Thursday, April 5, 2018

Pesah: Speed

A Message for Pesah 2018
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The defining aspect of the korban Pesah was its speedy procedure. Am Yisrael was commanded to cook and eat the meat quickly – loins girdled, sandals on their feet and staff in their hands – as God told them that there was no time for comfort, you shall eat it in haste! (Shemot 12:11). Indeed, HaRambam (Moreh HaNevukhim 3:46) explained that all of the intricate rules associated with the korban Pesah reflect this feature of haste. The stated reason for eating massah similarly reflects the hurried exit from Egypt (Devarim 16:3). And an ancient version of the of the Haggadah highlights this aspect in its opening statement – “We left Egypt in a hurry (bi-vehilu).”[1] Living in an era that is unparalleled in the speed of our everyday lives, the swift-driven yessiat Misrayim must possess a relevant message. What is it?

The well-known neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks was fascinated by Tourette syndrome, which is a psychiatric disorder that is characterized by compulsions, tics and involuntary movements and noises. He explained that people with Tourette’s experience life more rapidly than others. Some, for example, can catch flies by the wing. Flies seem to them to be “slow moving.” Sacks described one particular patient who used this irregularity to his advantage. He became skilled at improvising on the drums, and his fast reactions and unpredictable style made him unbeatable at Ping-Pong.

Intrigued by the positive effects of Tourette’s, Sacks contemplated its disadvantages, as well. He found that “excessive speed” is conducive to disinhibition, an impulsiveness which allows “inappropriate” movements and impulses to suddenly emerge. Dangerous impulses such as putting a finger in a flame or darting in front of traffic, though inhibited in the rest of us, are dangerous risks for a person with Tourette’s.[2]

As Am Yisrael departed Egypt, they were faced with the serious risks of independence. Once they escaped to freedom, life in the “real world” would rush their way and afford them with the vast array of opportunities – both positive and negative – that exist outside of the slave’s house. I imagine that just as the Tourettic person is often overcome by extreme impulsivity when faced by their fast-moving circumstances, so too would Am Yisrael’s visceral instincts would be the same. The world would now appear to them as uncontrollably fast-paced and they would therefore face the risks of its many obvious dangers. The carefully-crafted procedure of korban Pesah and departure from Egypt prepared them for this challenge. They taught the people how to positively approach the reality of speed, to act like Oliver Sacks’s patient, and manipulate it to their advantage.

The korban Pesah procedure had many particular instructions. It could only be eaten until midnight, needed to be roasted, the bones could not be broken, and the people were constricted to their homes during its consumption. Tightly bound by rules and restrictions, the procedure emerged not as a “haphazard indulgence,” but as a meal of deliberate haste.

R. Norman Lamm distinguished, in this context, between the English words hurry and haste. He explained that whereas hurry denotes an anxious scramble, haste is a purposeful movement toward meaning.[3] I believe that Am Yisrael’s song as they crossed Yam Suf (shirat ha-yam) is further evidence of their deliberate motion at that time. Speedily fleeing the Egyptians, it took the context of a calculated and focused motion to set their minds on the appropriate words of song and praise.

The speedy nature of the korban Pesah procedure and yessiat Misrayim teach an eternal lesson particularly relevant to our contemporary society. An unconstrained hurry faces the dangers of mistaken decisions and impulsivity. A deliberate haste which is structured by rules and meaning, however, is constructive.

[1] See, e.g. R. Menahem Mendel Kasher’s Haggadah Shelemah (Israel, 1967), pg. 106-7.
[2] Oliver Sacks, The River of Consciousness (New York, NY, 2017), pg. 49-53.
[3] R. Norman Lamm, Festivals of Faith: Reflections on the Jewish Holidays (New York, NY, 2011), pg. 213.