Passover: Becoming a Jew of the ages

Time rules our life. From the moment we are born, until our time is up – literally! – we are governed by time and its constraints.

Becoming a Jew of the ages (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Becoming a Jew of the ages
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Let’s start with a Passover puzzler: Matza and bread share the same ingredients – flour and water – so what is the difference between the two? The answer in a moment, but first, a few more questions: What is the commodity that each one of us possesses, yet we never have enough of it? It is with us as long as we live, yet it cannot be seen or felt or heard. We do everything we can to save it, yet we never stop spending it, and we always run out of it. We make it, we cherish it, yet we also waste it, and we even sometimes willingly kill it. At times it crawls, and at other times, it flies.
The answer to all these questions, of course, is time. In time, matza would become bread, were we not to stop the leavening process within 18 minutes. Eating matza on Passover is a mitzva; at the same time, eating bread would be a sin. The choice is literally in our hands as to which of the two we create, utilizing the awesome power of time.
Time rules our life. From the moment we are born, until our time is up – literally! – we are governed by time and its constraints.
Judaism is a religion of time, much more so than any other religion. The first thing that God calls “holy” is neither a person nor a place, but Shabbat – an island, or better, an oasis, in time. The first commandment that God gave to us as a people was the command to establish a calendar – beginning with this very month of Nisan – and take control of our time.
Much of our halachic life is governed by time: We have a time by which we must pray each day, a specific hour and minute when Shabbat or holidays begin and end, creating countless dos and don’ts in their wake; there are times of the month when we may have relations with our spouse and times when we must refrain; there are times when eating is mandated and required, and times when eating is prohibited.
Of all the holidays, Passover is the most governed by time. Come the eve of Passover, there is the time when we must stop eating hametz; the time when hametz found in our homes must be burned; the time during which we must eat a portion of matza at the Seder or finish the Seder by eating the afikoman. These times are precise; we set our clocks by them.
Moreover, the entire ritual of the Passover is a kind of spiritual time machine, as we transport ourselves back to ancient Egypt, to recreate the mood, the moment, the miracle of our liberation. As the Haggada so succinctly puts it, “In each and every generation, each person must view himself as if he personally had left Egypt.” It is the ultimate, “And you are there” experience.
The food we eat, including both the bitter fare of slaves as well as the celebratory four toasts of wine; the haste with which we bake our matzot; the stories we recite at the Seder; even – in many Sephardi families – the period clothes we wear on Passover night, all contribute to our desire to vividly relive the experience that launched us as a nation.
When I close my eyes on Passover – and who doesn’t need to drift off for minute or two?! – I find myself moving back in time, tasting my mother’s amazing Passover kneidlach, hearing my father’s spirited rendition of Dayenu, listening to my zayde (grandfather) expound on one of the Haggada’s finer points, smiling even, as my brother asks for the umpteenth time when we will finally reach that elusive festive meal. Time and space contract as the generations meld together and I am again reunited with the members of my Passover past, indeed, with our entire history. I am no longer just one lone participant; I have become a Jew of the ages.
In ancient times, we plotted time by the sun, and sometimes by the moon, and we were fairly expert in the movements of the celestial bodies, by which we calculated our days and months and seasons. In more recent times, we learned to depend on our watches – an apt name, because a Jew spends a good deal of time “watching” the time! In a sense, we are all “watchmen” and “watchwomen,” we all have our “watch,” our assigned time when we must be alert and ready to guard the commandments, even as we “guard” the matzot.
God’s greatest gift to us is time. It’s what we pray for when we ask to be written into the Book of Life, to grant us more time. But at the same time, it’s what we do with our time that really matters. King David expressed this well in his Psalms when he said, “Teach us to number our days wisely,” so we attain a good heart, a good name.
COMPARE OUR approach with that of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who said: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day... life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
For Macbeth, with his guilty conscience, time was tedium and torment.
His soliloquy reminds me of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s comment in his wonderful short story “Yachid and Yachida,” where he remarks that people are constantly looking at their watches because they want to see how much time is left on their sentence of having to live on this Earth! But our tradition, by contrast, considers every moment to be precious. For our rabbis, the worst offense was bitul zman, the wasting of valuable time that could be used to study Torah or do a hessed, a kindness or good deed. One of the most beautiful Jewish blessings is the Sheheheyanu, in which we thank God for having “kept us alive, sustained us and brought us to this time.”
To be a Jew is to see life as a blessing and make a blessing over life. The Hebrew word for time, zman, is connected to the word hazmana, invitation. Not because every invitation contains a time (though I have learned to regard the time on Israeli invitations with more than a grain of salt!), but because time itself is an invitation – to take this gift and use it well, to its fullest extent.
Like the cellphone or the computer, time can be both our servant and our master, depending upon our discipline and approach. “Time is a tyrant,” goes the famous saying, but it can also be our best friend. It depends upon whether we use or abuse it.
Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the little boy whose father was a big-time lawyer, so busy that he generally left for the office before his son woke up, and got home long after the boy went to bed. Whenever the boy did manage to see his dad, he was always on the phone or with a client or just too tired to spend any real time with him. When he cried to his mother, she usually tried to explain away her husband’s lack of time.
“Daddy’s very busy making a living for our family,” she would say.
So one day the little boy went down to his father’s office and asked his secretary if he could see him for a few minutes.
The father was quite surprised and came out of his office to the waiting room. There, the boy had emptied out his little bank and had a whole pile of small change laying in front of him.
“Daddy,” he said, “how much does it cost for one hour of your time? I hope that the money I have will at least buy me a few minutes.”
TIME, I suggest, is like a Torah. You see, when you read from a Torah, you open the scroll to reveal just the part that is relevant for the here and now. Yes, there is a past – and we must know it and learn from it – and there is also a future which awaits us. But for now, the only part of the Torah that is revealed to us is that which we see right in front of us.
Time, like the Torah, opens up a fleeting window. The past, as they say, is history, and the future a mystery, but the present is real, and immediate. It is waiting for us to do something of value, to bring meaning to our lives, to utilize the amazing strengths and talent and potential which God placed in each one of us. Soon, that window will close, the scroll will roll on, and that opportunity will be gone. We have to take that time into our hands – like the handles of the Sefer Torah – and turn it into something beautiful.
The great sage known as the Hafetz Haim observed that life is like a picture postcard. In olden days (my generation!), when people went on vacation, they’d often send their friends and family a postcard. The space on a postcard for a personal message is limited to just half of one side. Now, when the person starts writing, he usually uses big letters and takes up a lot of space writing just a few words. But as he gets nearer and nearer to the bottom of the card, and realizes that he still has a lot to tell, he writes smaller and smaller, trying to cram as many words as he can into the tiny area that’s left to him.
So it is with life. During most of our life, we feel we have all the time in the world, so why rush, why try to do too much? There’ll always be more time tomorrow! But as we grow older – and maybe a bit wiser – we find that we have so much left to accomplish, and so little time in which to do it. So we end up stuffing a lot of life into a very small space, and very often we run out of room – and time.
Passover, the first holiday of the Jewish calendar, bids us to appreciate time, to know what to do with it, to be able to appreciate it, budget it and utilize it so that the picture postcard of our lives comes out neat and orderly; diverse, developed and divinely dignified. When we look back, will we have that secure feeling that we spent our days and years in a life filled with values and value? Only time will tell.
The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana; [email protected],