Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Drash Mishpatim - Onah, Sex, and Touch

For the first time in the Torah cycle, there is very little narrative, found only at the end of the parsha. This week is a continuation of the same day as God reciting the Ten Commandments, and God gives directly to Moses a rapid-fire nonstop set of mitzvot, mostly covering civil and criminal law. It includes other things, such as a more elaborate explanation of the Ten Commandments including Shabbat, honoring parents, not murdering, not being a false witness, and not stealing. There also the famous line about witches, and the schedule for the three festivals. Towards the end of this portion, Moses writes down this week portion, and then ascends Sinai for the forty days and nights to receive the rest of the Torah and the tablets.

It is also a commandment in this portion which has been the case of a lot of my exhaustion I discussed last week, though regrettably only from the study of the mitzvah, and not fulfilling it. In the Talmud, we have the following story:

R. Kahana once went in and hid under Rab's bed. He heard him chatting [with his wife] and joking and doing what he required. He said to him: One would think that Abba's mouth had never sipped the dish before! He said to him: Kahana, are you here? Go out, because it is rude. He replied: It is a matter of Torah, and I require to learn.

In case not everybody got the Idea, the 11th century commentator Rashi clarifies on what he required means sex, using the interesting euphemism serving his bed. This euphemism is very often used to discuss one commandment in this week’s portion. (Ex. 21:7-11)

7. And if a man sells his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do…10. If he takes for himself another wife; her food, her garment, and her onah, shall he not diminish.11. And if he does not do these three things to her, then shall she go out free without payment of money.

There is this strange word, onah, which is a requirement in the text. The rabbis wonder what it means, and come to two conclusions, both with the same upshot. One makes onah mean time, that there is a certain time that is guaranteed for a wife. The second meaning is one that means strife or oppression, that there is something hurting the wife. The strife is described in the curse Eve receives in Genesis 3:16 your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. But the rabbis change the he to it. So it is not the husband who rules over, but her desire for the husband. Not fulfilling that desire with sexual pleasure causes extreme pain according to the rabbis. The rabbis believed it was proper for a man to contain his lust, his yetzer hara, since he was strong enough to do so. But women were too weak, and the pain of this desire was dangerous.

This rule in Torah was for a female slave, but the text says “another wife” in verse 21:10. So the rabbis believed that this was not about mere slaves, but instead about marriages. They essentially enacted a series of rules which made onah a critical part of marriage. In short they mandated a wife orgasm in marriage. They felt so strongly about this, onah is the only marriage requirement which cannot be waived in a marriage contract. The rabbis of the Mishnah even gave a schedule of how often a man is to give his wife sexual pleasure

The times for conjugal duty prescribed in the Torah are: for men of independence, every day; for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers, once a week; for camel-drivers, once in thirty days; for sailors, once in six months. These are the rulings of R. Eliezer. (M. Ketubot 5:1)

The rabbis go on to impose on scholars such as themselves the requirement of every Friday night, and few exemptions for students to go longer period when studying away. (B. Ketubot 62b) Along with this, there is the requirement that a woman must want the sex, a man must not force sex. Yet, a woman who refuses sex could also be divorced. And for the otherwise prudish rabbis who never want anybody to see another’s naked body, there is a rather startling ruling

R. Joseph learnt: Her flesh implies close bodily contact, viz, that he must not treat her in the manner of the Persians who perform their conjugal duties in their clothes. This provides support for [a ruling of] R. Huna who laid down that a husband who said, ‘I will not [perform conjugal duties] unless she wears her clothes and I mine’, must divorce her and give her also her ketubah. (Ketubah 48a)

Sensual touch of the whole body is necessary to satisfy the requirement of Onah. Not only that but it is onah that is in the center of another ruling: contraception. The rabbis allowed the use of some form of contraceptive sponge in the case of a woman who was either in physical danger or logistically unable to have a pregnancy. The rabbis separated be fruitful and multiply from onah.

In the 9th century, we have evidence that there was a downside. Jews in Islamic Persia wrote a parody of the Talmud known as The Alphabet of Ben Sira. And it is within this text we find the Story of Lilith. While there are records of the Lilitu in ancient Sumeria, and a few comments about Lilith in the Talmud and in 6th and 7th century amulets, no earlier source but Alphabet of Ben Sira have the story that Lilith was Adam’s first wife, and she divorced him over sexual power in the relationship. It is possible that the Alphabet criticized the sexual power inherent in the rabbinic rulings of onah, which pretty much left women controlling a disproportionate amount of sex between couples.

