The end of this week’s parashah, in the aftermath of the Plague of the First Born, gives a number of mitzvot. Among these mitzvot are central identity-marking acts of the Jewish people: Passover, tefillin, Torah study, and pidyon haben (redemption of the first-born). Shmot 13:1-16 provide us with the commandment to wear tefillin twice: 

And you shall tell your child on that day saying It is because of what the Eternal did for me when I came out of Egypt. (13:8)”  

Here, the Torah commands us to study Torah, and to teach Torah to our children. 

 And it shall be a sign for you on your hand, and a memorial between your eyes, so that the Torah of the Eternal shall be in your mouth, for with a strong hand the Eternal took you out of Egypt (13:9). 

Here, the reason for wearing tefillin is given: Torah should be so deeply a part of a Jew’s being that we should even wear it, and have it guide our actions as a sign on our hands, and deeply influence our thinking as a memorial between our eyes. 

The commandment to wear tefillin appears again in verses 14-16: 

And it shall be when your son asks you in the future, saying What is this?” that you shall say to him With strength of hand the Eternal took us out of Egypt, from the house of slavery. And it was that when Pharaoh was hardened against letting us go that the Eternal killed every first-born son in the land of Egypt, from the human first born to the first born of animals. This is why I sacrifice to the Eternal every male issue of the womb, and every first-born of my sons I redeem.” And it shall be as a sign upon your hand, and frontlets between your eyes, for by strength of hand the Eternal took us out of Egypt. 

Torah study. Observance of Pesach. Pidyon haben as a remembrance of the Plague of the First Born. Tefillin. All of these are unique markers of Jewish identity, and they are core images and practices of Judaism. They are not only unique to the Jewish people, but exclusively ours, as our parashah says of the Pesach sacrifice (12:48): No one uncircumcised may eat of it

In observing Passover, we contemplate the meaning of the Eternal source of being having taken our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt; being free from human oppression so as to be able to devote ourselves to the Eternal. Some of the most central commandments to behave ethically towards others are tied to remembering that we were taken out of Egypt so as to serve God, and to remember that we were strangers in the Land of Egypt.  

Being ethical towards others is not, of course, the sole property or legacy of the Jewish people. What is uniquely Jewish is our experience as Jews, our story of leaving slavery in Egypt being what impels us to be spiritually devoted and ethically mandated. This is why Torah should always be in our mouths, and we shall tie it on our hands, and it should be a remembrance between our eyes. 

Shabbat Shalom! 

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