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Pesach: Transcending Time

holidays pesach video Apr 01, 2021


You can learn a lot about a person based on how they use their time. When we get home from school or work, how do we view our free time? Do we ask ourselves how to waste the night away, how to most easily and enjoyably make it to tomorrow morning? Or do we take full advantage of every moment, aiming to gain as much as possible from each and every day? When the alarm goes off in the morning, do we jump out of bed like a lion, ready to conquer the day, or do we hit snooze again, again, and again? As human beings, we find ourselves stuck within time. The question we must therefore ask is, "how will we use our time"?

While events and decisions occur within time, there is an aspect of reality that transcends time. The Vilna Gaon explains, fascinatingly, that while events occur within time, ideas transcend time. Ideas don't "happen," they simply are. They exist beyond the construct of time, within the realm of the eternal. When thinking about and relating to ideas, we step outside the present moment and connect to something outside the movement of the clock, beyond the passing of time. With this in mind, let us explore a fascinating idea related to time and its essential connection to Pesach. 


Pesach: Holiday of Time


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), and eating chametz (leavened bread) is absolutely forbidden.[1]This is an incredibly strict prohibition; the punishment for eating chametz is kares (spiritual excision).[2] 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 Yetzias Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt. The Torah commands us to eat matzah on Pesach because the Jewish People left Mitzrayim "be'chipazon"- in great haste.[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.[4] 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 tumah (impurity), a point of no return. Chazal explain that the Jewish People in Mitzrayim were on the forty-ninth level of tumah, the very lowest level of spiritual impurity.[5] 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.


The Problem


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 makkas bechoros (the plague of the firstborn), devastating Egypt and causing even Pharaoh to panic. Makkas bechoros was unique in that Hashem Himself performed this makkah.[6] The Ramban explains that all the principles of hashgacha 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?[7]

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?


Spiritual Perspectives


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.[8] Therefore, our approach to physicality will illuminate our understanding of time.

As we previously mentioned,[9] 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. 

Historically, this was the spiritual system of Shem and Ever.[10] They understood the dangers of the physical world - they witnessed the evil and destruction of both the Dor Ha’Mabul (generation of the flood) and Dor Ha’flagah (generation of the dispersion) - and concluded that in order to maintain their spirituality, they had to remove themselves from the physical, lowly world.


Avraham's Revelation


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 which 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 tefillin; all actions, all physical. We don't believe in transcending the physical, we wish to use the physical to connect to the transcendent.

This is because the physical world is deeply connected to the spiritual world. Every physical action affects the spiritual realm, creating cosmic ripple effects. This can be compared to when one plays a piano. When a piano key is pressed, a hammer inside the piano strikes the string below, generating the musical sound. The key itself does not create the musical note; it causes a chain reaction, and the sound comes from a different – albeit connected – location.

The same is true of the physical world. Every action creates a corresponding reaction in the spiritual world. In essence, our physical world is like an upside-down puppet show. When a puppeteer pulls the strings from above, he causes the puppets to act down below. When we perform physical actions in the physical world, we create cosmic effects in the spiritual realm above.[11]

This is what Avraham introduced to the world. Avraham's mitzvah was bris milah (circumcision), the mitzvah that epitomizes the idea of taking the most physical and potentially animalistic organ and uplifting it to the spiritual. As the Maharal[12] explains, bris milah is performed specifically on the eighth day, as it represents the process of transcending the natural. Seven is the number of the natural; this is why all physical and natural components of this world are built off sevens: seven days in the week, seven notes in the musical scale, seven colors in the spectrum of light. Eight represents going beyond the natural, which is why bris milah is performed on the eighth day;[13] we take the physical and use it to transcend.[14][15]


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 malachim (angels),[16] and only then do we have Succos, 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.[17] 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[18] state, "Mitzvah haba’ah liyadchah, al tachmitzenah - When a Mitzvah comes to your hand, don't let it spoil,” or more literally, don't allow it to become chametz. Chametz is the result of adding time to the baking process of bread. As the Maharal explains[19], 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.


The Difference Between Matzah and Chametz


Matzah is baked within the bare minimum time period, under eighteen minutes, so that the bread has no time to ferment and rise. One more second and it's chametz, one more second and you violate an issur kares. Anyone who has studied the subject knows that chametz is an anomaly, a "killer food". While normally you have to eat a specific shiur (amount) in order to incur a penalty for an issur achilah (prohibition of eating), when it comes to chametz, there is no shiur for the issur.[20] Any amount violates the prohibition. A similar anomaly appears by bitul: For general issurei achilah, there is a concept of bitul- if there is an overwhelming majority of kosher food, we can ignore the problematic food.[21] But for chametz, no matter the quantity of non-chametz food, even if there is only a single crumb of chametz, bittul does not apply and the entire food becomes assur.

