Bo: Bound to Freedom

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

This week’s Torah portion, Bo, continues the story of
the confrontation between Moshe and Pharaoh, and contains the first
commandments to the people Israel as a nation. These mitzvot concern
counting the months and preparing the Pesach [Passover] rituals, but
at the end of the Torah portion, among the commandments to remember
the Exodus events, there are two verses which mention signs upon our
hands and heads:

“And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on
your forehead — in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your
mouth — that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.”
(Shmot/Exodus 13:9)

“And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and for ornaments between
your eyes, for with a mighty hand did the Lord take us out of Egypt.”
((Shmot/Exodus 13:16)

This “sign” is understood by the ancient rabbis to be tefillin, or
“phylacteries” (a word which means tefillin!), which are those little
black leather boxes containing passages of Torah that many observant
Jews wear upon their arms and heads during weekday morning prayers.
[This certainly includes women in an egalitarian synagogue like Temple
Beth-El.] A more complete description of the origins and construction
of tefillin can be be found in the link below, but for today, I only
wish to point out the Torah’s linkage of remembering the Exodus with
the mitzvah of “binding” our arms and foreheads with words of Torah.

Tefillin are bound upon the arm, symbolizing the strength of our
bodies, and upon our heads, symbolizing the orientation of our
intellectual powers, as an act of remembrance of liberation from
servitude. It might seem paradoxical that “binding” ourselves would be
connected with a story of freedom, but I think it points to a core
Jewish idea, perhaps most concisely summarized by that famous
philosopher Mr. Zimmerman: “you gotta serve somebody.”

The story of the Exodus is not only about physical freedom; it’s also
about freedom from what Pharaoh represents in human history, which is
the objectification of human beings into mere means to a more powerful
person’s ends. Judaism, on the other hand, teaches that every human
being is made in the Image of God, and thus mistreatment, humiliation,
manipulation or abuse of any person is a sin against God, against the
other person, and against our own Divine capacity for compassion and
justice. We always have a choice: we can be enslaved to Pharaoh- that
is, go with the Pharaoh way of doing things so prevalent in the world-
or we can be servants of the Holy One, Who commanded us to recognize
the sacredness of all life.

That’s why tefillin are both a symbol of “binding” and a symbol of
freedom: in wrapping ourselves in tefillin, we recognize that the way
to be truly free of Pharaoh every day is not be like him in the way we
treat others, but instead to bind ourselves to the ideals of Torah,
which demand our involvement in healing the world through compassion
and justice. We orient our thoughts- the head tefillin- and our
actions- the arm tefillin- towards an Exodus view of the world every
morning because the choice between Pharaoh and the God of Liberation
never goes away- it confronts each of us every day.

Shabbat Shalom,


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