Thursday, August 30, 2007

Parshat Ki Tavo 5767: Blessings, Curses and the Seeds of Evolution

This week, we read of the blessings and curses. Among the blessings we read:

3. Blessed shall you be in the city, and blessed shall you be in the field.

4. Blessed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your ground, and the fruit of your cattle, the produce of your cows, and the flocks of your sheep.

5. Blessed shall be your basket and your store.

6. Blessed shall you be when you come in, and blessed shall you be when you go out. [Deut 28 3-6]

Among the curses:

16. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field.

17. Cursed shall be your basket and your store.

18. Cursed shall be the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your land, the produce of your cows, and the flocks of your sheep.

19. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out.

20. The Lord shall send upon you cursing, confusion, and failure, in all that you set your hand to do, until you are destroyed, and until you perish quickly; because of the wickedness of your doings, by which you have forsaken me.[Deut 28:16-20]

Deuteronomy provides a dilemma for many people due to its quid pro quo theology. Yet, coming back from vacation in the Galapagos Islands, I’ve been reflecting on a lot of what I learned on those Islands, as did someone who once visited them in 1835: Charles Darwin. Darwin notes his experiences in the Galapagos were one of the major influences in formulating the theory of evolution. However, history records he didn’t act it at the time, actually eating one of the critical samples (the tortoises). While many fundamentalist theologians spend a lot of time and energy refuting evolution as a godless theory, I see something else, something that has a lot to do with blessings and curses God gave us in Deuteronomy.

Like Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands are formed over a geologic hotspot, a thin point in the Earths crust where Magma can easily reach the surface in the form of volcanoes. The Islands form as these volcanoes reach the surface of the water. Unlike Hawaii, the Galapagos is a mere 600 miles from the coast of South America, where the Oceanic plate dives under the continental plate. Even 600 miles out, islands in the Archipelago sink as they move southwest on the plate towards the mianland. Young Islands like Fernandina are tall, active volcanoes. Old Islands like Baltra are flat. Add to this most of the Pacific currents, both warm and cold, converging on this small set of islands. The Cold Humboldt in particular, brings food for the sea life, and for the species that feed on that sea life. The warm Panama current brings rainstorms. Yet the predominant cold current keeps these islands which span the equator rather temperate all year round. The volcanoes and former volcanoes create weather in the form of mists and clouds day in and out, providing rainforests on their higher elevations.

What this creates is a world where short distances change environments greatly. I quipped on the boat more than once if you don’t like the weather in the Galapagos, wait five minutes or take five steps. Darwin never thought about this. What he did see was through the Mocking bird species he studied, different environments meant the mocking birds used different beaks for different tasks in the differing environments. Darwin came up with his idea that the fittest species survive, and others die out. But there is a question which unfortunately has been answered badly from the time Darwin published till today ― what does it mean to be “fit?”

My experiences in the Galapagos and the knowledge of Biologists and environmental scientists since the time of Darwin have one rather circular answer, with a big implication. “Fit” means those who are able to utilize something in their environment and survive. As Steven Jay Gould one wrote “Survival of the fittest” is really a tautology. But the implication here is for every niche exploited by a species, other niche forms, to be exploited by another species. Sometimes mutation does the trick, sometimes even learned behavior. Mockingbirds on the rather desert Island of Espanola for example have learned within the last few decades to harass anyone (including bouncing on your head) with a water bottle in order to get a drop of the precious liquid. What all this mutation and learning creates is an intricate interdependency of every species on the Island to each other.

Of course when that order is shattered, the system collapses. Pirates wanting to have a easy source of meat let go goats on these islands. The goats reproduced rapidly and ate all of the vegetation. In turn native species like the Giant tortoises and Land iguanas starved, on some Islands becoming extinct, on most becoming very endangered. Today, programs are in place for eliminating the invading goats. On some of the smaller Islands like Floreana, such programs were successful and Galapagos life is returning. On some like Santa Cruz, the work continues.

Like the goat of Azazel related to the temple practice of Yom Kippur, the goats represent our sins for interfering with an ecosystem. Yet the problem with interdependency is that once you interfere, you cannot just stop and go away. If we did abandon control and elimination efforts, the feral goats, rats, cats and dogs we introduced to the island would eventually kill everything, as evidenced on several of the smaller islands. Many have called for the elimination of Tourism in the Galapagos in an effort to save the Islands. But those same tourists, who are highly regulated and restricted in their activities, are a major source of funds for repairing or slowing the damage of what we already have done with introduced species.

