This week we have the z’khut - merit - to read Parshat Bo in which the final three plagues (locusts, darkness and the firstborn) are brought down on Pharaoh’s misguided people, and the children of Israel flee in the night towards freedom. In that first Pesach, the sacrifice is commanded as a protection on the doorposts of our homes, and the matza and bitter herbs are forever linked to our moment of liberation. God’s ancient promise to Abraham, that after centuries of bondage we would be brought forth to redemption, is at hand. And we are told that we will share this story every year between parent and child at our tables.
And then, we are commanded to... (drum roll...) wear tefillin! How many of you saw that coming? Blood, frogs, lice, verman, hail, boils, cattle disease, locusts, dark and the killing of the first born.... matza, maror... and tefillin! No, tefillin are not the 11th plague. The tefillin are the ultimate sign of our freedom.
But, how can they be a sign of my freedom if I am ordered to wear them? The tefillin are a sign - a visible show of my acceptance of my Judaism. Shabbat is a sign, making the Jewish home very different from the non-Jewish home, and tefillin are very similar. Each day I start by recognizing that I am using my freedom to commit to my Judaism. I remember that two of the passages of Torah inside the tefillin are:
And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. (Exodus 13:9)
It shall be as a mark on your hand or frontlets between your eyes, for by a strong hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt. (Exodus 13:16)
We are reminded that our arms (our strength), our heart (our emotions) and our mind (our decisions) are all directed to use our freedom for pursuing goodness and justice in the world as a Jew. I recall those who were murdered and lost who didn’t have the freedom to express their Judaism by putting on tefillin. So each weekday I remember that my freedom - even my freedom to sometimes be annoyed at having to do things - came at a great price and that I have the good fortune to live at a time when I can choose to bind myself to the Jewish people. And that is the greatest miracle of all.