Archive for Bo

Bo: Come to Pharaoh

Copyright 2023 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Dear Friends: It’s been too long since I’ve written my weekly Torah commentaries and I’m feeling inspired to start up again. There will definitely be one for this week and next week, but if when I miss a week, I wholeheartedly endorse my friend Rabbi Eli Garfinkel’s daily Torah Substack newsletter:

Eli is a master at drawing out great questions from the parsha! 

Now, back to Bo, this week’s portion

The portion begins with a command: God tells Moshe: בֹּ֖א אֶל־פַּרְעֹ֑ה, come to Pharaoh, and tell him about the future plagues if he doesn’t release the people. 

The text says bo el Paro, “come to Pharoah,” but this is curious: shouldn’t it be “lech l’Paro,” or go to Pharaoh, not “come”? “Bo,” come, seems to imply that God is already where God wants Moshe to go, which is  Pharaoh’s palace. 

There are two ways to interpret this: 

  1. “Come to Pharaoh” means “come with me.” God is saying, I’m with you when you go to Pharaoh. 
  2. Bo el Paro means: I, the Holy One, am already there, even in Pharaoh’s palace. Going there, to that evil, arrogant, broken, delusional and doomed king, also means coming to Me. 

Both of these interpretations challenge us morally and spiritually. 

First, I found an image from the  Zohar that illustrates our first interpretation: Moshe was afraid of going to Pharaoh, because that inner chamber of the palace was a place of ultimate idolatry, an intensity of idolatry even greater than Moshe’s spiritual level. Because Moshe was afraid, The Merciful One said: Come, I’ll go with you. (The Zohar is, as always, more complicated than this, but this is enough for our purposes today. See here for more.) 

So here was Moshe, at the highest level of spirituality, according to our tradition, and even he was afraid to go into that dark space of human brokenness and pain and alienation. I’m a hospital chaplain, and that’s what we try to do too: go into the hardest, most complicated, most emotionally charged and painful situations, with some small faith that we don’t go alone. Yet this image isn’t just for chaplains: everybody is charged with being a person of hesed (great kindness) and rachamim (mercy), which often means pushing ourselves emotionally. It’s not easy to comfort the bereaved, or visit the sick, or help the poor, or be with people who are lonely or afraid, but perhaps if Moshe could go where he didn’t want to go, with faith that he doesn’t go alone, the rest of us can push ourselves a little harder too. 

Going back to our verse, the  second interpretation is also important. Bo el Paro, says the Holy One, I am already there, even in the most dangerous, evil, oppressive, idol-worshiping place on Earth- I’m already there. That’s a truly amazing idea: after all, Pharaoh earned himself a four thousand year old reputation for denying that there was any God but himself! His palace issued orders for murder and exploitation, but the Holy One was already there? 

Well, yes. 

So if Moshe was told, “I’m already there” in reference to the most terrible, idolatrous, morally corrupt place on Earth, I guess the rest of us should have some faith that we can find the Divine Presence in times and situations that aren’t quite that bad. It can be very uncomfortable to be with the dying or forlorn; it’s much easier to avoid conflicts and problems than confront them; some people have needs that can be overwhelming. Some people have done terrible things, and deserve the harshest rebuke. Yet: I am already there, so open up your mind and heart to find the spark of spirituality even in the most difficult situations. This is one of those truths that is simple, but never easy. Life often isn’t, but we go forward as best we can, and find the Divine in the most unexpected places. 

(Words adapted from a dvar Torah I gave at the annual meeting of Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains.) 

Addendum: for some grammatical/linguistic interpretations of this week’s verse, see here.  

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Bo: Remember This, Every Day

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Remember this day, on which you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage, how the Lord freed you from it with a mighty hand: no leavened bread shall be eaten. (Shemot/ Exodus 13:3)

Good morning!

This week the Torah brings the Exodus narrative to a point of high dramatic tension: the death of the firstborn is pronounced, the people are ready to go, and then there are pauses in the in the action for laws related to future remembrance of these events. Among those laws are the practices we associate with Pesach, including the prohibition on leavened bread, as in the verse above; one could reasonably say that Pesach is chiefly about remembering the Exodus story in its details and implications.

On the other hand, yetziat Mitzrayim, the “going out from Egypt,” is not just for one week in the spring. Our friend Rashi, basing himself on an earlier source, makes a nice little wordplay out of the verse above, reading “this day” as literally this day today, thus rendering the meaning of the verse: remember, today, that you went free from Egypt, the house of bondage. Rashi goes on to say that the verse thus teaches that we should remember the Exodus every day.

