A Drash for Bo (5781)
by Marc Mangel
I am working on an essay, to be posted on my personal web site (marcmangel.net) in May, concerning what I have learned putting on tefillin for the last 20 years.
I requested this parsha because today we read [italics are the Rashi interpolation found in the Steinsaltz Chumash] (13:9): “It, the story of the Exodus, shall be a sign for you on your hand and a remembrance between your eyes. You must write a reference to this story on an object that you will attach to your arm and between your eyes, so that the law of the Lord will be in your mouth, because you must remember that with a powerful hand the Lord took you out of Egypt”.
This is the parsha from which the obligation of putting on tefillin every day comes. There is much to be understood about these verses. For example, Nehama Leibowitz dedicates 16 pages to the lexical and syntactical structure of these verses. I will not summarize that.
Rather, I want to explore the nature of the obligation and unpack its relevance for us today.
Rashi says that the tefillin are not intended as a sign for others, but as a sign for the wearer, that the message of tefillin is that we each must work to improve ourselves through the teshuva we set during the High Holiday season.
To be sure, if tefillin do not affect the one who wears them, then that person will not have an effect on others.
Rav Kook – first Chief Rabbi of Israel — said that although at the seder we act as if it is us being redeemed from Egypt, that departure is not to be understood as a single historic incident which took place once. Rather it is a task for every individual in every generation to allow the holy to triumph over the profane ‘enabling the light of God’s holy nature to penetrate everywhere’.
Ha’Emek Dvar agrees that the annual observance of Passover and telling the story to the children is not sufficient— we must be provided with a daily remembrance of what happened. Here are two reasons given.
First, the verses focus on the eternity and uniqueness of God and the miracle of the Exodus.
Second, the tefillin go on the arm and the head. The Chazal refer to Psalm 119:10 “With all my heart I have sought you” to mean with all my 5 senses. The head has sight, hearing, taste, and smell. The arm has touch.
A Chassidic interpretation is that understanding the Exodus (or anything else, for that matter) is hard at first so we seek a general understanding; that’s the arm – we touch the question. The detailed understanding comes second, in which each aspect is focused on separately.
The order in which we put on the tefillin is arm, head, hand/fingers, and teaches us that the way to understand anything is by first getting the big picture, then getting details, and then coming back to the big picture.
Is there an alternative if you cannot put on tefillin? At sunrise – or whenever you rise – take a moment to say the Shma and remember what happened in Egypt — not as a historical event but as relevant right now for each one of us escaping personal slavery — and that our job is to make a dwelling place for God in this world by doing so.
Each morning, I read a page from the book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, which is a collection of meditations of the Rebbe compiled by Rabbi Tzvi Freeman. Last Sunday, on page 260, I read: “The Jewish people are one. A Jew putting on tefillin in America affects the safety of a Jewish soldier in Israel”.*
That’s what the tefillin teach every one of us.
* This may remind you of the film Jurassic Park, in which Jeff Goldblum’s character, Dr. Ian Malcom, explains chaos theory: “It simply deals with unpredictability in complex systems. The shorthand is ‘the butterfly effect. ‘ A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking, and in Central Park, you get rain instead of sunshine.”
The difference is that the Rebbe offers us unity theory.