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The Freedom of Control / Graceful Masculinity: Bo

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Part of a year-long Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְךָ, וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ, לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’, בְּפִיךָ:  כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה, הוֹצִאֲךָ ה’ מִמִּצְרָיִם.

And it will be for you a sign on your hand and for remembrance 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. (Exodus 13:9)

 

Speech is most powerful when it is simultaneously controlled and free. We need the liberty to express ourselves, but if we do not exert care and restraint in what we say, our words cannot be optimally effective. Tefillin, טוטפות – an expression of speech,1 is the first daily mitzvah commanded in the Torah and also models both freedom and constraint. We bind ourselves to God’s words with leather straps and in doing so we exercise free choice to demonstrate a powerful religious commitment.

The purpose of tefillin is לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’ בְּפִיךָ so that our mouths will be filled with Torah. Tefillin is understood as a covenant of our mouths.2 Even though tefillin contain the words of the Written Torah, it is a symbol of the Oral Torah as well.

Tradition teaches that this commandment was delivered on the eve of Passover, right before the exodus from Egypt, in part as preparation for the redemption of speech. The Hebrew word for Egypt, מצרים,  like the Talmud, starts and ends with the letter “מ” mem. The Talmud teaches3 that the “מ”4 is sometimes open and sometimes closed (a regular mem has an opening; a final mem is a closed shape) to demonstrate that some things should be said and sometimes we should instead close our mouths and not speak. The first letter in the Mishna and in the word Mitzrayim is open, while the last letter in both is closed. The letters that remain in Mitzrayim form the word “desire” יצר yetzer.

Another name for the yetzer is michshol5 (to stumble) מכשיל. 6When one wraps the straps around the ring finger one recites “I will betroth you to me forever…with faithfulness”, with the joy of a groom under the chuppah. 7 Vilna Gaon says the two shins “ש” on the tefillin form the word sus, the root of ששון / celebration. We commit in relationship to renew our identity as a chason, groom, and remind ourselves of the need for self control to prevent falling short.

The rabbis fear that emotions, even joyous ones, can become too expansive and cause us to stumble. Rabbah noticed that Abaye was exceedingly happy and said to him: “rejoice with trepidation!” (Psalms 2:11) He responded by saying “I am wearing Tefillin.”8 The Gemara then continues with the story of Mar who made a wedding feast for his son and thought the rabbis were having too good a time. He bought an expensive glass that was worth 4009 zuz and broke it in front of them to contain their joy — and this, according to Tosafot, is why we have the universal custom of breaking a glass at a wedding.10

There are several differences between the tefillin of the arm and the head. The one we wear on the head, like the intellect, is compartmentalized. There are four separate texts, each in their own space, like the four senses of sight, hearing, taste, and smell, each having their own domain. The one on the arm corresponds to the heart, and like our emotions, is total. The one on our head is revealed, the one on the arm concealed to remind us of the need to process our feelings into words that are appropriate for another to hear.

How we interact with others says a lot about who we are. Our ability to control ourselves and act properly testifies about our character, especially in emotionally charged situations.11Maturity has been defined as the intellect’s ability to control the emotions and support a healthy balance of the two. 

With the Exodus of Egypt came the birth of a nation and the need to relearn how to speak properly. The word Passover in Hebrew is פסח — “Peh Sach,” the mouth that speaks. All of the mitzvos of the seder — telling the story, eating matzah, drinking wine — involve the mouth. Paroh is understood as פה רע / “Peh Rah” — the evil mouth. The more we fill ourselves with Torah the more empowered we are. For there is no freedom when we are not in control; including controlling the words that come out of our mouth.

 

Discussion questions:

 

We do not wear tefillin on Shabbos. What might that tell us about the way we speak today?

What else in Judaism is called a “sign?” What do they have in common?

What are some strategies to better use words as a way of improving a situation?

Why do we often feel better after we have spoken about our feelings?

 


1. Rashi Exodus 13:16

2. עיין שפת אמת פ’ נח תרנ”ד

3. Shabbos 104a

4. Spelled מם with both letters, the first “open” and last “closed”.

5. עיין בן יהוידע ברכות ה: רע עין = 400 on the story of 400 barrels of wine that turned to vinegar

6. Michsol also has a numerical value of 400, the same as ת in חתן, leaving חן remaining.

7. Malbim hosea 2:21 כמ”ש ומשוש חתן על כלה ישיש עליך אלהיך, ויהיו אירוסין חדשים

8. Brachos 30b

9. Also an allusion to Esev who came after Jacob with 400 men.

10. The Tzlach explains that we are similar to glass in that we are also made from the earth and that we fall and break (through sin) we can also be reformed, like glass, through repentance.

11. In the verse of Shema, the first and last letters are large and form the word עד, meaning testimony. The Gra observes that the remaining letters in those two words form אשמך – to rejoice.