That, in turn, fits with other verses and sources which also teach that remembering the Exodus is an every-day, not just every-year, spiritual practice. D’varim 16:3 famously says “you will remember the the day you went out of the land of Egypt all the days of your life,” which became the basis of a discussion in the Mishnah about remembering Egypt even in the days of the Messiah (go here and scroll down to paragraph 5). That paragraph became part of the traditional Passover Haggadah, from which some of you may remember it, and explains the importance of the third section of the Shema, recited daily.

So there are at least two verses which are the source of daily Exodus remembrance,reified in the Shema, obviously a huge part of Jewish practice. Yet we can still ask why, of all the particulars of Jewish history, the Exodus deserves continual remembrance. One traditional answer is that our liberation from slavery is the foundation of the covenant at Sinai: we owe God our loyalty because of what was done for us. Others might say that the Exodus is the ethical basis of Judaism: we should always remember that we were slaves, so that we might have compassion for others, and have faith that God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors.

While in no way discounting those or other answers to the question, I understand the Exodus as personal, not only national or historical. Egypt, in the story, is the land ruled by Pharaoh, who is not just a character but an archetype, a symbol of the human capacity for cruelty, domination, selfishness, greed, and moral blindness.

As I’ve written many times before, Pharaoh and what he represents is not only an external enemy, but part of the human condition, an internal struggle we all face in liberating ourselves from fear, egocentricity, closed hearts and shuttered minds. That we have the potential to leave the “narrow place” of Egypt, to overthrow Pharaoh in all his forms and guises, is the faith without which Judaism makes no sense. We have to remember, today and every day, that Pharaoh doesn’t win in the end- not then and not in the future, not in our hearts and not in the world, if we can muster daily the courage of our ancestors to make the world better for our descendants.

Shabbat Shalom,


The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Shabbat Ha-Hodesh: Freedom and Giving

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger 

Torah Portion: Tazria and Shabbat Ha-Hodesh 
Speak to the whole community of Israel and say that on the tenth of this month each of them shall take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household.  But if the household is too small for a lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby, in proportion to the number of persons: you shall contribute for the lamb according to what each household will eat. (Shemot/ Exodus 12:3-4)
Hard to believe, since it feels like it’s barely started to thaw around here, but this week is Shabbat Ha-Hodesh, which denotes some special readings (linked above) read on or before the beginning of the month of Nissan. Hence, ShabbatHa-Hodesh is about two weeks before Passover, which occurs in the middle of the month. It’s not surprising, then, that the special Torah reading reviews the commandments given towards the end of the Exodus narrative: to establish the Jewish calendar, to offer a special Passover sacrifice, to eat it with matzah and maror (bitter herbs.)  
Note in the passage above that the commandment of offering the Passover sacrifice was directed not so much at individuals but at a household, or even a set of neighbors, if a single household was too small to support the offering of a lamb or kid. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a great leader of modern Orthodoxy, offers a beautiful insight (found here) as to the meaning of this first Pesach sacrifice in Egypt. 
As I understand R. Soloveitchik, the sacrifice itself was meaningless to God, who needs nothing and certainly not an animal offering. Rather, the meaning of the sacrifice was to bring the slave generation into the possibility of sharing with others, both within their household and with neighbors. A slave doesn’t have enough to share and might zealously guard his small portion, but a free person is able to give, to share, to be confident in the future, to find purpose in kindness and generosity. The intent of the Passover sacrifice was to bring the slaves into emotional freedom from being (understandably) self-centered and too anxious to care for others. 
Note, however, that what brings the people into that emotional freedom is the act of giving to others. They don’t share because they are free, they are free because they share. Actions change our perspective; the slaves may have thought they were merely obeying a ritual command, but the mitzvahtransformed them from within. 
So too with us: we always have the opportunity to become more free by giving more away, to become more loving by doing deeds of kindness, to become more moral people by doing things that are right and good. By acting as free people, the slaves became free people. By giving without fear, we ourselves may become people of true compassion. The story of liberation isn’t just then, it’s now. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Bo: Words Emerge From Between Them

