As a Jew, I always found something funny about Passover. Why, for a holiday about celebrating freedom, are there so many restrictions? We have to eat unpleasant things; we have to drink this many glasses of wine and no more; we have to eat a horrible crackerbread all week, no pasta, no peanut butter, no bread.
But it occurs to me that Passover is all about time. It’s about the way we have to have faith in time, and live time, and trust the way it turns things over: It turns water to blood, and then back again; it turns darkness to light, restriction to freedom, suffering to joy. Time is a chemist. Time is, perhaps, even an alchemist, with powers we human beings have never been able to harness for ourselves.
In our modern world, it seems we don’t really believe in time. Perhaps that’s because we’re so alienated from nature, time’s avatar in the world: We no longer regularly observe the way the hard seed faithfully, with time, becomes the soft flower, and the juicy leaf, inevitably, the dry one, and then the dust. We think we can conquer time. We can make things happen faster, happen now, as proof of our power. There’s a self-help book, one of the most popular today, called “The Five-Second Rule”: If you have an idea, it says, start working on it within five seconds, so time doesn’t have a chance to slip in there and work its inevitable decay. This presumes time is the adversary to creativity, to hope, to growth, to all good and fruitful things; it is a philosophy stuck in an eternal anxious September, imagining that summer and autumn are the only seasons there are, working furiously against time.
In the Passover story, though, everything takes time. More than that, time reveals that difficult things — bad things — are a passage, a preparation for goodness. Moses, at first, is a stutterer, no man ready to lead a people. If he had to judge his future by what he could come up with in the five seconds after he saw the bush on fire, he’d have given up, become an accountant. His rebirth as a leader took time. The work of time on him wasn’t linear, but a kind of cyclical process, or a pendulum. It wasn’t manifested as a simple step-by-step trudge out of low self-esteem. It was down before up: a journey through his anxiety and uncertainty, through challenges that deepened him, taught him compassion, and allowed for a fuller, rounder ultimate becoming.
The Jews’ liberation from Egypt took time. They weren’t sprung after the first plague. At the many-hour Passover Seder, we say so many things. But we don’t recite the prayer Moses sang to God after crossing the Red Sea, despite the fact that we say it at every other Jewish holiday. At first blush, this seems odd. But it’s yet another gesture toward time: This all ain’t over yet. There are still 40 years wandering in the desert ahead, another passage through a winter before the spring.
During Passover, we’re also celebrating spring. There are hints of this on the Passover table: an egg, a young sprig of parsley. But mostly, during this holiday, we consciously entrap ourselves in a bodily sense of winter, denying ourselves. We scrub our houses bare of cakes and cookies, like the wind scrubs the plains clean in December. Like subsistence farmers in the winter, we live off preserved and dried things, food that just barely nourishes us, and doesn’t please us — not yet. We live in a state of self-imposed slavery, of self-denial. Often it’s said we do this just to recall what it felt like for people to be slaves. I think we do it for a deeper reason, too: to remind ourselves that accomplishment and achievement can depend on periods of difficulty, that sometimes we have to wait for goodness and let time do its work and not try to beat it.
If you want to think about it this way, time is an instrument in the hands of God. Perhaps it is God’s most powerful instrument. It does things we cannot do, produces effects in societies and in our souls we cannot manufacture with “The Power of Now” or “The Five-Second Rule.” Last year, I ran a Seder for 75 non-Jews. My first impression of the Seder as a child was that it was incredibly, mind-numbingly, achingly long. Worried about boring people, I cut out big swaths of the Seder last Passover. Still, toward the end, my friend Simon leaned over and whispered to me, “I think this is just long enough. Longer than that and people would get restless and want to go home.”
But I woke up the next day feeling my Seder was not nearly long enough. The restlessness, the waiting, the irritated feeling that things are being repeated and drawn out: These are all things meant to teach us about what it means to live in time, the discomfort and the patience and, at the end, time’s unanticipated gifts, which are unimaginable while we are mired in a lengthy explanation of prayers or choking down little bits of horseradish with dry, unleavened bread.
At the Seder’s end, we shout together: “Next year in Jerusalem!” If we said this at the Seder’s beginning, it would have no weight. But at the end, after all that pain and discomfort and fatigue, it comes as a truly emotional moment, deep and felt, pervaded by a physical experience of excitement and relief. When we say it, it’s not just a rote religious statement. We can dare to believe its literal and metaphorical meaning, because we have just experienced a night that shows us how hope can be real. We’ve experienced the way that suffering drags on but then ends.
The poet Charles Péguy called hope the “frailest” virtue, yet also the one that “vivifies” the others. He called hope “that little flame in the sanctuary.” The possibility of light held within, and visible only because of darkness: It’s a typically Christian image, but it is Passover, too; Passover finally. Hope and possibility are substanceless words without the perception of time. And this is the gift this holiday gives.