The Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes taught a course that I took one year in college, and I still savor his exploration of magical realism with our class. One of his grand themes was the elliptical nature of time. Some cultures, he claimed, view time in cyclical terms, with each development merely a return to a former position. Other cultures are teleological, setting a distant target and placing the highest value on progress from the benighted past to a splendid future. Fuentes found both paradigms to be limiting. Life as this novelist understood it is elliptical or perhaps spiral in nature. One never returns to precisely the same location, but neither do they ever put the past entirely behind. Like an interstellar spacecraft on a vast journey, we return to circle the same planets, absorbing new energy from their gravity, and then rocketing onwards on an elliptical orbit, only to return to the region in an uncertain future.
When we return to Pesah each year I recall my old teacher, of blessed memory, and think about how revisiting our ancient story can invest us with new energy to confront a developing future. We are not quite the same as we were last Pesah, and who knows where next Pesah will find us, but the familiar themes give us energy for the journey. I find this insight also in the writings of Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (1560-1630), known as של”ה הקודש, or the sainted author of the book, שני לוחות הברית, the two tablets of covenant. For him, Passover is always about renewal, or חידוש עולם (in this he is reminiscent of Ramban’s comments regarding Shabbat at Deut. 5:15). This renewal is not a political revolution but a spiritual one. A breakthrough in awareness happened that first year on the tenth of Nissan, which was Shabbat HaGadol. Before we get to this redemptive notion, however, we need to wade through some darker waters. Continue reading