Zikaron – The Jewish approach to remembrance – Rav Yonatan Horovitz
The above title may indicate that the subject of the shiur will be one of the fast days or other dates in the Jewish calendar when disasters of great proportion are commemorated. This is not the case. We find in this week’s parsha, the sedra of Bo, the commandment to “remember” the day we left Egypt:
“Remember the 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” (Shemot13:3)
What is interesting about this commandment, with which we are familiar from the Haggada, the third paragraph of Shema and other sources in the Torah, is the context in which it first appears. The Torah lists several mitzvot at the end of Parshat Bo. These include the mitzvah of Kiddush and Pidyon Habechorim (consecration and redemption of the firstborn), the requirement to retell the story of the Exodus and the mitzvah of tefillin.
The connection between most of these mitzvot is obvious – they relate to our need to recall and commemorate Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt. This is true of the commandment to retell the story once a year, the need to recall the event on a daily basis and also the mitzvoth related to the firstborn. After all, it is due to Hashem’s mercy and protection that the firstborn did not perish in the final plague. Dedication of the firstborn to God and their subsequent redemption is a demonstration of gratitude to the Almighty for the many miracles He performed in Egypt.
What is the connection between all the above and the mitzvah of tefillin? This daily requirement does not seem to be related to our commemoration of the events in Mitzrayim. However, The Torah itself tells us that it is indeed relevant to the remembrance process:
“This shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead in order that the Torah of the Lord may be in your mouth; that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.” (Shemot 13:9)
This verse presents us with a problem. On the one hand it connects between the mitzvah of tefillin and the miracles of the exodus; on the other it clearly states the reason for placing the tefillin on our arm and head – so that the Torah will be in our mouths. So why do we wear tefillin?
[It is well known that a dispute exists amongst the rishonim as to whether it is correct to delve into the reasoning for the mitzvoth or rather simply accept them as commandments from the Almighty. However, it would seem that in a case such as this, where the Torah itself points to the rationale behind the mitzvah this exercise is justified.]
The Sefer Hachinuch, commenting on the mitzvah of tefillin (422), states that as man is made of material substance he is prone to follow materialistic desires. The tefillin serve as safeguards, protecting our body from the various ills to which it may be attracted. However, in commenting on the next mitzvah, the commandment to adorn the tefillin shel rosh, the Chinuch adds that the four sections of the Torah placed in the boxes of the tefillin have particular significance. These are the two first paragraphs of Shema, which pertain to kabbalat ol malchut shamayim, accepting the yolk of the King in heaven and the oneness of Hashem. The other two sections, found in our parsha, deal with yetziat mitzrayim which, in the words of the Chinuch is the basis of belief in the renewal of the world and Divine providence in the world below. According to this notion, binding these parshiot on our arm and head affirms our belief not just in Hashem as the omnipotent God whom we serve, but also as our protector on a day to day basis.
A similar idea can be found in the words of the Ramban on the verse cited above. Ramban interprets the passuk by inverting the rationale for the mitzvah of tefillin:
“It is to be understood as: This shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt in order that the Torah of the Lord may be in your mouth. As opposed to the simple reading of the text which suggests that putting on tefillin creates a situation by which the Torah will be in our mouth, Ramban points out that by binding these words to our bodies we will remember yetziat mitzrayim and therefore the Torah will be in our mouths.
Both the Ramban and the Chinuch highlight the thematic connection between Torah, yetziat mitzrayim and tefillin. Interstingly, these parshiot also mention that these mitzvoth apply when we enter Eretz Yisrael. It is possible that the Torah is hinting at the dual purpose of yetziat mitzrayim; to receive the Torah and to enter Eretz Yisrael. The phrase used to describe our use of the tefillin “lema’an tiheyeh torat Hashem beficha, in order that the Torah of the Lord may be in your mouth” is very similar to the well known passuk found at the beginning of Sefer Yehoshua:
“Lo yamush sefer hatorah hazeh mipicha vehagita bo yomam valayla, Let not this book of Torah cease from your lips but recite it day and night….” (Yehoshua 1:8). Here the two aspects come together as Yehoshua and Am Yisrael are told, on entrance to Eretz Yisrael, to ensure that the Torah remains part of their essence, something that they deal with on a daily basis.
We could suggest that the connection woven between these three themes conveys an important message about the Torah’s view on methods of commemoration. It is not sufficient just to reminisce, to eat our matza and tell stories of old. This parsha obliges us to pass on the details of the story to the next generation. The tale becomes not a story of the past but a message for the future. The Torah is not interested in nostalgia, remembering the days of old. Zikaron means remembering and acting for the sake of the past, present and future.
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