David Walk

Time is of the essence

Did you ever notice how different people have diverse relationships with time? I see this very clearly at morning minyan. There are some people who are always early, others always late, and a small number who enter at exactly the starting time. And it doesn’t make any difference if we change the starting time because of a special occasion; the same people arrive at their own normal time relative to the starting moment. 

Personally, I’m an early guy, inherited from my Dad, of blessed memory. Usually, I’m cool with being early, but there was once this Yerushalmi wedding and I arrived on time. The caterer wasn’t even there yet. That wait was annoying!

Generally, I believe, Judaism, Torah and Halacha have an ecumenical attitude towards time. We’re cool to all attitudes, and there are occasions for each time relationship. But this week’s Torah reading takes a very firm stand in favor of punctuality. We still feel the time urgency issue when baking Matzot nowadays, but the famous verse I want to analyze is about consuming the Paschal Offering: Here is how you must eat it:

You must be dressed for travel (‘loins girded’), your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You are to eat it in a hurry; it is the Eternal’s Pesach (offering, Shmot 12:11).

This energetic verse is discussing the Seder meal. There is discussion over whether these instructions were meant for that first Seder (Pesach Mitzrayim) or should be observed throughout the generations (Pesach Dorot). But since, sadly, we don’t actually have the Pesach Offering yet, we can ignore that debate and focus on the message of those instructions. 

There are the literalists who push the historic agenda of the speed required to ‘Get out of Dodge’. We needed to be ready at a moment’s notice to get up and go, similar to the Minute Men of New England’s Revolutionary Period. But why?

Some suggest that slaves have no concept of time, and this was preparation for life as free people. Others offer that leaving Egypt was traumatic for many who had never known another country. Rav Itamar Eldar compares it to another famous Bible story:

Had the people of Israel looked back for a moment as they fled from Pharaoh, in the manner of Lot’s wife, they might have had regrets and returned.  

Reb Zadok of Lublin, also, sticks to the Egypt theme of the haste:

Man’s entry into the service of God must begin with haste, as we find that the Paschal offering brought in Egypt was eaten in haste, which was not the case with the Paschal offering brought in later generations. Because when a person begins to sever himself from all the desires of this world to which he is attached, he must guard the moment in which the will of God stirs up within him, and make haste in that moment to leave those desires behind, perhaps he will succeed. Afterwards, he can once again proceed with moderation and slowness as is the law of the Paschal offering in later generations. 

While others see this haste issue as universal to spiritual needs. The Ma’or V’Shemesh has a fascinating theory about eating. He suggests that all eating should be done quickly without concern for taste or texture. Even in the Garden of Eden, God’s command to not consume from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad was about not being concerned for whether food is delicious or disgusting! I wonder how the Rebbe’s wife felt about that? He avers that the Tree of Knowledge wasn’t a specific tree. It was just an injunction about differentiating between trees as a food source. Fascinating, but not for me.

Rebbe Nachman elevates haste to an exalted position in one of his famous stories about a Scholar and a Simpleton (CHACHAM V’TAM). These two men who grew up together went very divergent ways. One day the King decided to invite them to the Palace, and sent two messengers, a scholarly one to the Scholar and a simple one to the Simpleton. The Simpleton got the message and quickly told his wife, and then urgently set out for the Palace. In the carriage, the simple messenger gave the simple person appropriate garments for the Palace. He hadn’t even paused to change.

The Scholar received the scholarly messenger and they spent an entire night discussing this unexpected invitation. In the morning, the Scholar decided that the entire situation is absurd and that, in fact, there really was not any king at all. He stayed home and missed the entire amazing experience. 

In all of Rebbe Nachman’s tales the King is always God, and we are the subjects of our Liege Lord. Then, indeed, these stories describe our relationship with our Lord. Sometimes, the simple response is the perfect response. 

Our verse uses the term CHIPAZON for the ‘haste’ we’ve been discussing. This is variously translated as quickly, speedily, in a hurry, but the explanatory translations of Targum Yonatan and the Targum Yerushalmi see it differently. Tragum Yonatan explains that CHIPAZON really implies: You shall eat IN FEAR OF THE MAJESTY (B’B’HILA D’SH’CHINTA) of the Lord. While the Yerushalmi adds: bound by the precepts of the Law (ASIRIN B’MITZVATA). 

The supposed ‘haste’ is really dedication, fealty and loyalty, but I would also suggest devotion and ardor. We are occasionally expected to be soldiers commanded to ‘Jump’!  To which we respond: How high, and how long should I stay there?   

Sometimes we are encouraged to try and figure out all the complicated ramifications of a verse or a law, but sometimes (and maybe more than sometimes), regardless of our normal attitude towards time, we should just do the act, because that is what our love for God demands! 

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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