About Time

I gave this drash at the Walnut Street Minyan on the eighth day of Pesach 5783. The noodge persona I mention in the first paragraph refers to my Minyan job, reminding other people of their Minyan jobs.

The first thing I noticed as I began studying in preparation to write this drash was that the Torah portion we read on the eighth day of Pesach… tells us that Pesach lasts seven days. Hmm. If I were inhabiting my noodge persona, I would fire off a snarky comment or two about fuzzy math and click send. 

Instead, I started to wonder. The Torah reading teaches, among other things, about rituals for remembering Yetziat Mitzrayim. If we take the portion literally, we are reading these words after the holiday has ended. There is a cyclical quality to it, reminiscent perhaps of another flurry of holidays, the one that culminates in Simchat Torah: as soon as we’re done we immediately begin again. In that case reading the story of our people; and in this case telling the story of our people. Torah shebichtav. Torah sheb’al peh

Rather than being a clerical error, though: what if this quirk of structure is a profound comment on the need for vigilance in memory? Or a statement about the importance of this memory in particular? Rashi has taught us the principle, ein mukdam um’uchar baTorah—there is no before or after in Torah—but this isn’t quite that. Rashi’s principle of “timeless” Torah seems mainly to come into play when we need to rationalize or smooth a narrative inconsistency. Our reading today, instructions for remembering what we just finished celebrating, seems to me more a lesson in preservation, attention, and perspective. 

Our text seems to be playing fast and loose with the linearity of time, on purpose. What does it mean? 

I allowed my mind to wander. First stop: Sefer Shmot Chapter 12, wherein God tells Moshe how to instruct the Israelites to prepare to make their daring escape from Mitzrayim. Acquire a lamb or a portion of one, and when the moon tells you it’s time, slaughter the lamb, mark the doorposts. Be ready to go, shoes on, staff at the ready. We know this story. And then, between Verse 13 and Verse 14, there is a jump cut and suddenly God is telling Moshe how to celebrate Pesach, how to commemorate an exodus that has yet to happen. Here, too, themes of memory and anticipation are dizzyingly intertwined, as the narrative places itself in two times at once: working toward and preparing for liberation and celebrating it ritually.

In our portion today, we are told to observe Pesach for seven days 

לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת־יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיך
In order to recall your departure from the land of Mitzrayim all the days of your life. 

כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ

The Sages take up these words in the last Mishnah of the first chapter of Brachot. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria cites Ben Zoma, who reads כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ ritually, using these words as a proof text for recalling Yetziat Mitzrayim in the evening prayers. If it had just said בִּיְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ the exodus would be recalled in daytime davening. The addition of the word כֹּל indicates that memory to be for the nights as well.

The Chachamim, however, are painting on a bigger canvas, one with theurgic implications. They argue that יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ refers to this world, while כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ brings on Moshiach Time. Think of it: if we were to remember Yetziat Mitzrayim each and every day, we could bring about redemption. What is it about that memory that gives it the power of redemption?

The discussion that ensues in the Gemara touches on the relative weight of old memories and new ones, and what happens when we run out of disk space for telling the stories of our people. Do we overwrite the old stories with new ones, or keep the foundational layer as the primary one? The Sages land at a compromise: that other redemptions will begin to take precedence, but that they cannot uproot the primacy of Yetziat Mitzrayim.

Firmly ensconced as I am in the sandwich generation, I’m still stuck on the power of memory for redemptive purposes. Gradually I’m getting used to the empty seat at my table where my college-student son used to sit. All the while, I watch with nauseous optimism as my wonderful father approaches his ninetieth birthday. I am all too aware of the impermanence that pervades every aspect of life. We are often told that the present moment is all we have, and in some ways it’s true. Yet without the wanderings of our minds, we would not have the capacity to remember our children as cherub-cheeked, affectionate toddlers nor to recall our parents living at full speed, unencumbered by the body’s betrayals. We would not be able to look forward to an important simcha nor to hold onto people after they’re gone. 

We would not be able to imagine ourselves liberated when we are not yet there, nor to remind ourselves in the darkest nights, that whatever we are facing, we’ve been through worse. 

In the first of his Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot wrote: 

Time present and time past 
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past. 
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.

Perhaps Eliot is right, that time is unredeemable. Once it’s melted into itself, there is nothing that can distinguish it again. And yet, the wandering mind offers twin antidotes. The ability to imagine something better than what is before us gives us energy to continue pursuing it; and the vigorous exercise of the muscle that remembers our hardest times and the extraordinary power that brought us through, is the closest we have to redemption.

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