This week’s Torah portion is Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16.
In this week’s Torah portion, the Jewish people gain their freedom after 210 years in slavery. Several commandments are given just before they leave Egypt and become free. These commandments are, as to be expected, inherently connected to the Exodus, such as the commandment to observe the Passover seder each year, and to sanctify the first born.
But one mitzvah which the Torah juxtaposes to the seder and the Exodus seems entirely unconnected: that of tefillin, the donning each day of leather boxes containing the Shema prayer. What could its connection be to the
Exodus from Egypt?
Exodus 13:9 phrases the commandment this way: “And it [the tefillin] shall be as a sign on your arm and a
remembrance between your eyes, in order that the Torah of God should be in your mouth, for with a strong hand God took you out from Egypt.”
The tefillin seem to function as an object for remembering — “a remembrance between your eyes.” But for remembering what? The verse does not specify what they are to remind us of, only that the remembrance will serve to place the Torah in our mouths and is in some way connected to the Exodus.
The human being lives a perplexing existence. We are self-aware, can love, can conceive of the infinite, and yet we die like animals. Instead of this existential angst leading to a well-lived life, we often defend against the pain by losing ourselves. This is attempted in one of two ways: the acetic, a withdrawal from the temporal world, or its opposite, the hedonistic, losing oneself in the pleasures of this world to numb the anxiety.
Existential pain is the indulgence of a free person. A slave worries about survival, which leaves no space for the leisure of such questions. So it is at this moment, precisely as the Jews are going to become free, that God tells them about tefillin.
Tefillin is the big picture remembrance. Not to remember Egypt, nor to remember to keep the Torah, but to remember that there is something bigger, something meaningful, some greater harmony, intelligence and purpose.
To remember not to lose oneself in one’s freedom, that there is a deeper response, one of responsibility and the realization that the world can be a place of meaning, and of the Torah, “in our mouth.”
The Talmud (Berachot 30b) states: “Rabbi Yirmiyah was sitting before Rabbi Zeira. Rabbi Zeira saw that Rabbi Yirmiyah was too joyful. He said to him: is it not written: ‘In all sorrow there is profit?’ [Proverbs 14:23] Rabbi Yirmiya hreplied: It is permissible for me because I am wearing tefillin.”
Some say Rabbi Yirmiyah’s answer meant the tefillin will protect him from what happiness can lead to, namely frivolity, but others say he meant, “I am overly happy, and this happiness is precisely due to my tefillin. The mitzvot bring me joy and so this is a holy joy.”
There are opposite ways to see this first mitzvah of memory, the tefillin, as bringing seriousness and bringing joy, as an elixir for frivolity and for depression.
To stay in touch with what truly matters, we must avoid the acetic defense and the hedonistic defense. Both extremes that might render us slaves once again, not to Pharaoh but to ourselves.
The tefillin remind us of this from the first moment we left Egypt, and thus we can keep the Torah “in our mouth.” The Torah that will provide depth, meaning and love even in a world of perplexity and angst.
Rabbi Hyim Shafner is the rabbi of Kesher Israel, The Georgetown Synagogue.