But others had other ideas. In the middle ages, a rabbi and vintner from Troyes, the capitol of the Champagne region of France spent most of his life commenting on both Talmud and Torah. Rabbi Solomon b. Isaac, known by the acronym Rashi, produced a phenomenal amount of commentary of virtually the entire Talmud and Torah. Rashi’s work is so incredible and comprehensive, it still is the prime commentary to this day. Rashi did qualify that the Talmudic discussion of onah was about sex. But he also went one step further. While in one Talmudic passage R. Hisda is admonishing his daughters to act modestly, Rashi’s comments on this verse is on the importance of foreplay by manual stimulation of the whole body before touching the genitals (b. Shabbat 140b)

Others, contemporary with Rashi’s grandsons and colleagues, also appeared. Some like the Rabad enumerated four permitted kavvanot for sexual relations with rewards in the world to come: for procreation, for welfare of the fetus, for a wife’s desire, and that a man has desire to act promiscuously and relieves that through intercourse with his wife. Yet the last one is a lesser reward, since the man should have had the strength to resist. If He does not show any strength, and has sex anytime he wants, this would not be rewarded.

To the south, in Spain and the Islamic world there were differing views. Their tastes included intellectual pursuits of the ancient Greeks. By the 12th century the rationalism of Aristotle were taken for granted. One Andalusian Jew, who after expulsions from Spain earlier that century was living in Egypt, championed the rationalists’ view of Aristotle. This or course was Maimonides. Maimonides, also known as the Rambam, saw everything as rational, and everything fit into a world of a rational God. Yet for Maimonides, the physical pleasure of touch was not rational, and thus was to be done away with.

We ought to limit sexual intercourse altogether hold it in contempt, and only desire it very rarely… I have already quoted the verbatim the words of Aristotle. He says: “The sense of touch which is a disgrace to us leads to indulge in eating and sensuality”, etc.

Maimonides and other rationalists saw sexuality and desire as an animal drive, not something for the rational man. Interestingly, Maimonides in his codification of Jewish law does not even mention onah.

There was a deep reaction to this about a generation after the Rambam. The growing movement of Kabbalah and other schools of the region had a negative reaction to this passage of Maimonides quoting Aristotle, referring to “the impure Greek” though given their tone it is not clear whether they are talking about Aristotle or the Rambam. The text this insult come from, The Iggeret Ha-kodesh continues:

But we who have the Torah and believe that God created all in his wisdom [do not believe he] created anything inherently ugly or unseemly. If we were to say that intercourse is repulsive, then we blaspheme God who made the genitals.

While this seems a relatively liberal attitude the rest of the Iggret Ha-kodesh outlines a very different view. Touch is necessary, not for onah but for pregnancy. Desire is still sublimated to an ideal holiness in the sexual union. The book main theme is how and when to perform the sexual act in order to have the ideal offspring: a male scholar for a child, a theme later repeated in the Kabbalists’ magnum opus the Zohar, though in this case emphasising unions in the upper spheres.

All of this today provides some food for thought. While the Law of Onah is on the books, it would be difficult for a woman to use it as grounds for divorce. Between Maimonides view and the view of the Zohar that onah is more about the man than the woman, the rule is know only as the mitzvah of sex on erev Shabbat.

But at its core, I believe is a piece of Wisdom here that cannot be forgotten, once that extends to far more than just sex. The three requirements of a bride, food, clothing and onah are requirements of our physical bodies; in that the Rambam was right. But where he and his contemporaries are wrong is that touch is an animal urge that is to be completely suppressed. Indeed we can go too far, and overeating is just as much as a problem as unbridled lust or inappropriate touch. Yet, touch is a need, something we must have to survive. This is true of not just women but men too. In a world where provisioning the family was the exclusive role of the male, then the rules of Exodus 21:10-11 were specifically directed at the female, for her to have the basic needs for survival. For the past 40 years or so, that assumption of male as exclusive provider is no longer as true, and the deeper wisdom, that both men and women have physical needs requires more thought. That the rabbis who had serious qualms of letting anyone see anyone else naked would mandate nudity for performance of onah is telling of the importance of touch. In a classic Modern experiment, infant primates were removed from their mothers and either given a surrogate mother made of cloth and fur or just fed like adults without any touch. The ones with the surrogate mother survived and grew up healthy, the one without a mother became withdrawn or psychotic.

