The pace at which we run our lives presents interesting opportunities and challenges. There are seasons when we are overwhelmed by how quickly time slips through our fingers, and then there are meetings and presentations when time could not move slower. The clock seems to tick in reverse.
Often the Hebrew Bible commands characters to speed up rather than slow down. We are told to make haste in leaving a morally compromising situation. An individual should act with urgency to help someone, much the way Abraham rushed to cook for his guests lest they left his home to continue their travels. In the book of Exodus, Moses and Aaron often rushed to lobby their cause, and at times, Pharaoh and his minions made haste in summoning Moses to stop the spread of a ruinous plague.
This week, in our Torah cycle, we find a different use of haste, one that appears in its exact linguistic form only three times in the entire Hebrew Bible: “be-hipazon” - in haste.
The first use appears in Exodus 12:11 when God commandeered the Israelites to get out of Egypt as quickly as possible: “And thus will you eat it; with your loins girded, your sandals on your feet and your staff in hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover.” The paschal sacrifice was offered by every household with a strange demand. This ancient slave people had to gird their loins - prepare for war - because once the Egyptians realized that their labor force was finally leaving, they would renege and take them back with violence.
A few books later, we find a similar usage in Deuteronomy 16:3: “You shall eat no leavened bread; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, the bread of affliction, for you came out of the land of Egypt in haste. So you will remember the day when you came forth from the land of Egypt all the days of your life.” We traditionally understand that they did not have time to cook the bread fully because they left in haste, thus we must make matzot in under 18 minutes or they have the status of leavened bread.
The haste in these verses is not accidental. The Israelites could have moved more slowly but were told in this instance to speed it up so that the speed itself would be an integral part of the memory. When recalling Egypt - remembering this day - what they would remember most was how quickly they left.
Why would someone be told to leave quickly and to remember the aspect of haste? A fast exit does not offer the luxury of nostalgia. There is no time to be sentimental, to change one’s mind, to look back wistfully. There are no goodbyes. Remember Lot’s wife? She was supposed to leave Shechem quickly, but she looked back. In so doing she turned into a statue of salt.
She lived near the Dead Sea and in not being able to exit in haste, she became the place she was supposed to leave. She lacked the courage that haste often amplifies. It’s now or never.
Rabbi Haim Sabato, in Rest of the Dove, an anthology on the weekly Torah portion, now available in English (translated by Jessica Setbon and Shira Leibowitz Schmidt) makes a profound observation on our haste to leave Egypt. He attunes us to the problems of haste. Because our leave-taking was relatively quick and every action to leave was initiated by God, our speed caused problems later on: “This accelerated pace would become the cause of recurring crises during the forty years in the desert. The suddenness of the change, and the lack of preparation and of a gradual progression would lead to turmoil. One who leaps levels without adequate preparation cannot sustain the high level he has merited, especially if the change is made with no effort on his part.”
Leaving quickly helped us be brave enough to go but not thoughtful enough to enter the next chapter of our wilderness journey with equanimity. Rabbi Sabato suggests that because of the negative emotional cost of haste, any future redemption will take place slowly and incrementally, allowing us time to ready ourselves properly: “Thus, God promises us that future redemption will not take place in the same hasty manner, but gradually and with appropriate preparation, so that the level we merit will be permanent." This is the sentiment we find in the last biblical verse to use the expression “in haste” in Isaiah 52:12: “You will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the Lord will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.”
Sometimes important days in our lives take months, even years to prepare for and then pass by in the blink of an eye. This is just as true in love and courtship as it is in death and dying. And our Torah portion this week leaves us with an enduring question as we go through life:
What do we need to do more quickly and what do we need to do more slowly?