I will bow to the life, the might and the beauty…
robbed by…rebels against the life coming from Tzuri-Shaddai’s hand…
the god of the conquerors of Canaan by storm,
and they bound him with straps of Tefillin.”
Shaul Tchernichovsky, Before Apollo’s Statue, 1899
For Tchernichovsky and other early secular Zionists, the Tefillin, which we first encounter in chapter 13, are emblematic of the way in which the religious strictures of ‘Exilic Judaism’ emasculate the natural, healthy sense of power of the ‘New Jew’. But these strictures did not originate in exile; their message was aimed at the “conquerors of Canaan” themselves, “when God brings you to the land of the Canaanite” (13:5 and 11), and it is a message about power and victory that remains especially relevant today.
What do you do with power? Where do you take your victory?
Chapter 13 speaks repeatedly of God’s mighty hand which redeemed us, and His smiting of the first born. But, in this chapter, the Torah commands for posterity that the spirit of remembrance is not one of triumphalism; we are not told to emulate God’s strong hand. Rather, the Torah emphasizes the debt and responsibility that we have because we ourselves could have (and perhaps deserved to have?) suffered the very same fate as the Egyptians. “For this reason do I sacrifice each male first born” (13:15).
The Tefillin does bind us and restrict us. Laid on our own weak hand, the straps restrain our natural tendency to turn victory to hubris and power to oppression. They remind us that our strength is greatest when we are committed to a higher power that reminds us yearly to symbolically remove all traces of ego inflation and to eat humble flat-bread, and bound to a power who ensures our protection, and brings us out of Egypt armed, but doesn’t rush to bring us to taste war.
This is my own little insight about the 929 chapter of the day, in 300 words or so. Chapter 13 was Tuesday. I’d love to hear your comments and start a conversation
What’s 929? A near-impossible challenge of consistency. A song of Jewish unity. A beautiful project worth checking out. Learn more at 929.org.il