Avrum Burg draws a number of distinctions in his analysis of parashat Bo. The core of his argument is that “Every struggle for freedom is a struggle to seize the mastery of time” and coordinate with this, and that “command of time is the essence of freedom.”
A subsidiary argument contrasts in a similarly binary way the ideas of slavery and freedom, using the mythic models of Exodus to deploy “Israel” and “Egypt” as metaphors embodying the essential attributes of each paradigm.
While these sorts of contrasts are useful in exposing some of the dynamics of human life, the way in which these are carried forward in Burg’s teaching is reminiscent of many of the modern paradigms of academic as well as of more popular modern rabbinic and Jewish communal exegesis, exposition and advocacy. Put differently, the idea that one people “is” the paradigm of “one thing” (slavery, freedom) may be rhetorically inspiring and even in certain instances in the life of a people mostly accurate, but it misses the complexity.
The complexity exists on multiple levels, but the two that I am thinking of as central are: the reality that any people (Israelite or Egyptian) is an amalgam of multiple individuals, not all of whom agree about a presumably shared identity, whether collective or personal; and the reality that in a given moment, people who share a collective identity can be behaving in very different ways.
In other words, assigning polar personalities to differing groups misses the messy issues that result when we acknowledge that these polarities are not in fact binary but unitary, and that each of us individually as well as collectively embodies (at least potentially if not always acted out) all of the paradigms, passions and proclivities that come under, for example, the headings of “slavery” and “freedom.” What Burg suggests operates between groups I am suggesting could equally be thought to operate within. This casts a different light on the meaning of our story.
Burg edges up on this approach when he acknowledges that “In different circumstances the roles can just as easily be reversed, whether by inattention or malice. The oppressed can become the oppressor, and a past history of victimhood will be no excuse. Even Israel can become an Egyptian taskmaster.” But not all Egyptians were taskmasters, not all Israelites were freedom-loving humanists.
And so when we return to the question of “command of time as the essence of freedom” we can, as Burg suggests, focus on the contrast of “either/or” or on the paradox of “both/and.” It is not clear that Jewish tradition offers us the command of time. In a halakhic framework, time is rigidly regulated, and even those modestly acquainted with the Mishna and Talmud know that rabbinic literature begins precisely with a question about the precision of time: “From what time may the morning Shema be recited?”
In historic time, we have no more or less control: exodus, wandering, national independence, subjugation and exile, restoration, exile…..despite prophetic rhetoric, these things happen to us, not because of our behavior, ethical, political or otherwise.
In a post-modern world stripped of unspoken assumptions about the nature of identity, assigning anything as the “essence” of anything else raises more questions than it answers. Yes, the control of (one’s) time is an aspect of self-determination; but it transpires within a context in which time moves in, through, and beyond us, until, perhaps, as Burg notes, the onset of messianic time….something over which we in fact have no “command.”
Rabbi Richard Hirsh is the assistant rabbi at Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
We Are Not All Alike