Parashat Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16
Freedom is not handed to us on a platter.
In our brave new world being "all thumbs" is not only beneficial, it can be profitable. Two South Korean students won the recent global texting contest, which carries a prize of (US) $100,000. Who would have thought that having an opposable thumb could be so profitable?
Combine such dexterity and strength and you've got -- well, a very interesting carnival tradition. Remember the circus strongmen? These were the guys who could carry out tremendous feats. Louis Cyr is considered the greatest of these legendary figures. He is reported to have lifted 552 pounds with one finger, although it was not his thumb. One of the last of the strongmen died recently after being struck by a car. Joe Rollino, a Coney Island legend, was 104. His proudest feat: Lifting 635 pounds with one finger.
A strong hand is a powerful symbol. The "arm and hammer," today associated with a brand of baking soda, has a long history. (See Evolution of an Emblem: The Arm and Hammer by Kim Munson for a fascinating pictorial history.) In the 18th and 19th centuries, variations on this symbol were used by mechanic and manufacturing societies. (This may explain why the Socialist Labor Party of America uses this symbol.) It is also found on the Wisconsin state flag. Before baking soda and state emblems, the "arm and hammer" represented Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forges; you couldn't get much stronger than that.
Well, not until you read parashat Bo, in which the Children of Israel are liberated from slavery. This happens be-hozek yad, with God's "mighty hand," a symbol which becomes essential to freedom, Passover, and our brit (covenant): And Moses said to the people, "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. (Exodus 13:3) This symbol of God's power is a lesson to be carried out through the generations: 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.' (Exodus 13:14)
The message of God's power, freedom and covenant is reinforced through the symbol of tefillin mentioned twice in this parasha:
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. (Exodus 13:9)And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt. (Exodus 13:16)>
We are reminded of God's mighty hand through this ritual item that is strapped on the arm. Rashbam points out that the phrase it shall be as a sign upon your hand is to be understood as if God's teaching is actually written upon our hand, bringing as his prooftext the words from Song of Songs (8:6): Set me as a seal upon your heart like the seal upon your hand. Think of it as God's mighty hand stretched out to us, welcoming us into a covenantal relationship that is reiterated every time the tefillin is bound on the hand and the words of Hosea (2:21-22) are recited: I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice, and with goodness and mercy, and I will espouse you with faithfulness; then shall you be devoted to the Lord. Rashi, echoing the Talmud (Menahot 37a), draws our attention to the word your hand which is spelled differently in verses 9 and 16. An additional letter hey in the latter verse allows the word yadchah, "your hand" to be read as yad ke-hah "the weaker hand," leading to the interpretation that the tefillin are strapped on the weaker hand. Think of it as girding ourselves with God's strength.
From the early chapters of Exodus, and continuing for the rest of the Torah, God is handing us increasing responsibilities. We may observe the steep learning curve while Moses acts as God's agent in Egypt. God states that the divine hand will be laid out on Egypt (Exodus 7:4) and stretched out over Egypt (Exodus 7:5). Moses is instructed to hold out his arm in order to bring on a plague; but instead he holds out his staff. (Exodus 9:22-23 and 10:12-13). He's not quite ready to be handed full responsibility.
Things change dramatically next week at the parting of the Sea of Reeds. While instructed to lift his staff and hold out his arm over the sea (Exodus 14:16), Moses ends up stretching out his arm without the staff being mentioned (Exodus 14:21). God notes this change; and in the next set of instructions for bringing the waters back to their normal state, there is no mention of the staff by God and none used by Moses. (Exodus 14:26-27) Only later, after crossing the Sea of Reeds does Moses willingly embraces the responsibility placed in his hands when our ancestors battle Amalek:
Then, whenever Moses held up his hand, Israel prevailed; but whenever he let down his hand, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands grew heavy; so they took a stone and put it under him and he sat on it, while Aaron and Hur, one on each side, supported his hands; thus his hands remained steady until the sun set. (Exodus 17:11-12)
Finally, let's not forget the initiative seized by Miriam in next week’s parasha, when, after crossing the Sea of Reeds, she took a timbrel in her hand (Exodus 15:20).
The message of be-hozek yad, God's mighty hand, is one of responsibility that accompanies the fragile gift of freedom. Freedom is not handed to us on a platter. We need to actively reach out, grasp it, and hold fast to it. Some find their strength increased by binding tefillin on an arm; others discover it in reaching out to God by clasping a timbrel. While these are individual actions that strengthen our commitment, freedom is ultimately a communal state that requires all of us to work hand-in-hand. It is not enough to be handed freedom, we need to stop twiddling our thumbs and make something worthwhile of it.
Rabbi Michal Shekel