How hard could this question be to answer?
It stands to reason that if G-d “experiences” time as we do, then He would be junior to time itself – and thus would not be G-d, creator of the world and all that is in it (including time). So, of course G-d must be outside of our flow of time!
But the Torah suggests this is not correct. It is crystal clear that when mankind does something G-d does not expect, then He is, in fact, surprised – which is impossible if G-d is simultaneously present across all of time. A G-d who is always outside of time would not experience regret, or get angry, or react to what we do – it would be senseless. The G-d of the Torah is, at least in the text, usually experiencing events and the flow of time alongside humanity. He changes His mind, on a regular basis, based on what mankind does.
Note the word “usually,” because it is critical. At certain moments G-d tells us the future, and delivers timeless commandments. At these moments, G-d is clearly outside of our time.
It sounds confusing, but I think it is actually quite simple: G-d is capable of being outside time, but He, being capable of anything, is also capable of limiting Himself (both spatially and temporally) to allow mankind to exist and to have a real relationship with us, one in which both parties can grow together. Which means He is capable of experiencing time as we do.
It is a nice theory, but is there any textual support for it in the Torah itself?
To our delight, this week my study partners and I came to understand that the text actually telegraphs when G-d is outside of time, when He exercises unnatural control and tells us what will happen in the future. And in the process, we come to understand that G-d does not normally choose to do this. The default seems to be that G-d experiences time alongside humanity; this is His preference.
Here’s the evidence: the very first open miracle G-d does for post-Flood mankind is the miracle of giving 90-year-old Sara a child. G-d predicts the future (even the name of the child):
“But My covenant I will maintain with Isaac, whom Sara shall bear to you at this season next year.” (Gen. 17:21
What is interesting is that G-d discusses this a number of times:
Is anything too wondrous for G-d? I will return to you at the same season next year, and Sara shall have a son.” (Gen. 18:14)
Sara conceived and bore a son to Abraham in his old age, at the season of which God had spoken. (Gen. 21:2)
There is a word in common for all of these… the word translated as “season.” The word in the Hebrew is moed. But as we shall see, while the word may refer to “a time of year,” in the Torah it is always linked to when G-d acts as an omniscient G-d, a G-d who knows the future and who clearly is willing to manipulate the world to achieve the future He has in mind.
The next time the word is used in the text is when G-d is telling of an upcoming plague:
But G-d will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of the Egyptians, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites. G-d has fixed the moed: tomorrow G-d will do this thing in the land.’”
G-d is here again predicting the future, acting outside of time.
There is a “book-end” quality to the use of this word that contains wisps of Ecclesiastes, because these initial appearances of the word moed are about Yitzchak being born, and the animals dying – “a time to be born and a time to die.”
Yet, unlike in Ecclesiastes, both of these times are actually supernatural events. Neither the birth of Yitzchak nor the death of the animals is when nature would have done it. G-d uses this word to tell us that he is deliberately meddling with the natural order of things.
To understand what moed really means, we have to go back to the beginning: literally the fourth day of creation.
God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the sky to separate day from night; they shall serve as signs and for moadim [plural of moed], and for days and years.
One of these does not belong with the others. A day is clearly delineated by the sun and moon. Months, too, can be shown using the phases of the moon. And a year is a set number of moon cycles (or solar days).
But the word moed does not fit in this group, because the Torah never uses the word to mean a simple natural season like Spring or Summer or an obvious set time. Instead, it refers to something far more interesting – the creation of the word moed, when G-d decided to create time in the first place! A moed is nothing more or less than a mental construct, an invention of G-d or man that has no hard link to the natural world at all.
This is a massive mental shift for our understanding of the world. We already know that in the Torah, when G-d is not involved, mankind slides toward a Might Makes Right society. That was the world between the expulsion from the Garden and the Flood. Mankind became so evil that G-d decided to destroy the world and start over.
So how is G-d involved with the world post-Flood? He starts with a conversation with Avram, but eventually G-d does something that separates His power from that of the natural world: G-d miraculously allows a woman who is too old to bear children, to do just that. That is when G-d speaks of a moed, of being both outside time and outside of nature.
But we should not get the idea that moed is only a power that G-d has! Because He very specifically, and repeatedly tells us to emulate Him: to create and perpetuate a mental construct that spans time, and has no natural justification.
