Time is a prominent theme of Pesach, but it expresses itself in a unique and somewhat puzzling manner. On Pesach, we are commanded to eat matzah (unleavened bread); eating chametz (leavened bread) is absolutely forbidden (Sh’mos 12:15). This is an incredibly strict prohibition; the punishment for eating chametz is kareis (spiritual excision). This seems extreme, as the difference between matzah and chametz can come down to a matter of seconds. This means that a single second can decide a person’s spiritual reality, determining whether one performed a mitzvah or violated the most severe of prohibitions. Why is time so central to Pesach, and how can a single second of time have such significant implications?
Why the Rush?
Let us trace this theme of time through the story of Y’tzias Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach because the Jewish People left Mitzrayim “b’chipazon” – in great haste (D’varim 16:3). The Jewish People were forced to eat matzah because they did not have enough time to make bread. Although this is the most well-known reference to time in the Pesach story, there is another.
The Arizal makes an intriguing statement about time and its significance in the Pesach story (See Beis HaLevi, D’rush 2, quoting the Arizal). He states that had the Jewish People remained in Egypt for even one more second at the point of the Exodus, they would have reached the 50th level of tum’ah (impurity), a point of no return. Chazal explain that the Jewish People in Mitzrayim were on the 49th level of tum’ah, the very lowest level of spiritual impurity (Ohr HaChayim, Sh’mos 3:8). Had we sunk even one level lower, we would have been lost completely, beyond the point of rescue. The Arizal emphasizes that it was necessary for us to leave with such speed to save us from falling to this lowest level. It is thus clear that the speed with which we left Egypt was of fundamental importance, but we must still answer the question of why.
Before answering our questions, we must analyze the Arizal’s comment more closely. The Arizal says that had the Exodus been delayed for even one more second, we would have been completely lost within the depths of impurity. However, the moment of the Exodus seems to be the furthest thing from a spiritually dangerous time. In fact, it appears to be the moment at which klal Yisrael was at an ultimate spiritual high, far from spiritual risk.
The Jewish People had just witnessed Hashem unleash His wrath on the Egyptians through the performance of the ten miraculous plagues, a systematic process of openly revealing Hashem to the world. On the night of the Exodus, Hashem performed Makas B’choros (the Plague of the Firstborn), devastating Egypt and causing even Pharaoh to panic. Makas B’choros was unique in that Hashem Himself performed this makkah (Rashi – Sh’mos 12:12). The Ramban explains that all the principles of hashgachah pratis (Divine providence) were displayed through these events. We were clearly then on an immensely high spiritual level.
On this same night, the Jewish People brought the korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice) – and painted their doorposts with blood, instilling within their hearts the knowledge that Hashem watches over and protects us. This night contained some of the loftiest moments imaginable – one would expect the Jewish People to be on an equally lofty level. This was the birth and creation of klal Yisrael, the root of their journey to Har Sinai to accept the Torah. How could one more second in this intensely holy atmosphere possibly have caused the destruction of the Jewish People?
If the Arizal’s statement was not already difficult enough to understand, he takes his statement one step further. The Arizal says that not only would going out one second later have placed us beyond hope, but even if we had gone out just the slightest bit slower it would have been too late as well. Not only did we have to leave right away, but the pace itself had to be quick. Not only when we left, but how we left was important. What is the meaning of all this?
These questions all come back to the concept of time. In order to understand time, we must take a step back and look at the nature of physicality in general. Time is a dimension of physicality and in some ways is even emblematic of the physical. Therefore, our approach to physicality will illuminate our understanding of time.
Most spiritual schools of thought are focused wholly on the spiritual; they view the physical world as lowly and dangerous. They therefore claim that the physical should be avoided to the greatest extent possible. In order to live a spiritual life, one must escape the physical, completely rejecting their physical nature. Therefore, spiritual systems such as Buddhism prescribe meditation, abstinence, and the suppression of physical desire. In such a system, the ideal is to sit isolated on a mountaintop and meditate on our navel.
Avraham, however, introduced a novel, idealistic approach to life. He understood that while the physical can be dangerous if misused, the ideal is not to transcend the physical, but to use the physical to reflect something higher. In other words, he introduced the ideal Jewish spiritual system.
