I’ll do it tomorrow
— Everyone (at some point)
Time is such a crucial part of our lives. Tim Ferris in his bestselling book The Four Hour Work Week said that we should “focus on being productive, rather than busy”. It was the great Athenian general, Pericles, who said “time is the wisest counselor of all”. As Steven Covey, author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, puts it, “the key is not spending time, it’s investing it.”
How we spend our time ultimately determines who we are as people. Do we spend time endlessly at work? Or do we spend quality time working on ourselves’? Do we spend our time watching Netflix? (however, tempting that may be) Or do we spend our time watching our words and actions?
Though these questions may seem deep and existential, they lie at the heart of our practical Jewish faith, as shown in this week’s parsha.
After leaving Egypt, the first command given to the Jewish nation is somewhat surprising, if not a little anticlimactic. One would have expected at the outset for there to be instructions regarding lofty ideals and virtues – to love G-d, to love one’s neighbour, or to give charity. Rather they receive the mitzvah of sanctifying the new month.
The commandment requires two eyewitnesses who have seen the new moon to testify before Beth Din so that the new month would be proclaimed to the Jewish people. In essence, the command demanded of the Jewish people to determine when the new month commenced.
The Sforno, the 15th Century Italian Biblical commentator, suggested the following explanation. Up to this point, the Jewish people were slaves and a slave was deprived of time. Time is not his own. In fact in Jewish law whatever is acquired by a slave is automatically deemed to belong to the master. With this law in essence the Jewish people as free people could be masters of their own time and destiny.
The language of the command is telling:
“This month is yours, time could be yours” Exodus 12:2
The ancient Egyptians that enslaved the Jewish people believed that the phenomena of nature were divine forces in and of themselves. These deified forces included the elements, animal characteristics, or abstract forces.
Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr, the 20th Century American rabbinical leader, suggested that the Egyptian belief system was such that not only did they enslave the Jewish people but the concept of time as part of nature was for all intents and purposes captured and had been corrupted. The philosophy of laissez-faire and victims of circumstance or the gods was de rigueur. The sanctification of the New Moon, ushered in a new philosophy a possibility for sanctifying time and life and transcending one’s physicality. Taking control of time was to act as a segway to faith in G-d and His Torah.
As Rabbi Lord Sacks wrote in his seminal work Radical Then, Radical Now: “Jews were always tiny people, yet our ancestors survived by believing that eternity is found in the simple lives of ordinary human beings”. Now more than ever, it is in the ordinary practical use of our time that we find meaning in our lives. That is where G-dliness can be found.
This fundamental idea of living beyond the natural physical constraints we had endured in Egypt, was reflected in Moshe’s unique behavior in his last interaction with Pharaoh.
On every previous encounter, Moses has related to Pharaoh verbatim the word of G-d, the final plague was the exception. After months of G-d demonstrating that He alone was Sovereign of the Universe and controlled every aspect of creation, Moses was instructed to warn Pharaoh that if he still wouldn’t let the Jewish people go, then exactly at the stroke of midnight every firstborn would die.
Yet when Moses appeared in front of Pharaoh, he altered ever so slightly the message and said “if Pharaoh doesn’t free the Jews at approximately midnight every firstborn will die. Why did Moses feel compelled to modify his words?
Rashi the preeminent medieval commentator, questions why did Moses the trusted servant of G-d, feels compelled to modify G-d’s wording. He suggests that Moses was afraid that if he gave an exact time then the Egyptians may be watching the clock and might miscalculate.
On a deeper level, Moses was acutely aware that it was not possible for the Egyptians from their cultural mindset to comprehend the concept called midnight as the concept in truth in the physical world cannot exist. There is no moment that is the midpoint of night precisely. Consider the point of midnight in truth, if we want to be precise, at that second there is still a midpoint within that second; part of that second therefore will be before and part of that second will be after midnight.
If you take a pin and make a point within that point there is a midpoint and within the midpoint, there is another midpoint it is unending. Midnight as a point in time does not exist; it is a way of splitting the night in two.
It was at that precise point in time that G-d was declaring He would take the Jewish people out of Egypt – at a moment that does not exist in physical time. G-d in spiritual terms lifted the Jewish people above this world, above its physical limitations, and above space and time of anything that had anything to do with the natural world. Mastery over time and our ability to transcend the limitations of time established from the inception of our people taught us that there would be no limitations to what we could and would achieve in every society in which we lived. The story is told that King Frederick the Great of Prussia once asked his physician to give him proof for the existence of God. His physician replied, “Your Majesty, the continued existence of the Jews.”
There is an almost universal law to working and living in a pragmatic rational fashion. But the Jewish people from their birth have trodden a different path, defying any logic and the natural rules and laws. From the Exodus from Egypt to the splitting of the sea, the conquering of the Promised Land, the Chanukah story, to the establishment of the State of Israel and the victory of Six-Day War, all miraculous and defy any rationale, none of these would have occurred had our people adhered to the laws of nature. The philosophy is not only applicable on a national level. As individuals, we find ourselves presented with challenges and opportunities in life that on paper may seem impossible yet tapping into our spiritual Jewish gene empowers us to achieve endless possibilities of unlimited.