Throughout the seven days unleavened bread shall be eaten; no leavened bread shall be found with you, and no leaven shall be found in all your territory. And you shall explain to your child on that day, ‘It is because of what G-d did for me when I went free from Egypt.’ ‘And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead in order that the Teaching of G-d may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand G-d freed you from Egypt. You shall keep this symbolic commandment at its moed from year to year.’
You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread—eating unleavened bread for seven days as I have commanded you—at the moed of Abib, for in it you went forth from Egypt.
You shall keep this symbolic commandment at its moed from year to year.
Think of how crazy this sequence is. Before the Exodus had even occurred, G-d was telling us how to remember it, how to teach our children, and even how we should recreate the experience every year! THAT is G-d truly being outside of time! And he does it while invoking the word moed, a word the people already knew connected to miracles and accurate prophecies.
The first Passover was a supernatural event (like every moed before it): G-d meddled with time and with nature, doing something that established His presence in the world in the eyes of mankind as never before. The birth of Yitzchak was the first open miracle after the flood, but Passover was the biggest miracle in the history of the Jewish people.
But after that first Passover, why is moed – a word suggesting being outside of time – invoked? Because while the Exodus is thousands of years in our past – it is also always in our present! Passover is indeed another mental construct, a creation in our minds that we then apply thoughts and words and deeds in order to morph it into a hard reality in our lives. Passover is a mental re-invention by each Jew every year, just as surely as G-d’s creation of lights in the first place was G-d using His mind to invent time out of thin air!
Of course, the first such mental invention was the seven-day week itself. As I wrote here:
There is nothing intuitive or obvious about a 7-day week – if we were to divide the moon’s 29.5-day cycle into weeks, then a 5 or 6 day week would neatly subdivide into 30 days, much more neatly than does a 7 day week. Indeed, plenty of other “weeks” have been tried in history; Napoleon and the early Soviets both tried, and failed, to impose a shift to longer or shorter weeks.
The earliest source known to historians for a regular 7-day week is the Torah, containing the commandment by G-d to the Jewish people.
The number “seven” in the Torah refers to the days of creation, but more as a prescription than a description – after all, the world was created in six days, but the seventh day, the day of rest, was a divine addition. We might say that it is a moed – and we would say it because the Torah does, too.
And Moses instructed them as follows: Every seventh year, in the moed of the year set for agricultural rest, at the Feast of Booths, when all Israel comes to appear before your G-d in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Torah aloud in the presence of all Israel.
Look at the confluence: moed, the seventh year of the ground, and the reading of the Torah. It is a trifecta of what makes Judaism above and outside nature! The fallow year for the harvest is itself for spiritual (not agricultural) reasons, the moed denotes a mental construct with no physical justification. And the Torah itself, a book containing nothing more than words, is a guidebook for building unnatural relationships – relationships within society that practice loving-kindness instead of Might Makes Right, and relationships between man and an invisible, non-corporeal G-d. The G-d with no body or natural force, a G-d who only exists in our world when He is found in our minds.
Every seven years we, as a people, revalidate that the real power in the world is found in the intangible. Our reality is defined by and found within our beliefs. And if we choose to believe that a week is seven days, or even seven years the land should lie fallow, or that we can span all of time by experiencing a Passover Seder – then that is within our power. This, our ability to project our understanding on the world around us, is a power that stands apart from nature.
In a natural, pre-Flood world, there is no Torah. G-d is not apparent. And mankind reverts to a smart animal, where Might Makes Right dominates.
But in the post-Exodus world, G-d commands us to reinforce His presence and his miracles by recreating a moed: we walk in His ways, consciously recreating thoughts and experiences that we can use as a prism through which we see the world. Because the way in which we see the world helps guide us toward what we do next: if the Torah is our world, then we seek to grow ourselves and our relationships.
This is why the meaning of moed is so critical for understanding the Torah and what G-d wants us to understand. Let’s start with the first time the word is found after the Exodus:
You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Moed, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before G-d. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.
The Tent of Moed is usually translated as “tent of meeting,” but as we have seen, the word moed is not really about “meeting” at all. Instead, it is a word that denotes when G-d steps outside of our time, when he connects with the future and performs obvious miracles. The connection to creation is very strong: G-d put the lights in the world to indicate the passage of time – and the lights in the tabernacle echo that creation of light, as well as its initial purpose.