Touch is important, be it hugging a teddy bear, petting a dog, or making love with our life partner. In our world it’s hard to touch, as we a never sure what is appropriate or not. But what this Law of Torah implies is that we must touch, that there is pain in not touching another. Whether we set up a schedule like the Talmudic Rabbis did for spousal satisfaction, or just have two people mutually agree to touch, such an act is as important as food for nutrition, and clothing to keep our bodies warm.

May you have a hug today.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Drash Yitro 5766 - Resting Away in Shabbosville?

This week, moving towards Sinai, Moses’ father in law Yitro catches up with the Israelites bringing Moses’ sons and wife with him. Yitro explains the concepts of delegation and bureaucracy, and then the people get ready for the Ten Commandments, which take up the last part of this portion.

Every time at this time of the year I seem to write the same Drash, and pick out the same commandment to talk about. This year is no different. We read in the text concerning Moses personally hearing every case of the people as a judge:

17. And Moses’ father-in-law said to him, the thing that you do is not
18. You will certainly wear away, both you, and this people who are
with you; for this thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it
yourself alone.

I understand the problem all too personally. I did once follow Yitro’s advice, and delegated much of what I do professionally to others. But, in lean times I made hard but necessary budget cuts and that meant much of this help was cut too. This brought me back to Moses’ dilemma of doing everything by myself. Many of us feel the same way, overworked and exhausted as the things continue to pile up upon us.

I, course have no one to blame but myself, much of what I got myself into outside of work is voluntary. Writing this Drash, grad school, and synagogue stuff is all voluntary, but it takes time and energy, energy that no number of venti coffees with extra shots in my favorite mobile offices can provide. It leads to mistakes I cannot afford, exhaustion and poor health. But someone recently mentioned something else it does too: it means I do not enjoy the world around me. I do things but don’t actually appreciate doing them. Thinking about that this morning I realized that as much as people complain about the bitter taste of this coffee in front of me, I never noticed because I only drink it, I never really taste it. I’m alive but not really appreciating living.

As Yitro points out, it is not only ourselves who are affected, but those we interact with, who also bear the burden of our exhaustion, in the irritability and loss of efficiency. I notice that inefficiency even as I wrote this, barely able to cement one thought to another. Yet while Yitro's solution of delegation is one that God will endorse wholeheartedly in the Book of Numbers, there is another solution that God comes up with, probably one of the most revolutionary concepts in all civilization, and make it one of the first of the Ten Commandments.

8. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9. Six days shall you labor, and
do all your work; 10. But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God;
in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your
manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is
within your gates; 11. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea,
and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed
the Sabbath day, and made it holy.

As the Jewish philosopher and apologist Philo of Alexandria explained to incredulous Romans, Shabbat is a day of rest in order to make the other days more efficient. Yet I find that efficiency hard to come by. For me, and I know for others, Shabbat and Saturday is no longer a day of rest but the day that we get no new responsibilities or interruptions, so we end up working to catch up with everything we didn’t do during the week. Of course that wasn’t the idea of the commandment, yet in a world strongly pushing us to perform, it’s very seductive to use the day of rest as a catch up day.

Interestingly, as I have more recently added Saturday morning services to my observance, I find myself even more stressed out and with bigger piles of incomplete stuff. For many years I used the early morning hours of Shabbat to do Hebrew translation, but now don’t have that time slot, and I’m having a very hard time squeezing it into my schedule. As I now am Taking Hebrew class for credit, the translations are now real work and are no longer recreation, adding to my stress.

I’ve written in the past of what I envision Shabbat as - some Jewish version of a Jimmy Buffet song, I’m resting away in Shabbosville. Its one particular harbor on a Tropical Island in time where I sit back, relax and enjoy the sights, tastes, sounds and smells of this world, to enjoy time with friends and family, and to enjoy a one-day vacation from everything else. Of course for each person that might have a different view of what that vacation looks like, but the idea is the same: to stop what we do for the other six days of week, and like God did, refresh our soul-life. I agree with the view Abraham Joshua Heshchel wrote in The Sabbath (pg.8):

