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Shattering the Hourglass of Time

Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

So shall you eat it: your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand. You shall eat it in haste. It is a Passover offering to God (Exodus 12:11)

The idea of haste is a recurrent theme throughout the Exodus story.

As we have been unable to bring the Passover offering for over 2,000 years now, the Passover holiday that commemorates the Exodus has become inextricably associated in Jewish consciousness with the eating of Matza, the unleavened bread that constitutes our main food over the holiday. And this too is associated with haste.

The people picked up its dough before it could become leavened, their leftovers bound up in their garments upon their shoulders ... They baked the dough that they took out of Egypt into unleavened cakes, for they could not be leavened, for they were driven from Egypt for they could not delay ... (Exodus 12:34,39)

Not only is Matza eaten in commemoration of haste, it is the very embodiment of this quality. Unleavened bread is composed of a dough of plain water and flour with absolutely no added ingredients.

In order to be ritually acceptable to carry out the commandment of eating Matza, the dough must be in the oven within 18 minutes of the first contact of the flour with the water. Any piece of dough that does not make it in time is automatically rejected as chometz - i.e. dough that has risen and therefore does not qualify as unleavened.

Whoever has watched the baking of Passover Matza walks away with the realization that the main ingredient in its preparation is haste.


What is the reason for this association? After the plague of the first born the Jews could have left Egypt as leisurely as they chose. Why was it important to leave Egypt in haste? Why is it necessary to commemorate the Exodus by reproducing this feeling of haste through the baking of the Passover Matza?

In his most famous work, "Mesilat Yeshorim," Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto describes the steps of character formation and development that need to be taken by Jews who want a close relationship with God. The very first step he describes is associated with haste.

The character attribute that must be developed before any other, is called zrizut, "haste."

The character attribute that must be developed before any other, is called zrizut, "haste." Haste as a character trait, apparently an essential element of the proper Jewish character is such a foreign concept to the secular culture, that there is no word in the English language to describe it.

We are all familiar with doing things quickly under pressure, or with the concept of people reaching decisions too hastily. But hastiness as a positive character trait is a totally foreign idea to us.

Yet Rabbi Luzatto declares that not only is zrizut a positive character trait, but it is impossible to begin to climb the ladder towards God without it. How can we explain this?

You shall safeguard the Matzas (Exodus 12:17) Rabbi Yashia taught: "Do not read the word as Matzos [meaning unleavened bread], read it as Mitzvot [meaning positive commandments]. Just as we are forbidden to leaven the Matzas through delay - they must be prepared with the utmost haste - so also, we cannot leaven the Mitzvot, which must also be done with utmost haste. If a Mitzvah comes to your hand do not allow it to become leavened. Do it immediately. (Mechilta, Tractate Passover, Bo, 9)

We can all relate to the fact that a Mitzvah done without delay and with enthusiasm has greater merit than one done without assigning it the proper priority, but the passage implies more.

The rabbis are telling us that a Mitzvah done slowly is somehow spoiled just as dough that becomes leavened is spoiled for Matza.

How does the Mitzvah become spoiled through the lack of haste in its performance?


In his work "Gvurot Hashem," the Maharal explains that a Mitzvah cannot be done in time. Mitzvot belong to the world of eternity, they do not take place in our temporal world at all. Doing a Mitzvah in the dimension of time demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the nature of Mitzvot.

When a Jew performs a Mitzvah, he effectively leaves the world of time and enters the world of eternity. To place a Mitzvah under the rule of time is to spoil it.

Let us attempt to bring this idea down to earth.

All human activity is dominated by the consciousness of time. When we are young we plan our future. In middle age we worry about providing for our old age and arranging our children's futures. Our concern about the passage of time shapes our character and activities. By the time we reach old age we are so worn out and shaped by the lives we led in the constant grip of this consuming concern over the future, that it is the rare human being who still retains the imagination and energy to set out in new directions.

The sense of the passage of time prevents us from thinking too far ahead even about our own lives.

Ecologists are constantly admonishing us about our reckless consumption of the world's limited resources. How are our grandchildren going to survive on this polluted, overpopulated planet? Yet, so consumed with concern are we about our own futures that we do not have the capacity to worry about what takes place after we are gone. The sense of the passage of time prevents us from thinking too far ahead even about our own lives. Young people do not worry about old age.

For this reason, even though we all know that our time will run out, we do not spend much time worrying about what will happen to us after we die. The World to Come exerts a very weak emotional grip on us. We are much too concerned about what will happen to us the day after tomorrow. We are conscious of ourselves only as mortal creatures and our entire attention is focused on the sand that is running out in the hourglass of our lives.


The very first blessing we recite in the morning prayer reads: Blessed is He who spoke, and the world came into being, Blessed is He who makes the beginning...

The Gaon of Vilna explained that the phrase "who makes the beginning" is a reference to time. Before God made the world, He created time.

The sages tell us that the world was created with ten speeches. Yet when we read Genesis 1, we find only nine creation speeches. Explain the sages, the very first word in the Torah, the word "In the beginning", is also a creation speech. (See Talmud, Rosh Hashana, 32a.) Explains the Gaon, this creation speech describes the creation of time. The reason why it was made first is to emphasize that the entire natural world described in Genesis was created under the dominance of time.

But the world described in Genesis 1 is not all there is to reality. And human beings can't be simply satisfied with it.

The union between the soul and the body is described by the Midrash as comparable to a princess who is married to the peasant. He keeps supplying her with every imaginable comfort and luxury and yet she is never satisfied. The greatest stretch of the peasant's imagination cannot reproduce the environment in which the princess can feel at home and comfortable. He has simply never lived in a palace. He does not know how to reproduce what he has never experienced. (Kohelet Raba 6:6)

The soul or the princess was forced to leave the palace of God, was forced to marry the body or the peasant.