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo
“The Lord said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt  . . speak to the whole community of Israel. . “ (Shemot/ Exodus 12:1-3)
Good afternoon! This week we have not only the story of the plagues upon Egypt but also the laws of Passover and telling the story in future generations. In the first verses of Chapter 12, Moshe and Aharon are commanded to speak to the Israelites and teach them the laws of the new moon, followed by the laws of the Pesachofferings. It’s hard to see it in translation, but the commandment to “speak,” above, at the beginning of verse 3, is written in Hebrew in the second-person plural: dabru,or as we might say it back in Maryland, “y’all speak.” 
As he is likely to do, our friend Rashi notices the plural commandment and implicitly asks two questions: first, wasn’t Moshealready commanded to speak by himself in earlier chapters?  (He seems to have gotten over his complaint of being an awkward speaker.) If so, what does it mean that the two brothers were commanded to speak- does it mean they spoke together, or to each other, or one after the other? 
Rashi brings a beautiful midrash to explain the commandment that they both “speak to the whole community:” 
“[they] would apportion the honor between them, saying to each other, ‘you teach me,’ and the words would emerge from between them, and it was as if they both spoke.” 
It cannot be coincidental that this midrash occurs in the context of the first communal laws of the Torah, for the very essence of the Jewish tradition is learning through dialogue.  To me, Torah is best learned not from a book but in community, for in learning together we teach each other. Each one of us has a unique perspective, which arises out of our interests, inclinations, education and experiences, and your perspective is something I cannot learn if I learn Torah all alone. The words of Torah can be spiritual practices, moral teachings, stories which illuminate our lives or history which roots us deeply, but applying Torah to our lives is a team sport, as it were. The image of the “words emerging from between them” is a powerful reminder that to be Jewish is to live with others, and there find our best humanity. 
Shabbat Shalom, 

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Pesach: Beauty in Simplicity

Copyright 2012 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Pesach

“And they baked unleavened cakes of the dough that they had taken out of Egypt, for it was not leavened, since they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay; nor had they prepared any provisions for themselves. . . “ (Shmot/ Exodus 12:39)

Dear Friends:

Earlier today, the New York Board of Rabbis shared some thoughts from Rabbi Marc Angel regarding the symbolic foods of Passover: matzah, maror, and the shankbone or reminder of the ancient Pesach offering. You can find his interpretations here, but let me quote from his explanation of matzah:

“Matzah is a basic, no-frills item. It is flour and water, without leavening. It stands for our basic selves, unpretentious, not inflated with vanity or pride. . .
Because of its sheer simplicity and honesty, Matzah symbolizes freedom. When we really know who we are, we gain a fine sense of our own freedom. We can be strong unto ourselves; we can rise above the fray; we can stop playing games of who has more, who has better, who has control. When we are free within, we have the confidence to live our own lives, not the counterfeit lives that others would impose on us.”

It occurs to me that Rabbi Angel’s explanation of matzah is taken one step further by applying the idea of hiddur mitzvah, or “beautifying the commandment.” I’ve written about this idea before (see here, where you’ll also find links to further explorations of the concept), but the basic idea is rather simple: when we have an opportunity to do a mitzvah, we should try to do it in an appealing and pleasing way. Thus we make kiddush in a nice glass or silver cup, or perhaps have embroidered covers on our matzah at the Seder table, or wear a colorful tallit of nice fabric rather than a plain or rough cloth.

So far, so good. The interesting thing about matzah, though, is that you can’t really make it more “beautiful” or adorned without making it not matzah. If you add anything other than flour and water to the – eggs, sugar, fruit juice, chocolate- it’s suitable as a unleavened treat (depending on your custom) but not appropriate to use as matzah at the Seder, when we eat only regular matzah to remember the liberation from Egypt.

However, there are people (myself included) who do buy a special kind of matzah, called shmurah matzah, as a “hiddur” or extra beautifying of the commandment. This matzah is usually round, hand-made, often with special flour that’s guarded against moisture, and it’s not, in fact, more “beautiful” in a conventional visual sense than the perfectly square, perfectly consistent machine-made matzah you get from a box. Hand-made matzah is often bumpy, sometimes burned, sometimes odd roundish shapes, sometimes tougher to eat- and yet for me, precisely because it is closer to that “essence” of matzah, a remembrance of what our ancestors would have made from leftover dough as they streamed out into the desert, it is, to me, an adornment of the commandment. Not in a visual or sensual way, but as an expression of that simplicity and honesty that Rabbi Angel teaches is the core idea of matzah.

