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01.01.2019 19:50    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah  shabbat  parashah  shemot  vaera  

The “Mighty Hand”

The concept of a “mighty hand,” which appears repeatedly in the Torah in the context of the plagues against Egypt and as described in this week’s reading, provides an important foundation for many commandments that are bound to the theme of leaving earthly servitude and entering the service of Heaven.  In the last verse of Parashat Shemotthe Lord proclaims to Moses, “You shall soon see what I will do to Pharaoh:  he shall let them go because of a greater might (lit. “mighty hand”); indeed, because of a greater might he shall drive them from his land” (Ex. 6:1).   For example, the mighty hand is cited for the observance of the Sabbath, the prototype for sanctifying time:   “Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and the Lord your G-d freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your G-d has commanded you to observe the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Here, the mighty hand coupled with the remembrance of the Exodus is equal in weight to the first reason given for the Sabbath, mentioned in Parashat Yitro:   “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed thesabbath day and hallowed it” (Ex. 20:11).

The two reasons given for this sanctification of time are none other than a parallel of equal weight; the “resting” of G-d on the seventh day means a transformation of the perception of the essence of G-d from the deity as Creator of heaven and earth, to a  G-d defined in terms of His active participation in the events of history.

G-d resting from His work on the seventh day may be compared to the exodus from bondage to Egypt, an exodus symbolizing liberation from earthly desires as embodied by the idolatry of Egyptian culture, which worshipped a god connected with the forces of nature. Just as God refrained from dealing with nature on the seventh day, so too leaving the physical and spiritual bondage in Egypt was a necessary precondition to accepting the responsibility of serving Heaven.   Likewise, we find that the first trial of Abraham, the first man of faith, was to leave the cultural environment of idolatry – “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house” (Gen. 12:1).  Casting off the yoke of earthliness is a necessary precondition to accepting the yoke of Heaven,. [1] Dialectically, serving the Lord is total liberation from all earthly servitude and is expressed in the words, “Let My people go that they may worship me” – liberation for the sake of taking on the responsibility of worshipping the Lord.

The two reasons for sanctification of the Sabbath present two ideas:  one, recalling the work of Creation by fiat, command, which means by speech, and second, the exodus fromEgypt by a mighty hand.  Fiat represents the laws of nature, divine wisdom, logos – and with this the Sabbath is associated by the theme of remembrance (zakhor):   “Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy” (Ex. 20:8). The mighty hand represents action, divine will, ethos – this is associated with the Sabbath through the theme of observance (shamor):   “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy” (Deut. 5:12).

Like the Sabbath, which serves as a sign, [2] so, too, the tefillin (phylacteries) serve as a sign and they maintain the same dual significance: “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” (Ex. 13:9).  The symmetry in this verse—sign, reminder-- attests to the two aspects of the commandment of tefillin:  one, that they “serve as a sign on your hand,” because“with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt,” and the other, that they be “a reminder on your forehead,” with the explanation, “in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth.”  Like the double aspect of the Sabbath, here, too, we have a symbol denoted by the tefillin on the hand, which relate to the “mighty hand” of the exodus fromEgypt, and the tefillin on the head, which symbolize remembrance and the power of speech.

These two signs, the Sabbath and tefillin, are analogous to the two aspects represented by the might of G-d:   wisdom and will.   The tefillin on the head represents speech, the intellect, the ability to learn and remember, the laws of nature; that which is analytical, the sensory, the objective factors of reality that impinge on man that are revealed and shared by all; in addition, the concepts of truth and falsehood, and the common domain of human cognition. [3] The tefillin on the arm, in contrast, represents maan's will as he imposes it on nature, the power to do things, the heart, the intimate, the emotions, the aesthetic, [4] the kinetic and the world of action, the subjective, the concepts of good and bad, and the private domain of human cognition. [5]

The rules of halakhah for the tefillin on the hand and on the head allude to the unique characteristics of each.  The tefillin on the head are to be placed between the eyes.  The eyes represent the world of the senses through which reality is perceived, and the head houses the brain which processes the sensory perceptions, whose direction is from the world inwards toward the person.  The tefillin on the hand, in contrast, are laid on the muscle of the forearm, representing the kinetic world of action, force and volition, whose direction is from the person outward to the world.  The tefillin on the head are written on four separate rolls of parchment, placed in four separate compartments – an allusion to the analytic nature of the intellect, whereas the tefillin on the hand are written on a single parchment, placed in a single compartment – an allusion to the synthetic nature of the heart and the emotions.  The halakhah instructs us to boldly display the tefillin on the head, [6] as an indication of the objective aspect and the common domain of human recognition, whereas the tefillin on the hand must be hidden, nestling close to the heart, as an indication of the intimate and subjective aspect, the private domain of human recognition.   The letter shin is boldly displayed on the tefillin on the head, its shape radiating outward and representing the demonstrative, public, and disclosed nature of thetefillin on the head, whereas the diminutive letter yod formed by the strap on the tefillin of the arm, placed on the weaker left hand, represents the intimate and the subjective.

The “mighty hand” of the Lord becomes the hand of the person who observes the active commandments, and the might of this hand is revealed dialectically by effacement and humility, by the miniscule yod on the tefillin of the hand, which are laid on the weaker hand.  The theory of action puts the hand before the head, both in laying tefillin [7] and in the principle of “we will do and obey,” which establishes knowledge of G-d through the world of deeds, as if to say, “Taste and see how good the Lord is” (Ps. 34:9).   This “mighty hand” is identical to the way idolatry is cast off, as revealed in the great epilogue of the Torah, in its final verse:  “and for all the great might [lit. “mighty hand”] and awesome power that Moses displayed before [the eyes of] all Israel” (Deut. 34:12) – a verse which according to the midrash in Sifre refers to Moses’ action in breaking the tablets of the covenant during the episode of the golden calf, a sin which stands for failing and for the strong inclination towards idolatry:  “Rabbi Eliezer says:  before all Israel– this refers to breaking the tablets.   Why so?  It says there, smashing them before your eyes, and here it says before the eyes of all Israel.”   In Tractate Shabbat 87a, it says:  “He was moved to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it says, ‘smashing them before your eyes,’ and the Holy One, blessed be He, agreed with his judgment, for it says, ‘which you shattered’ (Ex. 34:1)  – the more power to you for breaking them.”

Thus we can understand the reason for the name given to Maimonides’ monumental work, Ha-Yad ha- Hazakah (=The Mighty Hand), otherwise known as Mishneh Torah, which summarizes the practice of the Oral Law. Maimonides intended for his work to  immediately follow the “mighty hand” in the last verse of the Written Torah. Both the oral and the written Law were given from the mouth of G-d by way of the hand of Moses.

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