Unlike the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath is not dedicated exclusively to
spiritual goals. It is a day of the soul as well as the body; comfort and
pleasure are an integral part of the Sabbath observance...To observe is to
celebrate the creation of the world and to create the seventh day all over again
the majesty of holiness in time "a day of rest a day of freedom" a day which is
like "a lord and king of all other days" a lord and king in the commonwealth of

But rest and freedom seems elusive. The temptations are too great to work, as the piles, both literally and figuratively get higher around us. Yet, it may be like Philo says, that the Sabbath is the day of refreshing, and if we get a good day of refreshing then the other six work so much better. Given the number of silly mistakes and forgetfulness I’ve had lately, I’m sure stressing for seven days is the reason, and Shabbat is the solution. Of course things can get out of hand if I get work done seven days a week: there is the real possibility of true heath problems. Transgression of Shabbat does carry the death penalty, but it is a Caret penalty, one meted out by God. I have always belied that caret means we run the risk of heart attack and other stress related illnesses to a greater degree if we don’t observe the Sabbath. If we don’t stop and rest, we die an early death.

So I’m seriously looking towards making a few changes in my life, to more observe Shabbat than I have. It means some disappointments in my life, Grad school graduation is probably delayed by a year or so, but so it will be. And with that burden still on my back for a longer time my social life will continue to suffer, but so it will be. More important is this commandment from The Torah, uttered on Sinai. Hillel once said that our body is the receptacle our nefesh, the soul given to us by God, and the holy part of us. We must treat our bodies as well as the custodians of Roman temples treat the idols inside, says Hillel, even more so: our bodies really are the gifts from God.

With that, however hard it is to just stop, may you have a wonderful restful Shabbos.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Drash Beshelach 5766 - Drumming on the Edge of Prophecy

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of song. Pharaoh, in the wake of the last plague, lets the people go, and they travel via the reed sea. Stopping at the shore, they find out that Pharaoh has had a change of mind, and has his chariots in close pursuit. But a miracle occurs and the sea splits, allowing the people to walk on dry land through the sea. When they reach the other shore the sea closes up on the approaching Egyptians, swallowing them up in the sea. Moses and the people rejoice by singing a song. So important was this song, parts are recitesd in the liturgu every day after the Shema, mi chamocha

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods? Who is like you, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? (Ex 15:11)

After the Song, we are told

20. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.

Midrash is created when there are questions about what the Torah has as its words. This verse about Miriam has many such questions. The question the rabbis ask is why Miriam is mentioned here as a prophetess, but as the sister of Aaron, not of Moses. From this they deduce that she only prophesized about the birth of Moses, once Moses was born she stopped prophesizing.(Megillah 14a)

This is the third instance of the wordנביא navi, "prophet" in the entire Torah, and the first as a title and the first in the feminine. The first use of prophet is in reference to Abraham (Gen 20:7) the second to Aaron (Exodus7:1). Both are God declaring them prophets, but Miriam is the first where it is part of her title. Aaron is known as “Aaron the priest” Moses is either known as “the man of God” or “the servant of God” but Miriam is know as “the prophet” The next two people to be called “the prophet” will be Gad and Nathan in David’s time, and of course Elijah much later.

There is another word that also interests me. תףTof or frame drum. Often translated as tambourine, this word is not often found in the entire biblical text, only in 17 places and only twice in the Torah. Yet these verses give us lot of ideas about this instrument. Five of these references (Exodus 15:20, Judges 11:34, I Sam 18:6, Jer. 31:3, Psalm 68:26) mention women playing the drum. Dancing is noted 7 times (Exodus 15:20, Judges 11:34, I Sam 18:6, Jer. 31:3, Psalm 149:3, Psalm 150:4, Job 21:12) Other instruments, namely stringed instruments and flute occur 11 times and 4 time respectively. All but Isaiah 30:32, which use the harp and drum as weapons, have a connotation of joy involved. Most like Exodus 15, concern victory, but Job 21, and Isaiah 5 are about drunken frivolity.

But it is I Samuel 10, where Saul is instructed to become king, which provides one of the most intriguing comments:
5. After that you shall come to the hill of God, where the garrisons of the Philistines are; and it shall come to pass, when you have come there to the city, that you shall meet a company of prophets coming down from the high place with a lute, and a tambourine, and a pipe, and a lyre, before them; and they shall prophesy; 6. And the spirit of the Lord will come upon you, and you shall prophesy with them, and shall be turned into another man

Miriam is called a prophet in Exodus 15:20, but in no other verse in Torah. Saul prophesizes here, but does not prophesize again. It could very well be that it was the music, and most notably the one instrument found in each case, the frame drum, which might be the element which transforms a person temporarily into a prophet.