The Galapagos, most significantly, is a microcosm of the entire planet, and the problems of environmental protection are incredibly evident in such a fragile environment. This is not a simple system but a complex one where every species depends on other species. One problem leads to catastrophe.

The Galapagos can thus stand for a metaphor about our relation not just to the environment but to each other. We are interdependent on our environment and on our culture. When we interfere with either in a destructive way, it causes a chain of destruction, a curse. We need to be careful, but it is not easy. When we fail to keep the balance and the interdependences are not satisfied, thing fall apart, in the curses. When we do keep the balance we get abundance, and the blessings. It is not quid pro quo as much as we are part of a very intricate system.

I keep thinking of two lines from Genesis,

1:28. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.

2:15. And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and to keep it.

In one we are to subdue, in the other to guard. One wants to believe we are outside the web of life, separate from it, and thus exploitation of the natural world and indeed of each others is warranted. The other makes us the guardian of the web of life, our mission to protect it. Blessings and curses are not our reward or punishment, but the implications or our effect on the web of life. So which is it?

Both Moses and David said a phrase which it very telling: The Earth is the Lord’s. (Exodus 9:29, Psalm 24:1) It is not ours, we are mere servants here. Moses was actually telling off Pharaoh at the time, implying Pharaoh owned diddly squat. Thinking of the dormant volcano I climbed and the wild life I saw brought on this kind of humility. It is not easy, to say the least. Do you kill all the goats to save the Tortoises? It is not an easy question, no question in this interdependency is.

Blessings and curses are not about doing good and getting good. They are about being part of system, environmental, social and spiritual, and working within that system for the greatest benefit to all. It is a balance, and a very difficult one, with no simple solutions. But as the High Holidays approach, one we all should think about.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Parshat Shofetim 5767: What’s Good about a King?

Again in this portion we have a lot of mitzvot. A friend of mine e-mailed me for some help with a D’var they are giving at services this weekend. While helping them out I found the topic too good to resist, so I thought I’d cover it too.

Shofetim starts with

18. Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates, which the Lord your God gives you, throughout your tribes; and they shall judge the people with just judgment. 19. You shall not pervert judgment; you shall not respect persons, nor take a bribe; for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise, and perverts the words of the righteous. 20. Justice, only justice shall you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. [Deut 16]

A chapter later, we read

14. When you come to the land which the Lord your God gives you, and shall possess it, and shall live in it, and shall say, I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me; 15. You shall set him king over you, whom the Lord your God shall choose; one from among your brothers shall you set king over you; you may not set a stranger over you, who is not your brother. [Deut 17:14-15]

Leadership, either by kings, judges or prophets is a big part of this portion. What I mentioned to my friend was an interesting contradiction that occurs for the early prophet Samuel was growing old, while his sons were corrupt judges. .

4. Then all the elders of Israel gathered themselves together, and came to Samuel to Ramah, 5. And said to him, Behold, you are old, and your sons walk not in your ways; now make us a king to judge us like all the nations. 6. But the thing displeased Samuel, when they said, Give us a king to judge us. And Samuel prayed to the Lord. [I Samuel 8:4-5]

Samuel was not happy about all this, though God blames himself for this mess. Indeed it is interesting that it is in the issue of Kings that even god flubs it. God even admits he made a mistake appointing Saul:

11. I regret that I have set up Saul to be king; for he is turned back from following me, and has not performed my commandments. And it grieved Samuel; and he cried to the Lord all night. [I Samuel 15:11]

There were warnings in our portion that things could go bad, with specific prohibitions for a monarch in power. They were forbidden from neither increasing the number of horses for themselves, nor sending people to live in Egypt again. Like horses, he should not Have many wives because the foreign beliefs of the wives would destroy his ability to lead[Deut 17:16-17] In I Samuel 8, Samuel, relaying the word of the Lord warns the people that the King will tax the daylights out of you and draft your sons into the army.

Of course the builder of the Temple himself Solomon, broke a lot of this. Solomon had too many wives and a strong taxation of the people in order to pay for the temple and his palace. The result was the unified kingdom only lasted during Solomon’s reign.