In other words, sometimes to make something more beautiful and sacred, we have to strip it down to its essence, to its most basic form and concept. This then becomes an object lesson not for our food but for our lives: in order to become glorious, not physically but spiritually, we have to work on discarding our distractions, moving aside anything extraneous or contrary to our essential being and deepest self. Matzah is a radically simple thing; even the machine-made squares are remarkably similar to what matzah has always been for thousands of years. When we encounter it during our Feast of Freedom, it calls us back to ourselves, as individuals and as a people. When we celebrate and give thanks over the most simple food, it teaches us to focus on what’s essential in life, and be grateful. That’s ultimately not about our bread, but about our souls.

With warmest wishes for a healthy and happy Pesach,


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Bo: Rising to Nobility

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Shalom friends, we’re blessedly early with our drasha this week, let’s keep that trend up . . . . .

Speaking of trends, in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, Pharaoh’s standing in the “human king as Egyptian demigod” rankings continues to decline as the plagues take a terrible toll on his country, authority and self-confidence. Before the Israelites leave, however, they are told that they must have a ritual meal, not only while they are in Egypt, but every year following, in order to remember the great liberation. This, of course, eventually becomes our Pesach seder, or Passover meal, but in Biblical days, the central ritual was the Korban Pesach, an offering of a lamb or kid.

This offering had to be roasted and eaten in a very precise way; Sh’mot chapter 12 has all kinds of laws relating to this ritual, even specifying how the bones are treated during the meal:

“It shall be eaten in one house: you shall not take any of the flesh outside the house; nor shall you break a bone of it.”  (Shmot/ Exodus 12:46)

Our Conservative Torah commentary, Etz Hayim, explains that one might break the bone of a meat meal to suck the marrow out, and one can easily imagine that hungry slaves would indeed get every bit out of the meat that they could. The medieval textbook Sefer Ha’Chinuch explains that the commandment not to break the bone is about teaching the people honor and dignity- it is not the way of princes and nobles to chew on the bones like a dog, but that’s what poor or hungry people have to do.

Thus, while at the time of the first Pesach meal, the people were, in fact, poor and hungry slaves, they needed to claim their dignity and act as if they were nobles and free people. In so doing, they would come to internalize their own sense of honor and self-possession. The Exodus could not be only a physical process of moving from one place to another, nor even a purely political act of declaring that Pharaoh’s authority was overthrown. The Exodus also had to be a spiritual phenomenon within the Israelites themselves, in which they came to realize they were not inherently slaves, they had little to fear, and past suffering did not constrain future freedom.

That’s why they need to eat like nobility. Not only was it an overt act of defying Pharaoh, but more importantly, it enacted and illustrated the most importance remembrance: who they really were. They were not slaves, but children of Avraham and Sarah and inheritors of their sacred covenant. That’s our challenge, too: to remember who we really are- not slaves to our desires or anxieties and servants to no human power, but noble, spiritual beings, called to great works.

There’s no better way to remember, to claim truth, than to act. In AA, they often say “fake it till you make it,” but perhaps the Jewish way of expressing the same idea would be: do the mitzvah, and your soul will be lifted up.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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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Bo: The Hour Passes By

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

What a week we’ve had: lots of bad news about the economy, and for the
first time in many years, an American governor has been impeached and
removed from office. It’s amazing to me that former Gov. Blagojevich
assumed a confrontational stance with the state legislature right till
the very end, when almost anybody who follows the news knew that he’d
be expelled from office. At any point before a few days ago, the
former governor of Illinois could have apologized and resigned with
dignity, thus preserving some chance of reentering public life, in
some form or another, in the future.

Of course, egocentrism which denies incipient reality is hardly a
modern phenomenon. In our haftarah this week, the prophet Yirmiyahu,
or Jeremiah, announces a prophecy of destruction against the Pharaoh
of his day, predicting that Egypt would be defeated by competing
empires and humbled for its arrogance. The Pharaoh of the haftarah,
like the Pharaoh in Exodus who appears in this week’s Torah portion,
Bo, is portrayed as a stubborn and prideful man:

” There they called Pharaoh king of Egypt:
‘ Braggart who let the hour go by.’ ” (Yirmiyahu/Jeremiah 26:17)

This verse causes the commentators some consternation, and there are
various interpretations of the Hebrew. Hirsch, for example, renders
the verse as “Pharoah is in the noisy turmoil, he has allowed the
appointed time to pass by,” and posits that the reference was to a
battle with the Babylonians in which Pharaoh’s army showed up too late
for its strategy to work and was thus soundly defeated.

