Time Is (of) the Essence

Pesach is the Yom Tov of our Exodus, the departure from shibud — subjugation, to cheirus — freedom. This is also the theme of the Seder, maschil b’gnus umesayem b’shvach, discussing and internalizing the transition from humble beginnings to a state of closeness to Hashem.

Shibud is not limited to living under conditions of physical oppression. One need not be confined to slavery to experience it. The essence of shibud is living under conditions that are considered abnormal by ordinary standards. On the flip side, cheirus is not freedom to act as one wishes but living under conditions that allow one to do the right thing.

If acknowledgment of Hashem’s presence is the essence of life, then by the Torah’s standards, the conditions that we live under today are far from what they are supposed to be, both spiritually and physically.

Although it should be logical and obvious to acknowledge Hashem’s presence, it is, in fact, among the world’s best-kept secrets. We are enveloped in Olam Hazeh, a physical world that by its nature not only fails to accommodate ruchniyus, but also distracts us from spiritual reality. It is for this reason that Chazal state that in order for man to properly understand Torah, he must first have a degree of serenity that allows him to contemplate matters beyond the physical curtain. The ability to focus is a necessary condition for success in any discipline, but it is indispensable for transcending into a spiritual sphere.

This assignment is specifically difficult in today’s society where we live with a constant preoccupation with information and direct our powers of  focus on occurrences in the world around us. Distraction prevents us from relating to anything outside of our physical limitations. The result is that we are totally subjugated to the physical world.

What is the remedy, or at least the strategy, to living under this shibud?

To us, time is, perhaps, the most essential element of creation. Even the cliché “time is money” betrays how we view it. Man thinks of time as the most crucial factor of his existence. This is an unchangeable fact.

However, there are different ways to assign this importance to time. If time’s importance is defined by the past and future, but not the present, then the passage of time becomes a disturbance. One of the key principles of chassidic thought is to focus on the moment, utilizing it on what can and should be done now.

A small crew of airmen recently started a journey around the world in a solar plane. It moves relatively slowly and some stretches of the trip can last days on end. During these elapses they must remain very focused, an exercise that can become very dull. One of these pilots said that the only way to do it is to focus solely on the moment, without thinking of the past or future, and commented that the experience was a very spiritual one.

This statement is fact one of the deeper principles of avodas Hashem. We say that Hashem is “mechadesh b’chol yom tamid maaseh bereishis — that He constantly renews the act of Creation.” As such, every moment is the very act of Creation. Failing to use even a blip of time to its fullest is to temporarily forfeit one’s role in Creation.

The Sfas Emes explains that the uniqueness of Klal Yisrael is that we are not only nivra’im, created beings, but part of the Divine creative force itself. For this, Hashem bestowed on us the mitzvah of Kiddush Hachodesh, to establish the beginning of the month. The mitzvah to determine time is an act of creation and our portal to the power of remaining focused on the moment.

The Jewish People’s exile in Mitzrayim was originally decreed to last for 400 years, but we know that it only lasted for 210. What was the underpinning cause of this suspended sentence?

Time is a creation and as with everything in creation, Hashem assigns certain tasks for time to accomplish. Time was charged with creating a given measure of koshi hashibud, agony of subjugation. Klal Yisrael, through their free will, were able to make more out of the moment than time itself had been commanded to do. They changed the task of that span of time.

That is the essence of bringing cheirus into shibud itself. Focusing on the moment, living it and making the most of it turns the moment into a spiritual element. This is not only the approach to life under shibud, but the remedy. If we do Hashem’s Will at that moment, we are different people. That gives us the ability to cope with any challenge.

Ruchniyus relates to the absolute truth, Hashem, whereas the opposite of it does not and cannot perceive anything absolute. In Olam Hazeh everything is relative; matter is always defined in comparison to something else. And so is the approach towards time — “time is money.” From a spiritual perspective, time can lead to the recognition of the absolute reality. Hence, when Hashem told Moshe that the exodus will be b’chatzos ha’laylah, precisely at midnight, he bestowed him with the spiritual definition of the moment, the absolute reality of Hashem’s Presence, as it happened on this very night when Hashem revealed himself. In contrast, he told Pharaoh the makkah, the plague, would come, k’chatzos ha’laylah, around midnight. Pharaoh was completely limited to Olam Hazeh. As such, he perceived time as a purely physical phenomenon and could not relate to absolutes. Pharaoh could only grasp time as compared to something else.

For the maamin, the highlight of the Pesach night is his relationship with Hashem. There is no darkness that can prevent this moment of spiritual experience. This is the essence of the celebration of the Seder as a triumph of cheirus over shibud.