In essence, a single second turns the matzah into a "killer food".[22] This infinitesimal distinction appears in the actual words. The words “matzah” and “chametz” share the same letters, except for the heh in matzah and the ches in chometz. The only difference between a heh and ches is a tiny drop of ink.[23] One second of time, one drop of ink; that is all it takes to turn matzah into chametz.

This concept manifests itself in the physical form of matzah as well. Just as matzah transcends the limitations of time, it transcends the limitations of space as well. Matzah is strictly limited in how long it can bake, and as a result, the bread does not have time to rise and becomes limited to the bare minimum amount of space as well. However, once we allow the bread to get stuck within time, it gets stuck within space as well and begins to physically expand.

This is why the same pasuk teaches us about guarding both matzos and mitzvos. Both require alacrity, both require transcending the limitations of time. “U’shemartem es ha’matzos” - guard the matzos - teaches us to guard the matzos so that they do not become sunk in time. We also learn from this “U’shemartem es ha’mitzvos - guard the mitzvos”: when you have a mitzvah, you cannot allow it to become spoiled and sunk in time (mitzvah habah li’yadchah al tachmitzenah). The Maharal[24] explains that if you let a mitzvah sink into time, you tarnish that mitzvah. Instead of being an ideal spiritual action, it becomes limited by time and spoiled.[25]


Mitzvos and Food: Both Forms of Connection


There is a further connection between mitzvos and matzah. As the Maharal explains, a mitzvah is not simply a command from Hashem, it is an opportunity to create connection. By connecting to Hashem's will, we become connected to Him on a deep existential level. Thus, mitzvos are acts of connection. [26] Eating is also an act of connection. Eating connects the physical body to the angelic soul; if one doesn't eat, their soul eventually leaves their body.[27] Thus, both mitzvos and matzos are acts of connection.[28]


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[29] explains, on the first night of Pesach, we became a single, unified nation. The features of the Korban Pesach (sacrificial lamb) reflect this oneness:

  • We eat a one-year old lamb.
  • It must be roasted, not cooked or boiled, because only roasting leaves the meat whole- remaining one - whereas cooking and boiling cause the meat to separate into pieces.
  • It must be roasted whole, not cut up at all.
  • One cannot break a single bone while eating the Korban Pesach, in order to maintain the oneness of the lamb.
  • It has to be eaten in one home, as part of a chabura (group), in order to bring family and friends together into a single unified group, reflecting the oneness of Klal Yisrael.[30]


All of these details of oneness reflected the oneness that was being created on that night. Klal Yisrael was becoming a single nation, one with Hashem.[31]


Forming the Root of Klal Yisrael


Every process is made up of multiple stages.[32] 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.[33] 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![34]

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 bi'zerizus (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 to behind the Arizal’s cryptic statement.

Had we moved one second slower, 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 zerizus- 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.[35] Only once we are rooted beyond time and space can we then come back down and use time and space to reflect something higher.

It's therefore no coincidence that Klal Yisrael performed the mitzvah of Bris Milah before leaving Mitzrayim. As we explained, this is the mitzvah of the eighth, the ultimate paradigm of connecting the physical to the spiritual. As the Maharal explains, Torah is also the "eighth", which is why we received it on the 50th day after leaving Mitzrayim, the first day of the eighth week. This brings us full circle to the beginning of this chapter. Torah and ideas exist beyond the dimension of time. 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.


[1] Shemos 12:15.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Devarim 16:3.

[4] See Beis Halevi, Derush 2, quoting the Arizal.

[5] See Zohar Chadash, Yisro 31a; Ohr Hachayim, Shemos 3:8.

[6] Rashi- Shemos 12:12. See also Haggadah Shel Pesach.

[7] Furthermore, we have previously explained (see chapter on Parshas Mishpatim) that every process has three stages: it begins with an inspirational high, is then followed by a fall and loss of inspiration, so that we can then rebuild the inspiration ourselves and experience it on a deeper level. This first night of Pesach was that inspirational high, the gift. We were therefore on the highest possible spiritual level?

[8] Whether space and matter are more or less physical than time – or perhaps equally physical – is beyond our current discussion.

[9] See chapter on Parshas Vayishlach.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Additionally, every time a physical act affects the spiritual world, that spiritual energy ultimately flows back down to impact the physical world. Everything is interconnected. Every single act has omni-importance.

