Parashat Bo: Time after time

CORONA HAS been a dramatic game changer in the way we experience time.

Taking it slow (photo credit: UNSPLASH)
Taking it slow
(photo credit: UNSPLASH)
Parashat Bo chronicles the dramatic redemption of the Jewish people from a 200-year nightmare of backbreaking slavery and oppression.
The great “night of redemption” is punctuated by celebratory rituals which ultimately became incorporated into the Passover Seder.
However, before the Jews were informed of these ceremonies, they were instructed to reconfigure their calendar to designate the Hebrew month of Nisan – not Tishrei – as the launch of the calendar year.
This scheduling change delivers two lessons: Firstly, it installs Passover at the start of each year, highlighting the seminal nature of our liberation from slavery and our historical covenant with God. By celebrating Passover at the launch of a new calendar year, the importance of historical memory is showcased.
Beyond realigning the start of the Jewish year, this mandate supplies an additional message: redeemed people actively manage their time rather than live outside of time or as “victims” of time.
Slaves possess no control over their daily schedule and, by extension, cannot administer or budget their time. Nights and days become indistinguishable, as slaves live in perpetual survival mode.
In addition to the absence of time management, slaves endure time “shrinkage.” Normal people are meant to live continuous time, where our present is driven by our past and informs our future. A life of oppression provides no hope for the future and little interest in long-term crafting of the future.
Suffering also severs us from our past: pondering past successes only renders our current suffering more depressing. Seeking to avoid all this frustration – the elusiveness of past success and the hopelessness of a bleak future – people who suffer lock themselves into a small current state of the present, cut off from the past and severed from any future.
Oppressed slaves are trapped in a prison of timelessness without control over their schedule and without any sense of time continuity. The passage from slavery to freedom demands a reorientation of how we experience time, on both a daily level and throughout the totality of our lives.
OPPRESSIVE TYRANNIES come in many forms and varieties, but the most overpowering ones are faceless.
Modern man is no longer enslaved by a human tyrant, who strips us of time management or time continuity. However, we do inhabit a ruthless “time prison,” one that we have crafted on our very own.
Technology, industrialization and mass agricultural farming have alleviated humans of the onerous menial labor that saddled our ancestors and occupied much of their time. Additionally, mechanization of household chores such as cleaning, cooking and laundering has liberated women in particular from previously burdensome domestic chores. Yet, somehow, surprisingly, we reside in a world with even greater challenges to our time management.
Technology, which has liberated time, has also introduced unprecedented time pressures inconceivable to past generations. The bar of productivity has been raised high, forcing us to work harder just to ensure output.
Scientists have traced what is known as a “productivity paradox”: As investment in technology – particularly information technology – spikes, actual productivity declines. This is astonishing, but our own experience verifies this condition.
In the modern world of productivity and efficiency, we work disproportionately hard just to keep pace with the maddening challenges of a frenetic world.
Communication technology has created busier schedules and less “time.” Consider how many contacts an average person interacts with on a daily basis compared to the number of interactions engaged in merely 50 years ago. Similarly, imagine the volume of information and media that we process on a daily basis, given that our information flow is no longer controlled by organized media outlets but dispatched through social media. The torrent of information and communication has inundated our lives and compromised our time availability.
A further time strain has emerged from dramatic changes in housing and transportation which have enabled people to live at distances from their workplaces.
We live in comfortable suburban communities while commuting to our places of work in financial and industrial city centers. Without the revolutions in the automobile industry, such demographic patterns would be impossible. Indeed, these living and working arrangements were unavailable to previous generations, who were forced to live closer to their workplaces.
The resulting suburban sprawl has overtaxed existing infrastructure, and we all suffer from suffocating traffic which further robs us of our time. Most large cities are plagued by traffic congestion.
Basically, we have crafted a world in which, ironically, we possess less and less time, while facing powerful technologies that aggressively vie for whatever precious time we do possess. We occupy a time prison with invisible bars but one that is far more unforgiving than ancient Egypt.
To live truly free in our world, we must pay attention to how we manage our time.
CORONA HAS been a dramatic game changer in the way we experience time. Under the pandemic, the pace of our lives has slowed, and our time commitments have been greatly diminished. Multiple waves of quarantine lockdown have grounded us, but also have alleviated the hassles of commuting to work. The frantic pace of modern life has considerably decelerated, leaving us more time to ponder our lifestyles.
Corona slowed down our frantic pace of life but it has also allocated large blocks of unscheduled time. I imagine we can all identify periods during the past year in which we managed our time more successfully and periods in which we failed. The crisis has challenged us to be productive even when our lives aren’t structured around schedules.
Finally, corona has altered our long-term vision and long-term planning. Whatever future plans we devised prior to this pandemic have been appreciably reconfigured by the seismic shift of this crisis.
As we slowly crawl out of this crisis, it is valuable to reassess how we manage our free time, the type of pace we impose upon our lives, and how we preserve our long-term vision. In the coming months there is much to think about.
The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion, a hesder yeshiva. He has smicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.