Passover: The beginning of time

Passover: The beginning of time

I’ve always found it fascinating to consider the role of time in the Bible. In the book of Genesis, the Hebrew root “kadosh,” which we generally translate as “holy” or “sacred,” appears only once and that is in connection with time. Upon completion of creation, God blesses the seventh day and declares it holy, thereby asserting the sanctity of time (Genesis 2:3). We do not encounter sacred space, however, until the book of Exodus. In the revelation by God to Moses at the burning bush, God says to Moses:

“Do not come closer. Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

Unlike the Sabbath, which remains holy forever as a result of God’s blessing, God’s revelation imparts sanctity to the site of the burning bush only temporarily. In the Bible, the sanctity of time continues in perpetuity while the sanctity of space, though sometimes permanent, may also be fleeting.

The very first commandment that God gives the Israelite people as a nation relates to time rather than space. Before the Israelites leave Egypt, God instructs Moses and Aaron:

“This month is for you the beginning of the months, it shall be for you the first of the months of the year” (Exodus 12:2).

This command has been the subject of varied interpretation by the Rabbis over the millennia. According to a classic rabbinic interpretation, Exodus 12:2 teaches the law of sanctification of the new month – kiddush ha-chodesh. The medieval commentator, Nahmanides, however, focuses on the plain sense of Exodus 12:2 and emphasizes its symbolic significance to the Israelite people. Since the exodus from Egypt is the start of a new order of life for the nation of Israel, it is appropriate that their religious calendar reflect this new order by numbering the months of the year from the month of the exodus. The Hebrew months are given ordinal numbers in the Bible, like the days of the week, beginning with the first month – the month of Passover. Just as we count the days of the week until the completion of creation, so too, our counting of the months of the year starts with our creation – the exodus. And so, Nahmanides concludes, every time an Israelite refers to any month, he or she must remember the great miracle of the redemption from Egyptian bondage.

My favorite interpretation of Exodus 12:2 is the homiletical comment of Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno:

“This month shall be for you the beginning of months: Henceforth, the months of the year shall be yours, to do with them as you will. During the bondage, however, your days did not belong to you, but were used to serve others and fulfill their wills. Therefore, this month shall be the first month of the year for you. For in this month your existence as a people of free choice began.”

Seforno reveals a deeper truth implicit in our verse – it is only with the exodus from Egypt that the Israelite people gained control over time.

Taking charge of time

Why is it significant that the very first command that God gives Israel as a nation relates to time rather than space? Today we are blessed with a great gift – the center of Judaism is physically located in the land of Israel. But when the people of Israel choose to become God’s nation, sacred space is not yet a tangible part of their religious equation. There is no temple and their land is but a distant promise. Israel becomes God’s nation when it begins to define time with reference to its relationship with God – when the month of the exodus becomes the first month of the year in the Israelite calendar. The nation of Israel is born through the definition of time.

There is nothing more difficult for human beings than to define time. There is no greater challenge than setting priorities with the time that is available to us, no greater challenge than saying: This comes first and this must be postponed for later. But what God asks Israel to do is not merely to define time but to combine two calendars – two systems of marking time – that often do not coincide. The religious calendar marks the major events of biblical history within the framework of lunar months, while the seasonal calendar which marks economic events is solar.

This challenge of defining time, of living by two calendars – one that is secular and one that is religious – is the metaphorical challenge of the Jewish nation. As we cease creative activity each Sabbath or on Jewish holidays, we are aware that the world of commerce moves forward without us. We embrace wholeheartedly our practice of Judaism, knowing that it must shape how we deal with the demands and responsibilities of our environment.

The Haggadah of Passover mandates: In every generation one is obligated to see oneself as one who personally went out of Egypt. If so, the season of the exodus is the season for every one of us to reflect, to set priorities – in short, to take charge of our time. It is the season to look back to the moment in history when the month of the exodus became for us the beginning and center of our existence as a nation. For as we revisit our past, we will be energized to confront the challenges of our future, confident that the continuity of the Jewish people is as certain as the eternity of time.