In all of this however, there is one mitzvah about Kings that intrigues me more than these others, the one thing a king is supposed to do which still has repercussions in time long after kings were an anachronism for Jews:

18. And it shall be, when he sits upon the throne of his kingdom, that he shall write for himself a copy of this Torah in a book from that which is before the priests the Levites; 19. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life; that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to do them; [Deut 17:18-19]

The Talmud reads

He shall write in his own name a Sefer Torah. When he goes forth to war he must take it with him. On returning, he brings it back with him. When he sits in judgment it shall be with him, and when he sits down to eat, before him, as it is written: And it shall be with him and he shall read therein all the days of his life. [Sanh 21b]

Essentially it became the tradition that this mitzvah of a king was to true not just for kings but for commoners as well. As the Talmud continues, “in his own name” means he must make a fresh copy and not merely take an already written scroll as his scroll. We all are to write our own Torah. But the Talmud also says:

Rabbah b. Bar Hanah said in the name of R. Johanan, It is forbidden to write one letter save from a copy’.

We are not to make this up; we have to follow the laws as written by the letter. In my view, what does all this mean?

It would be nice for every Jew to have the requisite, time, Hebrew skills, and scribal abilities to literally write their own scrolls. Even in the time of Kings, the king did not do the copying, but a scribe did. People would commission to have a scroll made for them. The Talmud does take a dim view however of merely buying the scrolls,

R. Joshua b. Abba again cited R. Giddal who said in the name of Rab, He who buys a scroll of the Law in the market is regarded as one that has seized a precept in the market, but he who writes it, him the Scripture regards as if he had received it at Mount Sinai. [Menh 30a]

The writing even if it is a commission requires an active role of both commissioned and commissioner. I believe here is where we can see the merit in such an act. No matter how the Torah scroll is obtained, it must be a case of active participation and active learning. Passively reading is different than writing. As I sit at this keyboard every week, I am not, like many, simply reading and reporting the text. The experience is the same as when I have tried my hand at the scribal arts. You cannot handwrite something without thinking about what you are writing. In the group setting, Havruot and minyans who replace the rabbi’s sermon with a discussion about the texts do the same thing, but on a even higher level, creating an environment of differing perspectives which enhances the conversation.

Abraham Joshua Heschel in the 1953 gave a scathing attack during a speech to conservative rabbis which half a century later remains true in many congregations:

The modern synagogue suffers from a severe cold. Our congregants preserve a respectful distance between the prayerbook and themselves. They say the words "Forgive us for we have sinned," but of course they are not meant. They say, "Thou shall love the Lord thy God with all thy heart ." in lofty detachment, in complete anonymity, as if giving an impartial opinion about an irrelevant question.

An air of tranquility, complacency prevails in our synagogues. What can come out of such an atmosphere? The services are prim, the voice is dry, the synagogue is clean and tidy, and the soul of prayer lies in agony. You know no one will scream, no one will cry, the words will be still-born… They have come to regard the rabbi as a master of ceremonies. [MGSA,101-2]

In the passive world of synagogue observance, there is no life to prayer and thus no life to the Mitzvot. Heschel knew prayer through the lens of the Hasidism of his youth in Warsaw. The passionate ideal of active prayer so important to Heschel has found its way into many movements since then, such as Renewal and Reform. Within ourselves we must active look at the mitzvot in order to do them. Passivity leads to a cold of the entire religion.

A king who gives orders and everyone mindlessly follows those orders leads to an unhealthy country. The people are not motivated to do more for the king and country than the orders allow. A king who actively participates in the law and brings his followers into being that active creates a healthy vibrant kingdom. When we rule ourselves we should think of this. How much more so when we rule others?

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Parshat Re’eh 5767: Rabbi, Is this Gazelle kosher?

Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17

I’ve been a little intense lately so I thought I’d do something light on its feet, like a gazelle. This week we have a large number of mitzvot. In the middle of all this we have the commandment:

What ever I command you, take care to do it; you shall not add to it, nor diminish from it. [Deut 13:1]

We also have the repetition of the kosher laws. When discussing land animals, which in Leviticus we are only told they are to be animals which chew their cud and have split hoof, here we have a list of species:

4. These are the beasts which you shall eat; the ox, the sheep, and the goat, 5. The deer, and the gazelle, and the fallow deer, and the wild goat, and the adax, and the wild ox, and the wild sheep. 6. And every beast that parts the hoof, and has the hoof cloven into two, and chews the cud among the beasts, that you shall eat. [Deut 14:4]

While domesticated animals, also known as the sacrificial animals, are mentioned in this list there is also the mention of wild game, which are non sacrificial animals. Two of these are the gazelle and deer. They are mentioned twice more in this discussion of kashrut:

15. However you may slaughter animals and eat their meat in all your gates, to your heart’s desire, according to the blessing of the Lord, your God which he has given you; the unclean and the clean may eat of it, as they do of the gazelle and the deer. 16. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it upon the earth like water. [Deut 12:15-16]

21. If the place which the Lord your God has chosen to put his name there is too far from you, then you shall kill of your herd and of your flock, which the Lord has given you, as I have commanded you, and you shall eat in your gates, to your heart’s desire. 22. Like the gazelle and the deer are eaten, so you shall eat them; the unclean and the clean shall eat of them alike. 23. Only be sure that you eat not the blood; for the blood is the life; and you may not eat the life with the flesh. [Deut. 12:21-23]

Non-sacrificial animals like deer and gazelles indicate to us that sacrificial animals can be eaten the same way as wild game by the normal populace. It is only in their sacred role as sacrificial animals and their eating by the priesthood that the issues of spiritual purity of the person eating apply. On the other hand, we are told even with the wild animals, there is a prohibition of eating their blood.

While we are not to add or remove anything from the commandments, there are ways of understanding the commandments we have in terms of the entire text. The gazelle is a good example of this. It is from the gazelle we can determine that ritual slaughter applies to all permitted land animals. Significant qualifications apply to the use of Shechita. In its biblical sense, trefa means meat has not been torn by beasts. By applying ritual slaughter to wild game, it also applied the rules of not allowing any cuts or punctures on the animal prior to slaughter. The animal must be alive at the time of slaughter, and die from the cut. A puncture or a dead animal would render the animal treif.

Unlike a cow, however deer and gazelle are very fast, not found on pastures and not easily herded into slaughter. If a hunter was not Jewish, this presents only minor problems. Projectile weapons such as a rifle or bow and arrow could take down wild game, but by using something that will puncture and might kill the animal renders them treif. This is a big reason there are few card carrying NRA members who are Orthodox Jews. For meat to be kosher Jews can’t hunt with guns. Like the paradoxical secular Jewish revulsion for eating a hamburger with a glass of milk, Jewish thought has continued that ideal even in liberal Judaism. Guns are treif for most Jews, whether they eat kosher or not.

There are however, lines in the text that point to hunting gazelle.

5. Save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and like a bird from the hand of the fowler. [Proverbs 6:5]

Note Proverbs puts gazelles in parallel with birds. Hunters of wild birds like doves and pigeons also need to follow the rules of trefa as they are sacrificial animals. Fowlers, as we learn in other parts of the biblical texts used live traps and nets to catch birds. We can assume any hunter of gazelles would have to use the same strategy to catch gazelles and catch them in nets. Indeed there is a discussion forbidding trapping a gazelle in one’s house during the Sabbath, as that is too close to hunting. The proverb in context reads

2. If you are trapped with the words of your mouth; if you are taken with the words of your mouth. 3. Do this now, my son, and save yourself, when you come into the hand of your neighbor; go, humble yourself, and importune your neighbor. 4. Give no sleep to your eyes, nor slumber to your eyelids. 5. Save yourself like a gazelle from the hand of the hunter, and like a bird from the hand of the fowler.

The best way to avoid a trap is to go in the opposite direction. If you engage in Lashon hara go back and apologize and run from that trap the proverbs says.

Outside of this portion on Deuteronomy there is only one other place in the biblical text that has plenty of gazelles. The Song of Songs uses gazelles in several repetitive themes. Yet unlike Deuteronomy’s halakic themes and deriving kosher law from them, the Song is all Aggadah. The first theme uses the comparison of the gazelle’s speed and ability to dart from one place to another:

2:8. The voice of my beloved! Here he comes leaping upon the mountains, skipping upon the hills. 9. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young hart; Behold, he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. [Song of Songs 2:8-9]

Until the day cools, and the shadows flee away, turn, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or a young hart upon the mountains of Bether. [Song of Songs 2:17]

Make haste, my beloved, and be like a gazelle or like a young hart upon the mountains of spices. [Song of Songs 8:14]

The Midrash to the Song of Songs notes that like a gazelle skips and jumps around, so does God. The gazelle is a parable to God’s omnipresence, and God’s seemgly instant disappearance only to show up a second later. [Numbers R. XI:2] Second use of gazelle is a little harder to understand:

4:5. Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle, that feed among the lilies.

