Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Bo: Tefillin - Ennobling Servitude

At the cusp of leaving Egypt, the nation of Hebrews is told, not once, but twice, the commandment of tefillin. In 13:9 and 16, the formulation is similar: we are told to bind our arms and place a remembrance between (above) our eyes, "for with a mighty hand, God released you from Egypt." What is so special about this particular mitzva that it is mentioned now, at this critical moment?

There is a tremendous pitfall when telling the story of the Exodus. Many revolutionaries have become obsessed with the clarion calls of freedom and liberation that pulse from the words of God, "Let me people go!". Often, they and we fail to complete the sentence, "...that they may serve Me." An absence of servitude and subjugation is seen as the goal of the redemption from Egypt. This could not be further from the truth. The Jews were liberated only to accept upon themselves the subjugation of God's law. In Avot (6:1), we learn that the only truly free person is one who has taken upon himself the yoke of Torah observance and learning. Freedom is not freedom when it is left unchecked.

A parable I like to use is that of a prisoner in a deep underground prison. He is locked in his subterranean cell, and the prison is an impossible maze built so that, even if one were able to escape one's cell, he would be lost forever in the labyrinth forever. Now imagine you go to your friend who is being held prisoner there. You unlock his door and say, "you are free." Nothing could be farther from the truth. He is now destined to roam aimlessly, never leaving the prison, with every moment bringing fresh false hopes that will only be dashed later on.

If, on the other hand, you were to hand your friend a map of the prison, and say, "I have outlined your course to find your way out. Do not wander aimlessly. Follow only the directions I give, and you will find your true freedom." At first blush, one could claim that I am trying to limit my friend's freedom. However, in truth, my channeling of his freedom into constructive, useful movement is the only true path to real freedom.

The commandment of tefilin is full of symbolic meaning that impresses itself upon the wearer. Rabbi Hirsch explains in his collected writings that the binding of the arm symbolizes our challange to allow our free-willed actions to be channeled and restricted by the bindings of God's law. The fact that the arm tefilin is applied before the head teaches us that our commitment to the fulfillment of the Torah's precepts comes before our desire and need to understand them rationally.

The symbolism of the commandment of tefilin is precisely the lesson of the map in the dungeon. Only by subserviating ourselves to the strictures of God's law can we truly be free, and find favor and peace in this physical and spiritual world.

Tefilin is therefore a most appropriate reminder to the nation of Israel throughout the generations. At this moment of freedom, remember what true freedom is. Remember why you are being set free, and to whom you are accountable. This ennobles us and sets apart our free-willed duty from the false freedom of the beasts. By recalling the tefilin, we can avoid the misunderstanding of liberty, and enjoy the true benefits of our deliverance.