 

By Rabbi Mike Moskowitz.  See other #MenschUp posts here.

All of Us, Going Forth, On Our Doorposts, Clearing Out: 4 Building Lessons from the Ritual of 4s

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Part of a yearlong series on Torah wisdom about building and builders.

In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, God instructs Moses (Ex. 12) about four practices they are to teach to the children of Israel. Encoded in these four instructions are four powerful lessons for building the Jewish future.

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  • All of us

Torah teaches that each household is to take a lamb. This isn’t something for only the wealthy to do, or only the Levites, or only the people who live in a certain part of town or dress a certain way or have certain politics or belong to a certain shul. This practice is for all of us. (And lest the cost of doing Jewish be too high, Torah stipulates that if someone can’t afford a lamb, they can go in with another family. What’s most important is that everyone participate.)

This echoes a theme from earlier in the parsha. When Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and again spoke the words of God’s demand, “Let My people go, that they may serve Me,” Pharaoh asked who would be the ones to go. Moses replied, “We will all go, young and old. We will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds, for we must observe God’s festival.” (Ex. 10)

All ages and stages, and all gender expressions: the egalitarianism is striking. That’s the first building lesson in this week’s parsha. Each household is to take part. All of us, regardless of age or gender or sexual orientation or social station. Active engagement with spiritual life isn’t the rabbi’s job, it’s everyone’s job. The work of building the Jewish future requires all of us.

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  • On our doorposts

When the lamb is slaughtered, Torah tells us to to mark the doorposts of our houses with its blood, in remembrance of the bloodied doorposts that signalled the Angel of Death to pass over. For two thousand years, Jews have marked our doorposts with mezuzot. (Josephus, who lived from 37-100 C.E., wrote about mezuzot as an “old and well-established custom.”) Mezuzot are often very beautiful. But the real beauty of this teaching lies in what the mezuzot represent: awareness of the Holy in all of our transitions.

We can remember the Holy in temporal transitions — e.g. opting to begin a meeting with a melody or a blessing, the way we begin and end Shabbat. We can remember the Holy in spatial transitions — e.g. marking the doorposts of our houses, and even our rooms. When we lie down and when we rise up, when we exit and when we enter: every transition offers us an opportunity to re-orient ourselves toward God. In every day, in every place, we can choose apathy or we can choose engagement. We can choose to knock down, or we can choose to build.

Torah prompts us to mark our doorposts so we will remember that life is full of transitions… and that in every transition, we can choose anew to uplift, to sanctify, and to build.

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  • Ready for our journey

Torah tells us to eat the feast of Passover with our sandals on our feet and our walking-sticks in our hands. The seder isn’t just a dinner party: it’s an embodied remembrance of what it was like then (and what it is like now) to be ready to go. The seder is an opportunity to open ourselves to the necessity of change, of going-forth from our stuck places, of new beginnings.

The seder reminds us that sometimes there is sweetness (or at least comfortable familiarity) in being stuck and in letting our spiritual lives be stale. Our job is to open ourselves to the flavor-burst of horseradish. To let our hearts and souls be startled out of complacency. To put on our sandals and be ready to move. To take up our tools and be ready to build. The Jewish future will not look exactly like the Jewish past. Slavish recreation of that past defeats the purpose — and I say that as someone who deeply loves a lot of things about that Jewish past!

But we need to have our shoes on and be ready to go. We need to have our toolboxes in good order and be ready to build. We need to cultivate the faith and trust required to set out on the work of building something new. And we need to approach the holy work of building with the humility of Moses, balanced with the exuberance of Miriam dancing at the edge of the sea.

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  • Clearing out our old stuff

Torah tells us that for seven days we are to remove leaven from our homes, in remembrance of the hasty waybread of the Exodus journey. Reams of pages have been written about the proper way to remove leaven from one’s home for Pesach. (Blowtorch, anyone?) But in its simplest (and deepest) form, Torah’s teaching here is about shedding the old in order to make ourselves ready for the new.

The word hametz (leaven) derives from the root meaning “to ferment.” In a literal sense, leaven is that which has fermented. That’s what a yeasted starter does to create the lightness we know as leavened bread. In a spiritual sense, hametz can mean that which is old and sour, the puffery of ego and self-importance that gets in the way of our capacity to build something new.

In order to build a Jewish future worthy of our hopes, we need to be ready to relinquish excessive ego. We need to be ready to relinquish old stories that no longer serve. We need to be ready to relinquish our attachment to mistakes (our own, and others’). Only when we wholly clear our old “stuff” can we make room to build the new. Only when our inner ground is leveled and prepared can we sink pilings for new foundations. Only when we remove what gets in the way of our openness to the unfolding of spirit can we wholly act on the call to come together and build — all of us, attentively, with our work boots on and our best tools in hand.

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By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnotes by Steve Silbert.