6. Until the day cools, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense. 7. You are all beautiful, my love; there is no blemish in you. [S.S. 4:5-7]

Your two breasts are like two fawns, twins of a gazelle. [7:4]

Comparing breasts to twin gazelles seems a little odd. Here Hebrew helps a little. The word for gazelle in Hebrew is TZVi spelled Tzadi-Veit-Yud. One of the words for beautiful, swelling, or abundant is also TZVi. In a double entendre, breasts are called twin swelling beauties. While the rabbis tried their hardest trying to steer clear of such sexual innuendo in the Song, they pulled a similar double entendre in the third Gazelle theme

7. I adjure you, O daughters of Jerusalem, by the gazelles or by the hinds of the field that you stir not up, nor awake my love, until it please. [S.S. 2:7, 3:5]

Why would anyone swear on a deer or gazelle? In the plural, Gazelles are a lot like the Hebrew words for hosts, TZeBaot, implying the heavens. The rabbis playing on this word believe it was not Gazelles and deer one is swearing by but the home of the hosts (heaven) and the home of the beasts (earth). This is swearing by heavewn and earth. Other interpretations follow, this one all playing on the word for gazelles:

R. Hanina b. Papa and R. Judah b. R. Simon gave different explanations of this verse. R. Hanina said: He adjured them by the patriarchs and the matriarchs. BI - ZEBAOTH are the patriarchs who carried out My will (zibyoni) and through whom My will was executed. THE HINDS OF THE FIELD are the tribes, as we read, Naphtali is a hind let loose (Gen. XLIX, 21). R. Judah b. R. Simon said: He adjured them by the circumcision, zebaoth meaning ‘the host (zaba) which bears a sign,; and they are called HINDS OF THE FIELD because they pour out their blood like the blood of the deer and the hind. [Song of Songs R 2:2]

There is a polarity in Jewish thought best described By Abraham Joshua Heschel. There is aggadah and halacha. Both are necessary and both need each other to exist. The rules in which each can be understood are very different. Double entendres don’t work with Halacha which requires verses on top of verses to work, and then in terms of not adding or subtracting, only to further clarify what is already there. But with aggadah an active imagination and a loose set of literary interpretation techniques are in play. Gazelles in their few mentions in the biblical text show this polarity well. From Deuteronomy to the Song of Songs, we have this polarity of halacha that clarifies the prohibition of guns for hunting to the aggadah describing the beauty of the female form as indeed heavenly.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Parshat Eikev 5767: Walking and Binding

Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25

Moses continues his speech, with plenty of admonishments to go around. In mid-speech he says something most of us are familiar with:

12. And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13. To keep the commandments of the Lord, and his statutes, which I command you this day for your good? (Deut 10:12-13)

In the chapter after that, once again we find the mitzvah of tefillin:

18. Therefore shall you lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. (11:18)

As I discussed last week, tefillin do have four scriptural citations. These are enumerated in the Talmud:

Our Rabbis taught: What is the order [of the four Scriptural portions in the head-tefillin]? ‘Sanctify unto Me’ (Exodus 13:1-10) and ‘And it shall be when the Lord shall bring thee’ (Exodus 13:11-16) are on the right, while ‘Hear’ (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) and ‘And it shall come to pass if ye shall hearken diligently’ (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) are on the left. [B.Menachot 34b]

This Gemara describes details of head tefillin. Head tefillin, unlike arm tefillin, have individual compartments for the four passages. That of course begs the question for the rabbis: Which order does one place the tefillin in those compartments? The answer is a bit vague: On the left side are the Deuteronomy passages, and the right side the Exodus passages. They are listed here in order of their appearance in the Torah, so probably that’s the order they should be in. But then someone notes a contradiction and Abaye come to the rescue:

But there has been taught just the reverse? — Abaye said, This is no contradiction, for in the one case the reference is to the right of the reader, whereas in the other it is to the right of the one that wears them; the reader thus reads them according to their order.