Frame drums are known in the Middle East as duff, daf, or tar; all have names with similar phonetics to tof. In both ancient Egyptian and Sumerian cultures goddesses played drums, and hence their priestess played frame drums. Near the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, there was Innana, by the Nile there was Hathor, maybe not coincidentally a horned cow goddess. Significantly, they play drums without visible bells or clappers, but instead are perfectly round like the sun or moon, not tambourines but simple frame drums.

As drum historian, ethnomusicologist, and former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart noted, a lot of drummers in ancient time were women, especially of frame drums. Priestesses would communicate with their goddess through the trances created by drum. The evidence from the biblical text would seem to indicate that in Israelite culture as well women were very often playing the frame drum. Like Miriam and Saul the drum induces brain states leading to a trance like state - the state of prophecy. As Hart write his book Drumming on the Edge of Magic these changes in the brain do happen and do have effects on the human psyche, utilized by many cultures as the bridge to communicate with the spiritual. Rashi makes an interesting comment about frame drums too - that the righteous women of Israel knew to bring them to celebrate a miracle with songs of praise and drum - a miracle that hadn’t happened yet. Not only Miriam was involved in prophecy, but other women too.

Miriam very well could have been a prophet because of her drum, and may have as a prophet filled a role a priestess would have. She, like many others had the power of prophecy though the beat of a drum. It is therefore interesting to note what the Babylonian Talmud does with frame drums: it seemingly bans them.

AND AGAINST [THE USE OF] THE DRUM [IRUS]. What means IRUS? — R. Eleazar said: A drum with a single bell. Rabbah the son of R. Huna made a tambourine for his son; his father came and broke it, saying to him, ‘It might be substituted for a drum with a single bell. Go, make for him [an instrument by stretching the skin] over the mouth of a pitcher or over the mouth of a kefiz’.(B. Sota 49b)

According to R. Eleazar, a drum with a single sounding chamber, like a frame or barrel drum is banned by rabbinic prohibition. The Gemara continues with R. Huna destroying his grandson’s frame drum, and telling his own son to make an acceptable drum, a two-belled (or goblet shaped) Arabic טבלא tabla better known as a darbouka. The feminine drum is replaced by a decidedly masculine drum, and the drum of prophecy all over the globe is replaced with a drum of very different utility. But following this idea of prophecy, we need to first remember the rabbinic view of prophecy:

R. Abdimi from Haifa said: Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise (Baba Batra 12a)
In short, the role of divine connection is in the hands of the Rabbis and their learning. The above Gemara is commentary on a line of Mishnah:

Mishnah. During the war with Vespasian they [the rabbis] decreed against [the use of] crowns worn by bridegrooms and against [the use of] the drum.

The war with Vespasian ended with the destruction of the second temple. In one sense, this Mishnah might be a banning of a prophetic device outside their control. There may be another explanation, since in many other parts of the Talmud drumming is discussed as an almost everyday activity. The Mishnah verse, and several pieces of Gemara which use it as proof of other halakah, believe the drum is banned from use as part of the wedding ceremony only, to take some of the joy out of a joyous event in remembrance of the destruction of the temple.

Yet that does not completely explain R. Huna’s actions, unless his grandson was getting married. Ironically, it seems R. Huna was the one who explained the drum prohibition applied only to weddings. His obsession might have to do with a dream (Brachot 57a):

R. Papa and R. Huna the son of Joshua both had dreams. R. Papa dreamt that he went into a marsh and he became head of an academy. R. Huna the son of R. Joshua dreamt that he went into a forest and he became head of the collegiates. Some say that both dreamt they went into a marsh, but R. Papa who was carrying a drum became head of the academy, while R. Huna the son of R. Joshua who did not carry a drum became only the head of the collegiates. R. Ashi said: I dreamt that I went into a marsh and carried a drum and made a loud noise with it.

A dream of a drum in a marsh means you will become powerful. Huna didn’t dream of the drum and got a second in command position. R. Ashi and R. Papa were both heads of Academies. Yet the drum in the marsh was not a tof, but a double-belled tabla. The story wasn’t about destroying a frame drum because frame drums are banned, but that his grandson was not playing the kind of drum he needed to dream about.

