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Toward Shabbat: Vayikra

Who will ever forget the fear of the Angel of Death, roaming outside? We worked hard to elude him, and still do, by isolating, masking, distancing, washing, disinfecting—day in and day out. Who will ever forget those long hours in front of the screen—day in and day out—confined to the same space, until we lost the notion of time. Too much time for some, too little time for others. Who will ever forget the monotony of those months? A paradox: The world changed around us until it became almost unrecognizable, while our days were all the same—the same walls, the same routine, the same panic. The same silence, day and night, broken by the howl of ambulances, rushing through the deserted streets. And each time, the same question: Will they survive?

In the sameness, in the uncertainty, and in the fear, there was no way for us to imagine the future, and that became, I believe, one of our greatest struggles. We just didn’t know—nobody knew—we truly lost control of our future, and we lost control of our time.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote:

[T]ime-awareness or experience has three basic component parts. First, retrospection: without memory, there is no time. Second, the time experience includes exploration or close examination of things getting born and events not yet in existence. This means the anticipatory experience of events not yet in being. Third is appreciation or evaluation of the present moment as one’s most precious possession.

We are wired to connect past, present, and future all the time; we live in the constant back and forth between our history, the here and now, and our plans. Back and forth. But the forth was taken away from us, and we remained trapped in the quicksand of the present and in the longing for the lives we had just left behind. There was no way to anticipate the future, to build expectations, to be pulled forward by a vision of what might be. We became prisoners of a virus that ruled our lives, and for several months made us rue the present and robbed us of a future vision. Our entire sense of time broke down.

The month of Nisan arrived this week.

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

“This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:2)

Nisan—this Nisan in particular—is a new beginning, a marking of time connected with the movement towards liberation. As we anticipate leaving narrowness into expansiveness, the awareness of time begins.

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik: “This time-awareness and appreciation is the singular gift granted to free people, because time belongs to them: it is their time and they can utilize it to the utmost or waste it. A free person does not want time to pass; he wants time to slow down because to her time is a treasure. To the slave however time is a curse; he waits for the day to pass.”

We are finally, and gradually, coming out of our COVID Mitzrayim.

We are about to reset and reconstitute our sense of time. We are entering again a present we don’t have to hate, and we can begin to contemplate a future which we can help shape.

True, we are not fully there yet, and I would seriously caution all of us to hold back, not to give in to the impulse to run ahead too soon and risk endangering lives and having to go back to the narrowness and the fear. I beg each one of you to approach this year’s Pesah sedarim with all the precautions indicated by the CDC and other public health experts.

Yet, however restricted our seders, we will retell the narrative of liberation, interlaced with our own stories, reclaiming time and restoring the connection between past, present, and future. And as we heal, our relationship to time will heal too.

Shabbat shalom and hag sameah.
J. Rolando Matalon

Written By J. Rolando Matalon

José Rolando Matalon, B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi, was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York City. After his ordination at the Jewis...

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