WHAT IS THE difference between a free human being and a slave? We tend to think that it has to do with hard work, toil, effort: a slave works hard under the whip of the task master whereas a free person does not. However some free people work very hard indeed, especially those who enjoy their work.
The real difference lies in who has control over time. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks points out,” A free human being works long hours because at some stage he or she has chosen to. A slave has no choice, no control over time.”
According to Jewish tradition, the first command the Jewish people ever received was the line in Exodus 12: “This month is to be for you the first month.” “We interpret this as the command to establish a calendar, with its Sabbaths and holy days and special seasons,” writes Sacks. “The Israelites were still slaves in Egypt. They were longing for freedom. They were about to begin the long journey across the desert. Why did they need a command about calendars and holy days? Fixing a calendar as the first command given to the Israelites was as if G-d was saying to them: if you are to be free, the first thing you must learn to master is time,” he adds.
Talia Lowenthal writes on Chabad.org, “In ancient times witnesses who had seen the New Moon would come to the Law Court in Jerusalem, and there the Sages would proclaim the start of the new month. In later generations this became difficult on account of Roman persecution. The sage Hillel therefore calculated the details of the Jewish calendar and today the entire Jewish people around the world follow his system.”
“Torah has always instilled within us the importance of time,” writes Sara Esther Crispe on Chabad.org. “And how everything, absolutely everything, can and does change in that split second.”
“We all think ours is the most stressful occupation,” says Sacks. He also points out that in the 1960s we believed that with automation, we would all be working 20-hour weeks; our biggest problem would be what to do with all our leisure. “In reality, the working week has grown longer, not shorter. And with emails, texts, smartphones and the like, we can be on call 24/7. In terms of stress and control over our time, are we freer than we were, or less so,” he asks.
Most of us today are overscheduled and often feel like we are not in control of our lives. Recently I have had some medical issues that required multiple doctor visits and procedures. While I have continued my normal routine, my time is not my own. But whether it be necessary medical appointments or work deadlines, we all tend to take on tasks and responsibilities that not only contribute to that sense of overwhelm, but can enslave us.
“Part of the beauty of Judaism, is that it gently restores control over time,” states Sacks. Traditionally observant Jews stop three times during a day to pray, recover perspective and take a deep breath. We also pause before and after eating to say a blessing. Passover is a time to examine just who or what controls our time.
As Rabbi Sacks wrote in the Huffington Post, “Religious ritual is a way of structuring time so that we, not employers, the market or the media, are in control. Life needs its pauses, its chapter breaks, if the soul is to have space to breathe. Otherwise, we may not be in Egypt, but we can still be slaves.”