In this exploration of one verse of Torah, we’ve talked about the beginning of the verse. But Exodus 15:20 does not end with Miriam alone playing the tof but with all the women. Prophecy comes not just from individual effort but from a collective one. Saul was not alone in his prophecy, and neither was Miriam. It is here that we can appreciate King David’s conclusion to the book of psalms in Psalm 150, which not only mentions drums but all the instruments, that “All life praise YAH!” For those who have played in a drum circle, song circle, or band, this advice hits home. There is something intensely spiritual in the collective beat that isn’t there in the single beat, as all that noise joins into one beat.

Mickey Hart in his introduction to Drumming On The Edge Of Magic wrote an interesting creation story and commentary.

In the beginning there was noise. And noise begat rhythm and rhythm begat everything else. This is the type of cosmology drummer can live with. Strike a membrane with a stick, the ear fills with noise. Unmelodic, unharmonious sound. Strike it a second time, a, third, you’ve got rhythm.

The first rhythm of the world according to Torah is “and there was evening and there was morning.” Day and night created on the first day of creation was rhythm. (Gen. 1:5) As Rabbi Andrea London pointed out to me recently, the first of the mitzvot of Torah given collectively to the Israelites is the mitzvah we read last week; “This will be the first of months for you.” (Exodus 12:2) The first of Nissan is the beginning of the Beat of Judaism, of the syncopated rhythms of time and ritual and life. The beat of our hearts and the rhythm of a woman’s body are always with us. It should be no surprise that Miriam was a prophetess in rhythm, the same way a strong beat cannot help but make us dance.

Let us all then, in the words of the Psalms, Praise Yah in drum and dance.

Note: For those interested in all the biblical and talmudic passages I mentioned, I have collected and posted them to the website

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Getting more High Tech

Just wanted to tell everybody that I now have a website, which, beside here, will have the current weekly portion. I have not done a lot on the site yet, but Its my plan to make it a incredible place for free resources for text study and other Jewish related topics within the next few months. Here's a preview of the things to come.
  1. The "Prayerbook Hebrew you Know by Heart" series of tutorials for self teaching. These are short exercises to help people learn the aleph-bet.
  2. Jewish Drumming site. My knowledge is still limited, but I'd love to have a place to get resources on good things to do and what drums and beat work in Jewish drum circles.
  3. Text study resources such as a guide to numbers and gematria, rabbinic histories, and the work in-progress "Shlomo's guide to Talmud"
  4. Handouts from presentations I give and announcements of upcoming seminars.
  5. Holiday related guides

Once I finally figure out how to upload and post adobe acrobat files, a lot of this will go on line pretty fast. But if there is other things you'd like to see, or have something to contribute, let me know by replying here on the blog or writing me at

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Drash Bo 5766 - Signs

This week we have the last three plagues, locusts, darkness, and finally the death of the first born. Before the last plague hits, however, there is a lot of preparation done beforehand. God gives a set of directions to first chain up then kill a lamb as an assembly, eating it all in the night of the plague, and spreading its blood on the doorposts of the houses of the Israelite so to indicate whose house to pass over. Further instructions mentioned not eating leavened foods for seven days and eating Matzah instead. This was the first Passover.
In modernity we wonder on the need for plagues, on hurting that much people and property. The text does give us an answer at the beginning of this portion (Exodus 10:1-2)
1. And the Lord said to Moses, Go to Pharaoh; for I have hardened his heart, and the heart of his servants, that I might show these my signs before him; 2. And that you may tell in the ears of your son, and of your grandson, what things I have done in Egypt, and my signs which I have done among them; that you may know that I am the Lord.

And at the beginning of the last week’s portion is this: (Exodus 7:3)
3. And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply my signs and my wonders in the land of Egypt.

At the end of this week’s portion it this (exodus 13:7-9)
7. Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days; and there shall no leavened bread be seen with you, neither shall there be leaven seen with you in all your quarters. 8. And you shall tell your son in that day, saying, ‘This is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came forth out of Egypt.’ 9. And it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Lord’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand has the Lord brought you out of Egypt.

Tying these three passages together is the Hebrew word oht, the word for sign. Interestingly it is not the word for plague. Torah only associates four of the plagues with the word plague: frogs, death of cattle, pestilence, and death of the firstborn. Interestingly all of these involve death. The other six, which do not directly cause death, have no such designation. But all are signs, yet by convention we call them collectively plagues.

