Bo: A Strong Arm

Copyright Neal Joseph Loevinger 2010

Torah Portion Bo: Shmot/ Exodus 10:1-13:16

In the portion Bo, Moshe continues to confront Pharaoh with plagues. Laws of Passover are given and the people prepare to depart.

Hello one and all! This week, in the Torah portion Bo, the Israelites are about to leave slavery in Egypt, but before they go, they are given laws so that they will remember the Exodus in future generations. Among those laws is the commandment to put on tefillin, or “prayer-boxes,” on one’s arm and head:

“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 13:9)

“And when, in time to come, your son asks you, saying, ‘What does this mean?’ you shall say to him, ‘It was with a mighty hand that the Lord brought us out from Egypt, the house of bondage.’ ” (13:14)

As some readers may know, it is a mitzvah to put on tefillin daily during the week (not Shabbat or festivals.) The tefillin contain passages from the Torah which speak directly of this mitzvah, but these passages, four in total, also speak of the Unity of Divinity, the centrality of Torah, and remembering the Exodus. Note how the passages above specifically use the image of the “strong arm” or “mighty hand” for a mitzvah which ends up being bound, literally, to our arms.

The symbolism is unmistakable: just as we were liberated from slavery by a “strong arm,” so too should our own arms be devoted to equally sacred purposes. Of course, “a mighty hand” is never meant to be taken literally, but rather as a metaphor for how the Divine operates within the human heart to break bonds of servitude and bring forth freedom and justice. Ultimately, anthropomorphic language in our sacred texts isn’t really about God, it’s about us- it challenges us to embody the Divine qualities relayed in the metaphors and poetry. Thus, in putting on the tefillin, we become- if we choose- the strong hand of God in bringing forth redemption and mercy.

We all choose our own path of sacred service, becoming the hands of the Holy One according to our unique strengths and talents. How we serve is a matter of individual reflection; that we serve is imperative, should we wish to be fully human, embracing our capacity to do the work of God.

Shabbat Shalom,


P.S.- American Jewish World Service is doing work on the ground in Haiti. If you haven’t done all your giving to Haiti disaster relief, please consider AJWS along with other worthy organizations- and give now, and give generously.

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