“A Sign Upon Your Hand” (Bo)
By Reb David
In this week’s Torah portion (Bo), the final plagues on Egypt — ending with the tragic death of Pharaoh’s first-born son — wrested Israel from bondage. Israel went free with a command to honor Passover forever — which is why Jews re-live the Passover story every year. But just like we asked about the Joseph story, it’s apt to ask when the slaves’ journey to freedom began. Was it when they left Egypt, or when Moses first saw the burning bush, or sometime in between? The answer offers wisdom about the nature of freedom, and our own role in bringing freedom to life.
A clue emerges in the portion’s final words. At liberation’s door, Moses directs the people to honor Passover forever and dedicate the firsts of all they have to divine service. He concludes:
“And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand God freed us from Egypt” (Ex. 13:16).
The hand symbolizes action. Ideas, emotions and spirit are vital, but memory depends also on physical acts. It’s why a Passover seder is full of physical symbols and actions, as reminders on our hands and faces. Memory is what we do.
No less than memory, freedom also is what we do. In wisdom, God crafted a liberation in which slaves had to aid their own freedom: they had to act with their own hands. Their act, as God directed Moses to instruct (Ex. 12:3), was to take a lamb — in Egyptian religion, itself a divine symbol — slaughter the lamb, and paint its blood on the lintels of their doors, so the Angel of Death would pass over their homes. What an utterly irrational act for slaves to slay their taskmasters’ symbol for divine power!
And that’s the point. As Reb Nachman of Breslov taught, it was precisely the slaves’ leap of faith, doing something with their own hands, that brought their freedom. Had they not acted with their own hands, the Angel of Death would not have passed over, and they’d be dead. At the moment they acted — when they broke out of the Egyptian paradigm — that’s when inner liberation began. When they physically acted against the false image of a false deity, that’s when spiritual liberation began. Physical freedom soon followed.
That’s why Passover’s liberation must be a “sign upon [our] hand.” As God redeemed the slaves with a proverbial “mighty hand,” so must we act with our hands for freedom from whatever our bondage may be, against false images of ourselves, others and the world that shackle us. Faiths lead to freedom through action’s door. When we act, when we manifest with our hands a just and ethical world, that’s the definition of freedom: the opposite is bondage to a false deity. When we act in this way, we manifest holiness in the world. In the words of Psalm 90:17:
וִיהִי נֹעַם אֲדֹנָי אֱלֹהֵינוּ עָלֵינוּ
.וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנָה עָלֵינוּ וּמַעֲשֵׂה יָדֵינוּ כּוֹנְנֵהוּ
“May the grace of Adonai our God be on us: establish the work of our hands, [and] the work of our hands will establish [God].”