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Thursday, March 31, 2011

Owning Time

The ideas in this post are from my understanding of a talk by Shmuel Lewis (the head of the Conservative Yeshiva, who is both Dr. and Rabbi but prefers to be called neither.)

When Euripides described the women of Troy being taken into slavery, his words evoked pity for their suffering. But his words did not suggest condemnation or responsibility.  In the mind of the ancient Greek, slavery, like plague or famine, was a tragic natural occurrence.

One of the great innovations of the Bible was to see humanity as responsible for human oppression.

In ancient Greece history was believed to be cyclic.  The world existed eternally, and the patterns of history forever repeated themselves.  Nothing fundamental could ever change, and so humanity had no responsibility to change the patterns of oppression they created. 

The Bible presents a very different view of history.  The world did not exist eternally, but came to be by an act of creation.  As a result, creation and change are always possible.  And history is not cyclic, but linear.  Each generation can be different from anything that came before, if we make it so.  Though slavery was socially acceptable 200 years ago, now we know it to be abhorrent.

This Shabbat, we will be reading in synagogue God's famous words as the Israelites were about to flee Egypt.  החדש הזה לכם ראש חדשים, This month is for you the first of months (Exodus 12:2), identifying Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs, as the first month of the Jewish calendar.  Our tradition asks what does "for you" mean in this verse, and the traditional answer is that with this statement, God handed over control of the calendar to human authorities.  We humans set the calendar, and in so doing we set the days of the holidays.

Shmuel Lewis offers an additional, novel interpretation. Not only the calendar, but time itself God handed over to us at that moment of liberation.  You are no longer slaves.  You can control your own time, and so time is now linear for you.  The past was brutal.  But you can make the future a better one.

1 comment:

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