Perhaps a simpler explanation is that Pharaoh, like everybody else,
has many chances in his life to do t’shuvah [repentance/ returning],
but rather than turn from his wicked ways, he pursues his course till
the bitter end, and meets his fate (according to our text) at the
hands of the Babylonian king and his army. The Pharaoh of our
haftarah- like the earlier Pharaoh in Moshe’s day- faced opportunities
to change, to grow, to admit his mistakes, to choose a different path,
to retreat from destructive pursuits, but he let those moments pass
by, until it was too late to avert the consequences of his impunity.

It’s not only kings- or governors- who must learn that the humble path
of t’shuvah can bring reward in this world, if not the next world as
well. A willingness to admit our mistakes, to give up the false
appearance of perfection, is a sign of great inner strength. Yet too
often we wait too long, letting the hour go by, letting the chance at
reconciliation fade, too preoccupied with the demands of ego to
nurture the growth of the soul.

I might even rephrase our verse above: it is the way of braggart
Pharaoh to let the hour go by, to leave unachieved what the simplest
word of modest and generous love might accomplish. Instead, Pharaoh
would rather be defeated that be humbled. Seen this way, Pharaoh is
not a person, as such, but a part of the human personality: we each, I
think, have within us a that hardness of heart which would rather face
armies than confess our sins and failures.

Pharaoh let the hour go by, but we don’t have to. We have the choice
to embrace this moment, this hour, as the one in which we turn back to
our best and truest selves.

Shabbat Shalom,


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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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Bo: Adornments of Remembrance

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Our weekly Torah portion, Bo, continues the story of the Exodus, through
the penultimate plague and the laws of the Pesach [Passover]
offering. At the very end of the portion, God says that the Israelites
will tell the story of the Exodus in future generations, and perform
various rituals of remembrance. Among those is the mitzvah
[commandment] of tefillin, or “phylacteries,” the little leather boxes
that observant Jews (in egalitarian synagogues, both men and women)
wear during weekday services. These leather boxes contain passages
from the Torah in which tefillin are mentioned, including two passages
from parshat Bo.

In the first passage (13:9), tefillin are called a “zicharon,” or
remembrance, but in the second part of chapter 13, tefillin are called
“totafot,” a word which also appears in Deuteronomy. So what does
“totafot” mean, besides “tefillin,” in the traditional understanding
of the word? Well, we find “totafot” in one other ancient text, the
Mishnah, which is the first part of the book of Jewish law and lore
known as the Talmud. Admittedly, the Mishnah was compiled many
hundreds of years after the time of the Torah, but it’s still
interesting to compare word usage.

In this case, the word “totafot” (in a variant form, “totefet”) occurs
during a discussion of what women may or may not wear when they go
from place to place on the Sabbath. In this context, “totefet” means
something like “adornment,” which would not be part of one’s clothing
and thus not necessary to wear on Shabbat.

So the next question is- what does the idea of “adornment” have to do
with wearing tefillin, especially given that a primary meaning of
tefillin is remembering the Exodus? One idea, set forth in the book
called “Popular Halacha,” by R. Jacob Berman, is that wearing tefillin
as a “diadem” truly shows that we are no longer servants in Egypt, but
free people, practicing our religion as we choose, and not beholden to
any earthly “crown.”

That’s a beautiful idea, and yet one more interpretation occurs to me.
Tefillin are not particularly beautiful objects in the conventional
sense- they are black leather boxes with carefully written passages of
Torah inside them, without jewels or bright colors or fancy patterns.
So to call them “adornments” is to make a claim about what is
“adorning” or beautiful from a Jewish perspective. Perhaps we “adorn”
ourselves with tefillin because there is a moral beauty to daily
rededication of the strength of our arms and the power of our minds
(symbolized by the head tefillin) to religious and spiritual ideals.

Furthermore, what is most “real” and hence most beautiful about
tefillin is on the inside- the words from Torah which speak of
covenant and the Exodus. So (ahem) to wrap things up, we might say
that when we put these “totafot,” or “adornments” on our arms and
heads, we are living out the proposition that what is most beautiful
in life is not outward appearances but inner, spiritual qualities. We
are no longer servants in Egypt, but free to choose the actions which
are the true adornment of a life lived well.

Shabbat Shalom,


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