא֥וֹת יי מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃).

This declaration demarcates a historical era that has now come to a close. Perhaps this moment, too, resonates differently this year than in others. As vaccines for the coronavirus are being distributed around the world, we also find ourselves near what we hope will mark the end of an era. May we all be free from this pandemic soon and recover our demarcations of time.

About the Author
Zoë Lang is on the faculty of Maimonides School in Brookline, where she teaches Jewish history. She is also the Director of Ma'ayan, an organization that creates text-based learning opportunities throughout the greater Boston area. She lives in Brighton, MA.
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