Apparently another ruling had them backwards: Deuteronomy on the right and Exodus on the left. It’s a matter of orientation, Abaye explains. Two people looking at the order of the passages will have a different order depending on the side of the tefillin they are on. Abaye states it is the order of someone approaching the wearer that is the ruling above. But once again there is an objection:

R. Hananel said in the name of Rab, If a man reversed the order of the Scriptural portions, it is invalid.

R. Hananel insists they still have to be in the right order, and that other things change the order as well. The argument then continues for another half a page about order of the passages and whether transpositions in the order are valid. The vague nature of the text provides a problem: there is no definitive answer to the correct order. What becomes clear is there is only one order to the text and we are not completely sure what it is. The problem comes to a head in the middle ages in an argument between a grandfather and his grandson. The grandfather is the great commentator Rashi. Rashi takes the order literally from the text. That would be from right to left, Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. His grandson, the Tosafist Rabbenu Tam, disagreed with his Grandpa on the order. Rabbenu Tam transposes the Deuteronomy 6 and 11 passages, so that the Shema (Deuteronomy 6) is sitting against the Shin on the outside of the tefillin and the two inner passages both start with “and it will be.” Since a wrong order is invalid, then one of these orders is invalid, but it is still difficult to tell. Some will believe their tefillin are the correct order. Others are not sure what the right order is. So to this day some people have two sets of tefillin, one for the more popular Rashi version, and one for the Rabbenu Tam. They will don one pair then the other or sometimes two pairs together.

For most who do not observe such rules, including me, it seems a little silly. Yet for those who follow these practices, it is no more than to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. This is the way of observance for them, however trivial. For them, Mies van der Rohe was right “God is in the details”

I do not believe that God really cares which way the documents are in a pair of tefillin, though it provides meaning to some. The mitzvah of tefillin for me isn’t an object, but an action. Tefillin are a reminder and a sign, as Exodus 13 reminds us.

Exodus 13:9. 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.

They remind us of many things. But in Hebrew the word for hand does not only mean an anatomical feature, but our power to control things. The mitzvah of Tefillin are a sign not on our hand but a sign concerning what we have the power to do. The word totafot, bindings, is a rare word. It appears in Tanach only in three of our tefillin passages. In rabbinic literature, totafot is only found in discussions regarding tefillin, and the totefet of a woman, which she is prohibited from wearing on Shabbat. Both are things which bind across the whole head [Shabbat 57b] and both have the expression “between the eyes” associated with it. Between the eyes is the focal point of stereoscopic vision, the point we apparently see from. The verses in this interpretation describe our ability to perceive the world and act in it. But what are we seeing and acting on?

There is an apparent contradiction in the text of Deuteronomy 11, just before the tefillin passage:

2. And know this day; for I speak not with your children which have not known, and which have not seen the chastisement of the Lord your God, his greatness, his mighty hand, and his stretched out arm, 3. And his miracles, and his acts, which he did in the midst of Egypt to Pharaoh the king of Egypt, and to all his land; … 7. But your eyes have seen all the great acts of the Lord which he did. (Deuteronomy 11:2-7)

But in Numbers 32:13 and Deuteronomy 2:14 and 2:16 we are told that generation died, a generation that had seen God’s wonders. Who is Moses talking to? One answer is Caleb and Joshua, who did survive. Yet, in each of the four passages of tefillin there is another commandment beyond binding to hands and head. It is to teach the next generation the story of Torah. It is to bind the deeds and the vision of the next generation to the Torah, to our heritage of slavery to freedom, and the wonders of God during that journey. Even in the structure of the tefillin we see this as bookends: The right side of the tefillin according to the Talmud’s reckoning contains the mitzvah of leaving Egypt. The left side the tefillin contains mitzvot of entering and living in the land. The forty years of the journey separate the texts.

In the first passages of tefillin, Exodus 13, we read 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.” In the last ones Deuteronomy 11, and almost identically in Deuteronomy 6, we read And you shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. When Moses states that the generation saw wonders before they were born, he means they were taught in the wilderness about these wonders. Those that weren’t taught were lost in the wilderness, and not there to cross the Jordan.

I may not observe the mitzvah of tefillin, but I think the contents of those compartments are vital. It is not placing them on my arm and head that is important but doing as much as I can to make those words alive for others, to spur them to see within their Jewish identity, and to teach the generations yet to be born.

May we all be successful in that endeavor