Time and obligation: A Pesach reflection

A basic disagreement between two amoraim: where do we begin the story of Pesach? Rav says from the time of our ancestors the idol worshipers, whereas Shmuel states from the time of Egyptian bondage (Pesachim 116a). One common response to Shmuel’s interpretation is that the story of Yetziat Mitzrayim recounts the transformation from being slaves to the Egyptians to the vaunted status of avdei Hashem. If the most trusted servant of God’s household is Moses (Numbers 12:7), then we, too, should be honored to be servants to the divine master. Our servitude, in this interpretation, is evinced through our adherence to the laws given at Mount Sinai, offering a tidy explanation of the events that took place between the exodus from Egypt to the giving of the Torah, and leading us from Pesach to Shavuot in a straightforward trajectory.

But where is the servitude in this arrangement? The laws are dictated by God, but we choose to adhere to them. One explanation frequently proffered is to question whether the Israelites had free will in the moment when they accepted the laws. Shabbat 88a presents the giving of the Torah as an act of coercion: the Jews were forced to accept the Torah at Sinai, as God turned the mountain over their heads in a physical display of His power over them. Yet the Talmud immediately tempers this claim by citing Esther 9:27, finding proof in this verse that the Jews willingly took on the laws after the miracle at Achashverosh’s court. 

The terms of servitude are also unusual. We are told to perform certain tasks or else we will be punished, but the decision to do them remains in our hands. Furthermore, there are detailed mechanisms for making atonement and asking forgiveness. The system of halachah could be viewed less as the manifestation of a master-servant relationship, and more of a covenant. When God speaks to Isaac, forbidding him to go down to Egypt, He makes special mention of Abraham keeping the ‘commandments, laws, and teachings’ that had been imparted (Genesis 26:5). It is because of his willingness to perform these actions that the covenant remains in force. Our willingness to perform the ‘commandments, laws, and teachings’ of our tradition renews the covenant through the generations.

If obeying the laws of the Torah is more akin to the conditions of a covenant, as I am suggesting, then how are we to explain our status as avdei Hashem? As the Talmud repeatedly emphasizes, one of the characteristics of slaves is their inability to control time as they must defer to their master–a condition so essential to the categorization of slaves that this trait exempts them from positive, time-bound mitzvot. The luxury of having control over time appears in the haggadah with what could be interpreted as a halachic framing: five rabbis not only reclined in Bnei Brak, but they felt compelled to end their seder only to fulfill the positive, time-bound mitzvah of reciting Shema.

But how much of time is truly under our control? In many respects, we are extremely limited in our ability to hasten or slow time down, and we are unable to force events to happen at our convenience. Midrash offers proof of our limitations in this realm. Consider, for example, the early attempt at an exodus promulgated by members of the tribe of Ephraim, as recounted through various midrashic sources (see, for example, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer 48). Convinced by a false prophet that the time had come to leave Egypt, members of this tribe sought to hasten the Israelites’ departure and were rewarded with slaughter, either by the Egyptians or the Philistines depending on the source. Yet this tribe also demonstrated their obedience to God: they left in His name, setting out for the land that had been promised to their ancestors. Their mistake was not in their actions or even in their conviction that God would redeem them from slavery. Their mistake was in their attempt to make time their own.

We live in an age where many of us are enslaved to time: chained to smartphones that display unending alerts, ceaseless calendar invites, and days that are planned out to the most minute detail. Paradoxically, we can only have such control over our time because time is frequently our own to delegate. Observant Jews still set aside Shabbat and holidays as sacred times, but these are precisely what is dictated through halachah, and serve in part as a demonstration of our modern commitment to covenant. Certainly, some aspects of time are given to us as our responsibility as part of our halachic lives: the first mitzvah is to keep the time of the new moon and sanctify the month. But so much of time lies outside of our control.

It is in matters of time that we do become the servants of God, as recognized in Kohelet: ‘[God] brings everything to pass in its time’ (Kohelet 3:11). We do not control the times of birth or dying, or the experiences that we want to have happen during our lives. If we try to force time, as the tribe of Ephraim did, catastrophe can ensue. One of the most foundational experiences of being human is the lack of control that we have over time–just as the slaves in the Talmud who are exempt from positive time-bound mitzvot, we too cannot control the pace at which our lives unfold.

Grief, too, is inexorably wrapped up with time. The act of mourning is, in part, the acknowledgement that what we thought was assured has been stolen away from us: confronting that we will no longer have time with our loved ones or experiencing the end of a relationship that we felt would last the test of time. Coming to terms with loss can be an almost impossible task, much less finding meaning as we grieve for what we cannot have. The rituals around mourning in Jewish tradition are expressly linked to time, imposed through the system of halachah while simultaneously acknowledging a crucial fact: part of what we are grieving as we go through the mourning process is the lack of control that we had over our time. Being slaves of God makes it our task to accept the vicissitudes of time with their inherent losses. Dedicating the time allotted to us in their memory is one way to recapture a small piece of what is gone.

Pesach is a moment when recollections of those we have lost can resurface acutely, as we think back to sedarim with friends and family who are no longer at the table. Memory is transient, imperfect, and often faulty, but it can bring back times that would otherwise be lost. We may mourn at these junctures, but we may also be privileged to experience a moment that hovers outside of time. Perhaps such recollections also serve as proof of our freedom: to have a mind that is freed from the burden of mundane tasks so that memories can take root, flourish and grow.

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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