Passover contemplation 2

The Passover night, which is different from all other nights, is repeated each year across the millenia. This is more than a reminder of distant events, for Hebrew treats time differently from Indo-European languages and cultures (which include Greek and English).

Those languages have verb tenses for past, present and future. Hebrew has only two verb tenses: the perfect tense for actions that have been completed, the imperfect tense for actions not yet completed. The tenses relate to action, not time.
watch with Hebrew characters

A Hebrew speaker would not ‘spend time’ or be ‘short of time’. The Tanach (Old Testament) lacks terms for the abstract concepts of time, or of past, present, and future. The Hebrew word et (translated ‘time’) refers to the point or duration of an action. In Hebrew time is not like another spatial dimension: things do not happen ‘in time’. Things happen and the happenings map time. The future does not lie before us but consists of the actions that are not yet complete.

In this way, we each move in and produce the stream of events that comprise history. The present is part of future history; past actions repeated today or not yet complete are part of that future.

In the Passover meal, the past is made present and future – alive and part of the ongoing making of history. As the traditional Passover haggadah (service) says: “In every generation, each individual should feel as though they had gone out from Egypt.”

This is a Biblical pattern. Moses, in speaking to a later generation than those who received the Ten Commandments, says:

“The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, with all of us alive here today. The Lord spoke to you face to face at the mountain from the midst of the fire…” (Deuteronomy 5:4)

This same pattern of identification with “our fathers” through action is also found in the New Testament when Paul (addressing gentiles) speaks of the exodus of “our fathers” from Egypt in 1 Corinthians 10:11.

History is worked out through our ongoing actions. The Passover celebration shows us both what came before us and that it continues with us and through us.

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