Of course, Hashem also chooses what to bring down from the spiritual world into the physical world. Hashem can choose not to bring a corresponding spiritual flow into the physical world and can also choose to create a proactive spiritual flow into the physical world. (See Nefesh Ha’Chaim [Rav Chaim of Volozhin] and Derech Hashem [Ramchal] for extensive discussion of this topic.)

[12] Tiferes Yisrael- Chapters 1-2, 25.

[13] This is also why the miracle of Chanukah lasted eight days, and is why it was done with shemen, the same shoresh (root) as shemonah, eight.

[14] For a deeper understanding of the relationship between the “seventh” and the “eighth”, see article on Parshas Behar regarding Sefiras Ha’Omer (Section: “Forty-Nine Days of Building”).

[15] Avraham’s connection to this idea is expressed in his very name. [The Hebrew word for name (shem) shares the same root as the word for soul (neshama), because a person’s name reflects their very essence.] The gematria (numerical value) of the name "Avraham" is 248. There are 248 limbs in the body, as well as 248 mitzvos aseh (positive commandments). Each of these commands is an opportunity to utilize and uplift a part of our physical body for ultimate spirituality. Avraham's mission was to teach and model this truth, that all of physicality is connected to the spiritual and can therefore be used to achieve spiritual perfection.

[16] See chapter on Parshas Vayelech for a fuller discussion of Yom Kippur and this concept.

[17] See chapter on Parshas Behar for a fuller discussion of Sefiras Ha’Omer (Counting the Omer).

[18] See Rashi- Shemos 12:17.

[19] Gur Aryeh, Shemos 12.

[20] See Rambam- Chomeitz U’Matzah 1:7.

[21] The problematic food either becomes ignored, eliminated (considered as if it does not exist), or subsumed within the mixture of kosher food. These are three fundamentally different approaches to bittul, each requiring a fuller discussion. See Rosh- Chulin 7:37, Rashba- Toras Bayis 4:1, Tosfos- Chulin 100a, Rashi- Avodah Zarah 74a, Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 91:1, Rama Yoreh Deah 91:1.

[22] See the She’elos U'Teshuvos of the Radvaz, Volume 3, number 546.

[23] ה (Heh) vs. ח (Ches).

[24] Gur Aryeh- Shemos 12.

[25] This is only to a certain extent. Even this type of mitzvah is still positive; the Maharal is simply discussing the quality of the mitzvah.

[26] See article on Parshas Shemini, section: “Limited vs. Infinite.” The Maharal explains that the word and concept of mitzvah is rooted in the word “tzavta”- the Aramaic word for connection. A Mitzvah isn't simply obeying a command, as a soldier obeys the will of his commander. Rather, it is a way for us to connect, spiritually and existentially, to Hashem, our source of existence.

[27] For more on this topic, see article on Parshas Tzav, section: “Eating: Connecting Body and Soul”. See also chapter on Parshas Vayelech, section: “Why Do We Fast?”.

[28] Kedushah results when you connect the limited, finite, and physical world to the transcendent, infinite, and spiritual realm.  The chartumim (sorcerers in Egypt) could not reproduce the makkah of kinnim (lice), because evil can only take hold of physical, finite things. The lice were too small for the sorcerers to reproduce, representing the transition from physical to non-physical things. When beyond the limitations of space and time, evil has no power. This is the place of kedushah, this is the concept of using the minimum amount of space and time by mitzvos and matzos.

Interestingly, once you enter the quantum dimension, the normal the rules of Newtonian physics break down. Things are and aren't, we enter a state of paradox, where all rules of limitation break down. This is literally a taste of the spiritual dimension, a taste of oneness.

[29] Gevuros Hashem, Chapter 60.

[30] Whereby each of the individuals are part of a whole greater than themselves.

[31] For more on this topic, see article on Parshas Beshalach.

[32] For more on this concept, see article on Parshas Bamidbar.

[33] Take, for example, the growth of a tree. First there is the seed, which goes through a slow growth process as that seed is expressed, and eventually there is a full tree. Human beings go through this same process as well. Every person begins as a zygote, a single cell, which grows and develops into the end result - a fully formed human being.

[34]  This same principle can be used to explain the sin of Nadav and Avihu. See article on Parshas Shemini, section: “The Root is Always the Most Potent”.

[35] See article on Parshas Behar, section: “Why Don’t We Count the 50th?”. See Maharal- Tiferes Yisrael- Chapters 1-2, 25; see also Maharal- Nesivos Olam, Nesiv Ha’Torah 1.

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