Berel Dov Lerner

Berel Dov Lerner was born in Washington D.C.and is a member of Kibbutz Sheluhot in Israel's Beit SheanValley.  He received a BA in social and behavioral sciences from Johns Hopkins University, an MA in philosophy from the University of Chicago, and a PhD in philosophy from Tel Aviv University.  He also studied Judaism at Yeshivat HaKibbutz HaDati.   Berel is currently an associate professor of philosophy at the Western Galilee College in Akko and also teaches at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.  He is the author of many articles in philosophy and Jewish studies and of the book Rules, Magic, and Instrumental Reason (Routledge 2002). 

Temporality and Human Agency in the Exodus

The story of Israel's enslavement in Egypt and eventual redemption may be read as describing a process in which the basic elements of human agency are broken down and restored in a new form. Such processes are usually attempted by human tyrants who chose to "play God" (with disastrous results). In the Book of Exodus we have, for once, an account of God actually orchestrating the process Himself. The demolition of the Israelites' agency is achieved by depriving them control over the two main dimensions of reality, i.e., time and space. This deprivation was foretold to Abraham at the Pact of the Cut Pieces (berit ben habetarim ) long before the sojourn to Egypt: Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved an oppressed four hundred years (Gen. 15:13). It is clear that the condition of being strangers in a land not theirs precludes mastery of space; this paper will be largely concerned with slavery and the loss of control over time.

Exodus 1:14 describes the Israelites' work in Egypt as farekh – "harsh." Since Lev. 25:43,46 outlaws the working of Hebrew slaves befarekh, the term's definition becomes a matter of legal importance, and it is understood to mean pointless or unstructured work meant to keep a slave busy. In other words, it is work whose goal is to rob the slave of his temporal autonomy, of his ability to meaningfully plan future actions. This should come as no surprise, since we are told by Exodus that the point of the enslavement was not economic, but rather as an instrument of demographic control (Exodus 1:9-11). The resulting condition of Israelite atemporality is attested to by the biblical narrative. Their story is not structured by dates or other temporal markers, rather things occur vayamim harabim hahem – "in those many days" (2:23), an unstructured and seemingly unbounded sea of time which can be experienced as a seemingly eternal present. In contrast, we are told that when Jacob worked towards the achievement of a well-defined and autonomously chosen goal (marriage to Rachel) the seven years he had to work "seemed to him but a few days – kyamim ahadim – because of his love for her" (Gen 29:20). As Michael Flaherty suggests (The Textures of Time: Agency and Temporal Experience, 2011) suggests, time is perceived to pass more quickly for people who are executing their agency towards a future goal.

The story of the Israelites' enslavement shows Pharaoh's understanding of human nature to be somewhat uneven. He tried to control the growth of the Israelite population by stripping them of their human temporal agency. This policy failed because dehumanization need not affect reproduction; animals reproduce readily even though they are incapable of human temporal agency. Appropriately, the growth of the Israelite population is described in animalistic terms – vayishretzu (Ex. 1:7) – the same term used in the creation story to describe the spawning swarms of living creatures (Gen. 1:20). Similarly, the midwives explain their failure to kill the newborn Israelite boys by saying, "The Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; they are hayyot – wild animals" (Ex. 1:19). Pharaoh's strategy did succeed, however, in destroying the Israelites' hope (a specifically temporal and human attitude) for redemption: "they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage" (Ex 6:9).

Redemption begins with a restoration of temporal agency, or, more precisely, what Michael Bratman ("Agency, Time, and Sociality" - 2010) calls "temporally extended agency": a first month is declared and the Israelites are told to select a lamb on the tenth day in preparation for its slaughter on the fourteenth (Ex. 12). The vocabulary of time has re-entered Israelite discourse. Finally they may exercise a quintessentially human form of agency in which one action is performed in preparation for a future action to be performed at some definite pre-established time. But it is not only the immediate temporal framework of personal agency which is restored; historical time reappears just as well. If the "many days" of enslavement seemed unbounded in a narrative bereft of temporal markers, upon the Israelites' redemption the entire episode is encapsulated in a definite period of time, "The length of the time that the Israelites lived in Egypt was four hundred and thirty years; at the end of the four hundred and thirtieth year, to the very day, all the ranks of the Lord departed from the land of Egypt" (Ex. 12:41).