The same is true of human beings. Being mixtures of body and soul, human beings serve as a perfect metaphor for precisely such a mixed marriage. The soul or the princess was forced to leave the palace of God, was forced to marry the body, that peasant, and come down to live with him in the natural world. It is this that dooms the human being to a life of eternal frustration.

No matter what the human being does in the natural world, he can never fill the void of his soul. His soul is hungry for what the world cannot offer. He runs around all his life striving and searching for happiness, always thinking that if he could only have x or y, or become y and z, he would be truly happy, and does not realize that no matter what earthly goods or honors he comes up with, his soul will always go hungry.


The Exodus story marks the birth of the Jewish nation. In order to succeed in its mission, the Jewish nation must immerse itself in the performance of the commandments. The vast bulk of these commandments do not address the temporal concerns of human beings. They are not directed at enhancing one's sojourn in the world of nature that is dominated by time. The only way to dedicate oneself to their performance is to live with the consciousness of the World to Come.

But Jews are human beings. It is difficult for human beings to tear themselves away from the concerns of time, from the ever-present consciousness of the ticking of the clock of life.

Therefore to succeed at his life, a Jew has to be self-conscious as an eternal being. He has to be a being above time. He needs to develop the character trait of zrizut. How did the Exodus bring about the development of this quality?

The miracles of the Exodus connected the Jewish soul to the realm beyond time. But the fact that the human soul connects to an eternal realm doesn't release it from the confines of the body or the world of mortality. As long as a person is alive he is trapped in the world of physicality regardless of his spiritual state. The simultaneous existential connection to the opposite realms of mortality and immortality puts the Jew in a state of permanent spiritual conflict.

When the consciousness of eternity is forced to squeeze itself within the constricting walls of time, its frustration with its confinement and attempt to regain the freedom of eternity, forces it to speed up the activities of life to their maximum, so that they might conform to the dimensions of eternity as closely as possible. This newly-acquired eternal consciousness thus develops into the trait of zrizut, where a person's very character forces him to conduct all his activities in the greatest haste without reference to the objective demands of his situation in the world.


Nachmanides points out that perhaps the majority of the 248 positive commandments in the Torah are in commemoration of the Exodus, because a commandment is a connector. If God issues a commandment for a stated purpose we can be sure that the performance of the commandment will succeed in producing the intended result. Remembering the Exodus as a historical event has little effect on the human consciousness. But remembering it through the performance of a Mitzvah has the effect of transforming one's character.

The purpose of Mitzvot is to connect us with the timeless sphere of eternity.

The purpose of Mitzvot in general is to connect us with the timeless sphere of eternity. The Mitzvot that are associated with commemorating the Exodus have an even greater effect. Through the performance of these Mitzvot we refresh the original connection to eternity that the miracles of the Exodus forged in the human spirit. The connection to eternity becomes a permanent part of our consciousness and leaves its imprint on our characters in the form of zrizut.


Another name for Matza given by the Torah is the bread of poverty.

You shall not eat leavened bread with it, for seven days you shall eat Matza because of it, bread of poverty, for you departed from the land of Egypt in haste. So that you will remember the day of your departure from the land of Egypt all the days of your life (Deut. 16:3)

Because of this association between Matza and poverty [the Hebrew word oni employed in the verse means poor] we make the blessing on the Matza on Seder night over a broken piece of Matza. It is also for this reason that Matza baked with honey or other additives is not ritually acceptable for fulfilling the commandment to eat Matza, even if it is unleavened.

And yet, the association between Matza and poverty is not an obvious one. The commentators explain that Matza is difficult to digest and stays in the stomach for a long time. Thus it is cheaper to feed a slave Matza as he will not get hungry as fast.

But the Maharal points out that nowhere in the Torah is it mentioned that Jews ate Matza in Egypt as part of their bondage. The Torah always associates the eating of Matza with the haste of the Exodus. He makes another suggestion to explain the connection between Matza and poverty that serves to highlight the theme of this essay.

In the Maharal's view it is the idea of redemption that connects Matza with poverty. The rich man is connected to the world's resources. He owns real estate, he has assets, allies, bank accounts. In contrast, the poor man has only himself. The Maharal explains that the redeemed man is similar to the poor man. His connections to the world have been severed and he stands clear of all his previous ties. He is all on his own just as the poor man is.

This comparison is not a reference to his situation in this world, but an indicator of his spiritual state. Thus although the Jewish people left Egypt with great material wealth, they could not have left at all without severing all their spiritual connections with the Egyptian society that gave birth to their nation. In a spiritual sense they stood all alone as a consequence of the redemption.


To understand this concept more clearly we must dig a little deeper. The analogy of poverty is truly apt to describe the state of the soul in this physical world. For in this world the soul has no property or assets. It cannot establish a true connection between itself and anything here. The soul is a princess who is in exile here. All its assets are located in another sphere of existence across the bridge of time in the sphere of eternity. In this world the soul is in a permanent state of impoverishment.

Passover commemorates the attachment to this eternal sphere.

The Passover holiday that commemorates the attachment to this eternal sphere, is accompanied by the commandment to eat Matza.

If the food that put man into the state of bondage to the earth and to the dominance of time is described as ... the tree was good for eating and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a means to wisdom ... (Genesis 3:6), than the food that man must eat on the night he was freed form this bondage must be the simplest fare possible, as close to being pure flour that you can possibly get, untouched by the leavening process of the passage of time. It is soul food, the food of poverty.

For this is God, our God, forever and ever, He will guide us over death (Psalms 48:15)

The march to conquer death must begin with the conquest of time. The Midrash interprets this verse:

This is our God who guides us both in this world and in the next. An alternative interpretation: He guides us with zrizut, with haste.


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