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Torah Sparks

January 27, 2007 – 8 Shevat 5767

Annual: Ex. 10:1 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 374; Hertz p. 248)
Triennial Cycle: Ex. 12:29 – 13:16 (Etz Hayim, p. 387; Hertz p. 258)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13 – 28 (Etz Hayim, p. 395; Hertz p. 263)

Prepared by Rabbi Avram Kogen

Summary of the Parashah

As the parashah begins the plagues continue, growing in intensity. Pharaoh remains intransigent in the face of locusts, and then of darkness. Moses warns him about the impending plague of the first-born.

Through Moses, God commands the Israelites to sacrifice lambs in Egypt, a practice that ran against the grain of Egyptian society and religion. Moses also directs the Israelites to prepare to leave Egypt promptly on what is likely to be short notice. In fact, they depart so hastily that their bread dough has no time to rise.

The Israelites are told to perpetuate the memory of their departure from Egypt by retelling the story to their children throughout the generations.

Issue #1: Recurrent Consciousness of the Exodus from Egypt

The exodus from Egypt holds an important place in the consciousness of the Jewish people. Many commandments carry the rationale that the mitzvah is to be followed because it serves as “zeikher liytziat Mitzrayim” – because it “recalls the Exodus from Egypt.” A partial list of such practices would include:

  • The Sabbath -- slaves could not observe it -- Deuteronomy 5:15
  • Passover
    1. the seder: positive commandment to retell the story to the next generation
    2. the commandment to refrain from eating leavened foods
  • Shavuot
    1. first of the Ten Commandments
    2. rejoicing on festivals, along with those less fortunate (Deuteronomy 16:12)
  • Sukkot - Commandment to dwell in a sukkah (Leviticus 23:42-43)
  • Tefillin (so-called phylacteries)
  • Tzitzit (fringes on a tallit)
  • Daily liturgy
    1. The bracha following the Sh’ma
    2. The second bracha of Birkat Ha-Mazon (grace after meals)
  • Commandment to act with compassion toward the stranger in our midst
  • Commandment to leave surplus of the harvest for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow (Deuteronomy 24:19-22)
  • Commandment to release Hebrew slaves in the seventh year, with gifts (Deuteronomy 15:15)

Reviewing this list, we can note that the link between some of them and the Israelites’ departure from Egypt is obvious. With others, the connection is less direct, if not completely obscure. Review the list and take some time to identify what ties each mitzvah to the Exodus. For the items for which the connection is less than obvious, what are the ways by which the connection could be understood?

Consider as well, in what way does the connection to the exodus enrich the reasoning for keeping the mitzvah? Among those mitzvot, are there some for which such a tie to the exodus does not add to the meaning of observance?

Issue #2: Tefillin: A Daily Reminder of Our History as Slaves

As symbols, tefillin are not widely understood. The Greeks called them “phylacteries” – amulets – because they perceived them to be charms designed to protect Jews’ spiritual cleanliness. In modern times, many Jews seem to feel uneasy about tefillin because their symbolic value does not translate smoothly into American culture. Moreover, tefillin are not worn on Shabbat or on festival days, which is when the largest number of Jews gather for prayer. Many Jews do not often see tefillin in use.

Inside the tefillin’s small black leather box, the one which is worn on the arm, there is a piece of parchment with four Torah passages written on it. The four passages are:

  • Exodus 13:1-10
  • Exodus 13:11-16
  • Deuteronomy 6:4-9
  • Deuteronomy 11:13-21

As you can see, this morning’s parashah is the only one that contains more than one of these tefillin passages.

It is not easy to pinpoint why Jews are commanded to wear tefillin. However, if someone had set out to invent a physical reminder of slavery, it is hard to imagine a more effective one than tefillin. A slave’s strength and the work of his hands belong to his master. (The leather straps of the tefillin are wrapped around the arm and the hand.) The products of the slave’s creativity and thought likewise are the property of his master. (Tefillin also are placed on the head.) We who have been freed from slavery accept the opportunity to envision ourselves as former slaves every day, and to remind ourselves that our freedom must have a higher purpose.

If Jews wear tefillin to remind ourselves that God freed us from slavery in Egypt, it would be nice to know that God, too, views this relationship as a special one. In an imaginative passage in the Talmud, it is suggested that God has tefillin of His own. Since God was neither a slave in Egypt nor the descendant of a slave, the content of His “personal” tefillin would be different from the content of ours. According to this passage in Brachot 6a, the text inside God’s tefillin reads: “And who is like Your people Israel, unique throughout the world?” (This passage, borrowed from II Samuel 7:23, is recited weekly in our liturgy for Shabbat afternoons.)

When the tefillin are wound around the fingers, the following verses are said:

And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,
And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to the Lord.
(Hosea 2:21-22)

Is there a reason why the rabbis might have chosen a verse with the word “espousal” for the act of winding the tefillin on your fingers? Is there a relationship between those words and the idea of tefillin as a sign of commitment to God when we take the few moments each weekday to bind God’s word to us?

For an exploration of the early history of tefillin, see the notable essay on “T’fillin and M’zuzot” by Jeffrey H. Tigay in Etz Hayim, pages 1464-1467. This essay may also be found in the smaller volume Etz Hayim: Study Companion.

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