Lights are quite a lot like ideas and other mental constructs. A light does not change (in any appreciable way) what something is, or whether it is even there! Instead, a light is an illusion; it helps us think that we know something, even though whether something is there or not should not be dependent on whether we can see it!
The projected light of the Menorah, in front of the Tent of Moed, is a lot like ideas and ideals: it was a source and projector of light, something that matters a great deal to us, but is also something that we cannot capture or hold in our hand. The light of the Menorah is symbolic of all the things in our lives that have no tangible physical presence, but are yet so very important: light and love and ideas and a sense of unity and harmony in a family and much else besides. The Torah, through moed and much else besides, teaches us that ephemeral things are both very real and incredibly important.
The importance of intangible things is at the core of the Torah, of G-d’s presence in this world, and in moed. The assertion that our ideas can triumph over mere reality. The understanding that a person can live forever if his thoughts live on after he dies. That our Passover Seder creates its own reality, despite being separated from the original events by over 3,500 years. That we can thus emulate G-d by stepping outside of time just as He did, by creating and preserving and renewing ideas like the Exodus.
Which in turn helps us understand why the place where G-d talks to Moses is called the Tent of Moed. It is the place from which G-d delivers timeless words, the words of the Torah, the commandments that we use to guide our lives, both thousands of years ago, and today and tomorrow.
Why is it a tent? Because in the Torah, the word for tent, ohel, always denotes a home, the place where someone is. Tents are where people interact, where families grow. “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob!” In this case, the Tent of Moed is the place where G-d’s presence is evident, where G-d is openly miraculous and outside of time.
But note that G-d is never apparent to the Jewish people this way after Moses’ death – the open miracle withdraws. This is analogous to a person’s lifetime: Egypt was the womb, the Exodus was birth, and the wilderness was where we grew up, cocooned by G-d’s presence and in His home. But we were not yet adults, and so G-d, as the ultimate helicopter parent, hovered over and among us the entire time in the wilderness, present through his words emanating from the Tent of Moed. From that place, G-d handed down the timeless commandments that apply to all Jews for all time in the future.
The overt presence, the cloud, vanishes when Moses does. Moses was the connection to the miraculous presence of G-d in the moed. Moses and the Tent of Moed are a signpost for the developmental stage of the people, and the Jewish people could not achieve adulthood while G-d was still helicoptering.
What this means is that G-d reduced his miraculous presence when Moses died. Which is one of the reasons why Judaism does not accept anything after the Torah (the Five Books) as a source text for Jewish Law: Moses was the only prophet who “took dictation” directly from G-d. When Moses passed, G-d’s presence also withdrew from being so obviously with the people.
And we, like every adolescent, needed to be put in a position where we had to take direct responsibility. It is only when we sense a lack in ourselves that we have the desire to seek relationships and to grow. This is Jewish history from leaving the wilderness through to the present day – it is a core purpose of the Torah.
Today, of course, there is no Tent of Moed. And the people are all grown up, warts and all. The Torah is there, available to us. G-d no longer needs to step outside of time: the world is in our hands, and we have free will. So G-d interacts with us, but only in such a way that there is no moed, no open and undeniable miracle or prophecy. At least not one from G-d: our mental constructs are powerful and real, emulating G-d’s own creation of the lights in the world. As partners of G-d, the responsibility of maintaining those mental constructs, the Passover and indeed all of the Torah, falls to us. Which means that we can assume that in our lives, G-d experiences time along with us, that He withdraws Himself from being omniscient so that we can interact with Him as full partners.
But while G-d may be out of sight, the Torah intends that He will always maintain a presence among the people – the mishkan (tabernacle). That presence would never be the source of any new commandments (G-d, when outside of time through the moed, gave us those). But as the pre-Flood world showed that if people are not aware of G-d’s existence, they eventually revert to a state of nature; the mishkan is there to help us perpetuate the awareness that G-d is always among us, even if there are no open miracles in our personal lives.
I think at least in some sense, Jews have outperformed expectations. After all, we have kept an allegiance to G-d and His Torah even though we have not had a mishkan for two thousand years. We are far away from the “helicopter” parent-child existence in the wilderness yet, generation to generation, we continue to perpetuate the Torah and its commandments, keeping Judaism in a moed-like existence out of time. We continue to seek to follow the path that G-d laid out for us.
[an @iwe, @susanquinn, @blessedblacksmith, @kidcoder and @eliyahumasinter work!]