As the signs begin with the blood of the Nile, and work towards Darkness, Pharaoh’s heart and the heart of his servants is hardened each time, yet slowly softens in a sense. At first Pharaoh wont even listen and his servants, the magicians, scoff and imitate Moses and Aaron. But eventually the magicians can’t do the same things, and they tell Pharaoh this is the finger of God. They too fall victim to the plague of boils not even being able to use their magic to defend themselves. Pharaoh’s advisors even beg Pharaoh to let the Israelites go after the Locusts. Yet Pharaoh does not let them go, but does begin to change his tune. First he acknowledges Moses and asks for them to be removed, and then he admits he sinned against the God of the Hebrews, then allows only adults to leave and keeps the kids as hostages, then allows the children, but keeps the livestock. Of course he goes back on his word each time, or makes it an offer that Moses will refuse.

That Pharaoh and his servants changed at all says something about the signs - they did their job. Like I said last week, actions speak louder than words. Pharaoh, like most executives and politicians was a big talker with promises, but never followed through. Yet his rhetoric changed, which shows they had some effect. If they did not, Pharaoh would have completely ignored Moses for the first nine, and taken different measures on the tenth. The plagues were started by actions but the signs were sights. What we see is far more powerful than what we speak and hear. Signs we see, as in the case of tzizit. We see the fringe and remember the mitzvot. You can tell people there’s a bridge out till you’re blue in the face, but unless there’s a big sign and a barricade saying BRIDGE OUT many will not pay attention and fall to their deaths.

Signs are reminders and indicators; they are sources of information. They are, however, not symbolic. Symbols are things which stand in for another thing. An idol is a symbol for a god for example. We do not worship tzitzit or tefillin; we use them to remember something else. In the case of tefillin, the text within their boxes contains two verses from this weeks portion: “as a sign upon your hand and as bindings/remembrances before your eyes.” We are to remember the Exodus from Egypt when we put on tefillin. Eating matzah is also a sign to remember our freedom from the Egyptians, and who’s responsible for that.

I think about signs today, not necessarily religious ones but ones of identity. Wearing a kippah or tefillin or a tallit are all symbols one is Jewish. Actions themselves such as lighting Shabbat candles are also signs of identity, because they can be seen. In modern American consumerist society, what you own, the place you call home, the car your drive, and the clothes and music you give your kids all are signs of identity. This need for signs is all consuming. In the comedy Baby Boom there’s a scene in a playground where mothers were talking about how picking the right daycare leads to Harvard. The sign of a good previous school, in this deluded mothers mind was all that was necessary to get into the next school, which was also a sign of the education that will inevitably lead to Harvard. In my professional career as a consultant, I have numerous times seem business owners so consumed by showing the right signs and symbols, they ignore their core business to the point it is a real danger to others.

There is so much that is sign, we don’t even think about it any more. So much so if there is not a sign for something, it does not exist. Take knowledge and learning for example. More often than not there is no easily accessible sign to signify learning. Without the symbol of a title, no one remembers you have something precious. If one spends a massive amount of time on study, and there are no visual signs that they learned, then that person does not exist, they are a mere ghost or doormat. We are too steeped in signs, and we forget too easily without it.

At the beginning of our portion this week, this concern is voiced by God. Unless the meaning of a sign is transmitted it will be forgotten. And if the sign is forgotten, so will be the thing it represents. Thus God commands that the sign be transmitted to the next generation, against the possibility that God’s deliverance of the people from Egypt be forgotten. That too is of course a sign of God, and thus God worries that without our transmitting that sign for two generations after us, God will be forgotten.

In a little more literal reading than the usual mitzvah for tefillin in Exodus 13:9 the sign in the hand and the remembrance between our eyes are the signs of Passover, particularly eating matzah seven days and forgoing leavened foods. By doing this, we continue to remember God, and remember to speak in the ways of the Torah and the signs within the mitzvot. The more we teach the signs of the past, the less we will forget who we are as a people and what we believe. The more we sublimate those signs with other signs, the more we forget. The story of the plagues bound to the redemption from Egypt reminds us that there is power in the visual sign greater than the spoken word. But the visual sign is nothing without the spoken word. One needs the other.

The question we must ask ourselves, to keep remembering the Exodus from Egypt for generations to come, is what signs should we speak and see?