Think, how many mitzvos are commandments of the mind? Incredibly few! You can count them on your hands: Believe in Hashem, love Hashem, be in awe of Hashem, don’t be jealous, and just a few others. The overwhelming majority of mitzvos are physical actions that connect you to the spiritual Source, Hashem. The act is physical, while the intentions and mindset must be infused into it. We eat matzah, shake a lulav, blow shofar, and wear t’filin; all actions, all physical. We don’t believe in transcending the physical; we wish to use the physical to connect to the transcendent.
The Condition: Control
While the ideal is for the physical to be utilized and elevated, there is an important qualification. When the physical is channeled properly, it enables the highest of spiritual accomplishments, but when misused, it has infinitely negative reverberations. We must therefore maintain control and focus while using the physical. Our root must be transcendent, fully connected to the spiritual, and only then, while maintaining that foundation, can we descend and use the physical. This is why the first stage in the process must always be transcendent. We begin with Yom Kippur, where we transcend as mal’achim (angels), and only then do we have Sukkos, in which we come back down and embrace the physical aspect of life. We start with the first night of Pesach, a night of transcendence, and then we descend into the physical world, where we build (count) our way to Matan Torah. Without rooting ourselves in the transcendent, we risk getting stuck within the physical.
Applying This to Time
Applying these concepts to time, we can understand the importance of using time – controlling it, rather than allowing it to enslave us. We have two options: We can either let time pass us over and push us through life, or we can pass over time and transcend its limitations. The key is to use time, not to be used by time. We need to learn how to ride the waves of time, harnessing the dormant potential within each moment. When we are passive in life, everything moves slowly – time becomes quicksand. A life without goals, without a schedule, where moments of time don’t mean anything, is a life stuck within the confines of time. Such a person can kill time, can waste an evening just to get to tomorrow. One who values time, who rides time, views time like money. Time is currency and you choose how to spend it. Every day we get 86,400 seconds, and how you use your allotted time determines what kind of life you live.
Pesach: Harnessing Time
This is the theme of matzah. Chazal state, “Mitzvah ha’baah l’yadcha, al tachmitzenah – When a mitzvah comes to your hand, don’t let it spoil,” or more literally, don’t allow it to become chametz (Rashi, Sh’mos 12:17). Chametz is the result of adding time to the baking process of bread. As the Maharal explains (Gur Aryeh, Sh’mos 12), this statement of Chazal teaches us not to allow any extra time to get added to our mitzvos either; otherwise, the mitzvah becomes stuck in time. Fascinatingly, the word mitzvah has the same shoresh (root) as matzah, and the word tachmitzenah has the same shoresh as chametz. Just as on Pesach we must not allow our food – our matzah – to get stuck within the confines of time, so too, we cannot allow our spiritual commandments – our mitzvos – to become stuck within the confines of time.
Pesach Night: The Formation of Klal Yisrael As a Nation
We can now return to our original questions. Pesach night was the inception of klal Yisrael as a nation. As the Maharal explains (G’vuros Hashem, Chapter 60), on the first night of Pesach, we became a single, unified nation.
Every process is made up of multiple stages. The first stage is the spark of creation, which is followed by a slow process of expressing that original root seed, finally culminating in the finished product. In every process of creation, the root – the seed – is the most crucial and potent phase. This formative stage is also the most delicate. Any error or imperfection that occurs at this stage will have cataclysmic results. For example, if a child cuts his finger at the age of seven, the injury will be minor at worst. However, if there is even a minor glitch in the DNA of a zygote, even a single chromosome missing, everything can go wrong – the results can be catastrophic!
Therefore, when forming the root and seed of klal Yisrael, it was imperative for us to be perfect, transcending all the limitations of time and space. We needed to move biz’rizus (with alacrity). Our food needed to transcend the limitations of time and space, and so did our very movement. This is the secret of matzah, and this is the secret behind the Arizal’s cryptic statement.
Had we moved one second more slowly, or a moment too late, our root as a nation would have been stuck within the confines of time. Our “zygote” had to be constructed within the dimension of z’rizus – beyond the constrictions of time and space. We were creating our DNA; everything had to be perfect. Once we were rooted beyond time and space, we could receive Hashem’s Torah, which is also rooted beyond time and space (Maharal, Tiferes Yisrael - Chapters 1-2, 25). Only once we are rooted beyond time and space can we then come back down and use time and space to reflect something higher.
May we be inspired to fully harness the potential of our time, to use time and not be used by time, and to enter Pesach and the mitzvah of Matzah with the mindset of connecting to ourselves, to all of klal Yisrael, and to Hashem.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.