Parshas Bo (5769)
Last we left them, the Jewish people had been watching on the sidelines as G-d performed miracle after amazing miracle - the Ten Plagues - in front of the entire Egyptian nation, just to show them Who's Boss. In this week's Torah portion, Parshas Bo, we read about the culmination of the Ten Plagues, and how Pharaoh is ultimately forced to send the entire Jewish nation out of Egypt. As it says in the Torah (Exodus 12:51), "It happened on that very day; G-d took the Children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, in their legions." (By the way, according to our tradition, the year in which the Exodus took place was 2448 in the Jewish calendar, corresponding to the year 1313 BCE.)
Now what do you think is the first thing that G-d communicates to the fledgling Jewish nation immediately after He has just pulled off the greatest rescue mission in the history of mankind? G-d commands Moses to tell the people, "Remember this day on which you departed from Egypt, from the house of bondage, for with a strong hand G-d removed you from here .... And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes - so that G-d's Torah may be in your mouth - for with a strong hand G-d removed you from Egypt" (ibid 13:3-9).
The commentaries explain that G-d commanded the Jewish people with these words to do two things: (a) to remember the Exodus constantly. From this the Sages derive that there is a Biblical commandment to recall the Exodus explicitly every day, which we fulfill by reciting the third paragraph of the Shema, which ends by saying that G-d took the Jews out of Egypt. (b) to write the story of the Exodus on parchment and wear it as a sign of remembrance on our arms and heads - this is what is known as the mitzvah of Tefillin (phylacteries) - black leather boxes worn on the arm and head with the story of the Exodus recorded on tiny parchments placed inside them.
Now we can certainly understand the need for us to constantly remember our ancestors' Exodus from Egypt - after all, the very basis of the entire Jewish religion and practically everything we mortals know about G-d has its source in the Exodus. The Exodus is our proof that G-d not only created the world, but is actively involved in guiding history, as evidenced by His willingness to alter the course of nature in order to allow the Jewish people to leave Egypt and to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai on their way to the Promised Land.
In other words, the Exodus is big, really big, and is definitely the kind of event that G-d would want all of us Jews to remember throughout our long history. G-d has a lot riding on the Exodus.
But we have to ask ourselves ... why the fixation on having Jews wear the phylacteries immediately after the Jews left Egypt? Sure, the "Tefillin thing" is a nice ritual, and has lots of symbolism and meaning to it, but, then, so do a ton of other Jewish rituals and customs. The Jews were rushing out of the land of Egypt, in which they had been enslaved and persecuted for over 200 years, and G-d has to stop them to command them about Tefillin!! I can just hear some Jew grumbling, "We'll remember the Passover miracles, G-d, we promise, but can we please save the rituals for after we get over the Red Sea to safety, far away from the Egyptian armies?!!"
THE KEY TO JEWISH CONTINUITY
I believe that the need for G-d to command the Jewish people in Egypt regarding the ritual of Tefillin, as well the idea behind many of the Jewish rituals and customs found in the Torah, has to do with one word that has been buzzing around Jewish Federation meetings (among other places) in recent years ... "continuity".
Now I know that this might sound funny to some of you. What can wearing strange-looking parchment-filled boxes once a day possibly have to do with Jewish continuity? Maybe we need to get our youth more involved in the synagogue, maybe we need to send more Jewish kids to Jewish summer camps, etc. etc. But Tefillin?!!
Allow me to explain with the following analogy: You know what happens any time an airplane crashes somewhere in the world? What's the first thing the investigators look for? Why the little black box, of course! The one that carries within it the flight voice recorder - the only way we can possibly reconstruct what happened during the last few moments before the plane went down - since we weren't there.
Well, the same thing could be said for the Jewish people as a whole. Ever since we left Egypt where we personally experienced all the amazing miracles that G-d performed for us and which have since become the basis for our entire religion, we have embarked on a long flight - a very long and difficult trip with much unexpected turbulence.
Maybe at the beginning of our history, when things were as yet calm and there were no major storms on the horizon, we could just sit back and remember how G-d lovingly took us out of Egypt and formed us into a nation that would be "a light unto the nations". We could easily recall the miracles of the Exodus and, in gratitude, follow whatever G-d commanded us to do.
But G-d knew that there would be rough skies ahead, and that the transmission would fail - that what every Jew once knew to be absolute fact, that G-d took us out of Egypt for a purpose, would fade over the course of time, due to the persecution and suffering and other winds that would threaten our spiritual safety, and would now become subject to much skepticism and disbelief. So He remembered to install "little black boxes" - the leather boxes we call Tefillin with the story of the Exodus written on parchment inside them - on the arms and heads of each and every one of us. This way, if we should one day decide to "investigate" our past, we could always just open up the "little black box" on our arm and head and "reconstruct" the story of what really happened to the Jewish people way back at the beginning of our journey as a new nation - the story of the Exodus which is written inside.
JUST SHOW UP
And it's not only the Tefillin that works this way. Most of the other rituals found in the Torah can be understood this way, as well. Sure, it's what's inside that really counts ... everybody knows that! And if you are just doing some ritual with no idea why you're doing it, it doesn't have tremendous value ... in of itself. It's the feelings and the spiritual connection to G-d that are most important.
But the reality is that feelings and memories fade over time. And what one generation understood with absolute clarity about what it means to be a Jew and what is our ultimate destiny, can easily be lost to the next generation who are further removed from the original story - especially if they have gone through persecution and other travails.
So that's where rituals come in. We may have forgotten where we came from and why we are Jews today - but if we are least "talking the talk" and "walking the walk" - we have at least "shown up" and are still doing the outer trappings of the religion (or in the case of Tefillin, I should say "strappings"!) - then there is hope that one day we, or our children, will want to investigate what really happened in Egypt or at Sinai over 3000 years ago. And we will start asking why Jews have been around for so long when all other civilizations have come and gone. And we will start to wonder why we wear those strange black boxes on our arm and head once a day. And our children will want to know why we don't celebrate Xmas, and instead light the Menorah and eat oily "latkes" - and a million other questions.
And then we all we have to do is to open the little black box of Tefillin and read all about our history and our future destiny as a nation. But if the little black box is missing ... if we are not even doing the outer ritual which carries within it the story of where we come from ... if all we try to pass on to the next generation is an "inside feeling" about who we are as Jews without the ritual ... then how can we ensure our continuity in the face of all the turbulence and foreign winds which threaten to weaken that transmission and take us down? How will later generations who didn't personally experience the Exodus, or, for that matter, what it means to be a Jew, be able to one day "reconstruct" what happened to us in Egypt - if they don't even have the little black box on them?
This is the importance of ritual - even when it's performed without much feeling inside - and this is why G-d had to command our ancestors as soon as they left Egypt not only to verbally remember the Exodus, but also to record the story in little black boxes for all future generations.
[Ed. Note: Women have traditionally not worn Tefillin, because it is one of the "positive time-bound commandments" from which women are exempt. The Kabbalists explain that women have more natural ways of binding with God; various parts of the Tefillin correspond to unique female qualities. Kabbalistically, the Tefillin's hollow chamber corresponds to the womb, and the straps correspond to the umbilical cord. Interestingly, the Tefillin box is called the bayis (home). Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the home a woman develops is her private Tefillin. To learn more, read The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology II. pp. 235-310.]