Seizing the Moment
Tal Noiman, Rosh Beit Midrash, Jennie Sapirstein Junior High and High School for Girls
In Parshat Bo we find the enthralling verses recounting the Exodus from Egypt and the ensuing redemption: “And thus shall you eat it: with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste; it is the Lord’s Passover” (Shemot 12, 11). A little later in the portion, we read thus: “And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough which they brought forth out of Egypt, for it was not leavened [not chametz]; because they were thrust out of Egypt, and could not tarry, neither had they made for themselves any provisions for the way” (ibid., 39).
The Exodus from Egypt is described as one carried out in haste, and as such it is engraved in our collective memory until today.
Chametz, leavened food, is associated with delay and the act of waiting. One can even define chametz as something which has become bloated and heavy with the time invested to produce it. Matzah, in contrast, is a bread of haste. The Exodus and redemption from Egypt took place with a sense of urgency, with the clock ticking and with the Israelites instructed to make haste and leave in a hurry.
Let us examine these two contradicting qualities – that of chametz and that of matzah, the acts of lingering and of hastening, respectively. In so doing, perhaps we will gain insight into why God chose the quality of haste for redeeming the Israelites from Egypt.
The Talmud in the tractate of Berachot (17:1) relates a prayer uttered to the Almighty:
“Thus he said:
God Almighty, it is well known to You that we wish to do all You desire. However, what is it that hinders us? The yeast in the dough and our subjugation to foreign powers.
May it be Your will that you save us from the hands of both, such that we are able to fulfill all of your commandments wholeheartedly.”
Rashi explains: “Yeast in the dough refers to the yetzer hara in our heart, the inclination to do evil, which makes us bloated, and hinders us [machmitzeinu].”
The yetzer hara is associated with hachmatza – a word with the same root as chametz and which denotes procrastination ultimately resulting in a missed opportunity. When one lingers and tarries and “becomes bloated with too much time that has passed”, it is because one is unwilling to take that first step, act courageously and tackle the targets one has set for oneself.
Interestingly, our subjugation to foreign powers is also associated with hachmatza. When a person is hindered and does not hasten to move forward, but succumbs to his yetzer hara, he is, in fact, subjugated to forces that pull him downwards; he is enslaved to a life void of forward movement or vitality in the worship of God.
Notwithstanding the above, while man’s ability to move forward has a magical aura about it, it also has drawbacks. People often lack the ability to dwell on the moment, engage in introspection, or contemplate life seriously. Haste and impulsiveness are often attributed to young children because these qualities have vivacious energy about them, momentum. However, they are also qualities that express a certain immaturity, like something that is unripe. A person who only acts in haste – the “matzah trait” – is one who cannot follow through with lengthy processes, or persevere in the long term.
If this is so, how then do we find the balance between these two qualities, and what is the role of each?
In the first doctrine of his book Tzidkat HaTzaddik, R’ Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin writes as follows:
“When a person initially sets out on the path of avodat Hashem, the worship of God, he should do it with haste and a sense of urgency, as was done with the Pesach offering in Egypt which was deliberately eaten in haste (unlike the traditional Pesach sacrifice for generations, in which case haste is not an integral factor). The reason for this is that when the initial urge arises to detach oneself from worldly desires, one must seize the moment quickly before it is gone. However, following this initial undertaking, one must tread slowly, in moderation, as is the case with the Pesach offering in every generation.”
R’ Tzadok divides these two life-motions or qualities in the following manner: both chipazon, the quality of making haste, as well as chametz, the quality of dwelling upon and delaying something, are necessary for the worship of God and represent different levels. The first level is the initial step one takes. When a person takes the first step towards God and enters into the service of God, it is best not to linger for too long, but to push ahead, advance with urgency and act upon the inner voice that triggered him to move forward. This is the very nature of Pesach Mitzrayim, the sacrifice offered on the night of the Exodus and redemption from Egypt.
Following this initial step, a person must tread slowly, taking one step at a time, letting his new way of life seep in, as he gradually turns new acts of service into personality traits. This is likened to Pesach dorot, the life-long offering.
The Exodus from Egypt teaches us to adopt hasty motion and internalize a sense of urgency. This means knowing how to listen to our inner voice which calls us to do great and wonderful things and fear nothing. But once this urge is acted upon, we should take small steps, advancing slowly on the long and tedious path that came into being the minute we took the first decision, and which was, in fact, the trigger for further advancement.
But there is another dimension to haste, one no less important. In addition to the energy and momentum it creates, it also offers a courageous and sincere outlook on the present, one that is also attentive to the here and now. A person who lingers and tarries is infected with “chametz” and is easily affected by all the dimensions of time: past, present and future. He worries over the past; has no energy for the present; and is troubled by doubts about the future which prevent him from acting and moving forward.
A person characterized by haste and impulsiveness is one who reacts to the present and is triggered by it. He lives the moment and sets forth on his journey every time anew. He is able to make the best of any opportunity that comes his way by confronting each one, taking advantage of each and moving on.
Haste is a quality that doesn’t “rely” on the future to save it. It does not let us postpone things until tomorrow. In fact, as far as haste is concerned, there is no tomorrow. Only the present exists, which is why it serves as the only platform through which one can act and move forward.
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov formulated this beautifully (Likutei Moharan, doctrine 282):
“‘Today if you shall hark to his words’ (Psalms 95) – this is an important lesson in avodat Hashem, the worship of God: one should always focus on today, whether in one’s daily business and livelihood or in one’s daily service of God. One should only have the present day before his eyes, and the present hour. Upon entering into the service of God it may seem like an unbearably heavy burden. However, if one only focuses on one day at a time, the burden becomes lighter and one no longer feels the need to postpone things from one day to the next or make excuses like: Tomorrow I will begin; tomorrow I will pray with greater fervor etc. The person who lives in the present day and in the moment will not trouble himself with tomorrow or despair because of it. ‘Today if you shall hark’ – today and only today.”
R’ Nachman, much like R’ Tzadok, talks about the initial moment we set out on the journey of avodat Hashem and enter into the service of God. This is probably the most challenging moment. When a person stands at the entrance, about to “step into avodat Hashem“, the load may seem so heavy that the person is unable to move and take the first step. Procrastination is a natural human tendency – “I will do it tomorrow…”
R’ Nachman gives us a wonderful piece of advice: How should one enter the realm of avodat Hashem when the load seems so heavy? How can one overcome the “chametz-traits” of stagnancy and procrastination and let one’s inherent vitality burst forth? The advice given is to be fully present in the moment, and to imagine there is no tomorrow. After all, tomorrow does not yet exist in the present. What does exist in the present? The present itself and nothing else! But with the present moment one can do so much to transform one’s life!
The People of Israel had been waiting for the redemption for many years. And when it finally came, they could have easily missed the moment. This “lost moment” is described quite picturesquely in the Song of Songs (5): “I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with flowing myrrh, upon the handles of the bar. I opened to my beloved; but my beloved had turned away, and was gone. My soul failed me when he spoke. I sought him, but I could not find him; I called him, but he gave me no answer…”
How many times in our lives do we not linger for a minute too long and fail to open the door only to miss an opportunity never to return?
The verses in this week’s portion evoke a sense of gratitude for the fact that our forefathers seized the moment and took the first step from bondage to redemption.
Let us now go back to the prayer with which we began:
“May it be Your will that you save us from the hands of both, such that we are able to fulfill all your commandments wholeheartedly.”