Gidon Rothstein

Pesach 5774: All the Nations of the World Shall See…

I start with tefillin, in a way that will, I hope, enrich our Pesach Seder.

Earning the Name of Hashem Being Called Upon Us

In Devarim 28; 8-10, the Torah speaks of Hashem blessing us and establishing us as a sanctified nation.  The next verse, the Torah tells us “וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה’ נקרא עליך ויראו ממך, all the nations of the Earth will see that the Name of Hashem is called upon you [or, more loosely, rests upon you], and will fear you [or, be in awe of you].”

The simplest reading of the verse is that by fulfilling mitzvot, we make ourselves more in the image of God, and that will impress the other nations.  Berachot 6a narrows its purview.  The Gemara asks how we know that tefillin are a source of strength for the Jewish people, cites our verse, and a baraita where R. Eliezer the Great said that it means the tefillin worn on the head.

Rashi explained that the head tefillin have a shin (on the box) and a dalet (in the knot behind the head), indicating the Name that starts with those two letters (commonly said as Shakkai to avoid saying the actual Name).  Rashba dislikes that explanation for technical reasons and suggests instead that it is because the head tefillin are worn in a place everyone can see. (In Menachot 37b, the same R. Eliezer read והיה לך לאות על ידך, and it shall be a sign for you on your arm, to mean that the hand tefillin are for the wearer alone to see).

For R. Eliezer, the head tefillin has an external component the hand tefillin do not.

Halachic Ramifications of R. Eliezer

We seem to accept R. Eliezer’s comment as normative. The earliest time for wearing tefillin is when there is enough natural light to see and recognize a friend at a distance of four amot.  Beit Yosef to Orach Chayim 30 quotes Rabbenu Yonah as explaining that this is the standard because of R. Eliezer.  Since seeing the tefillin is part of the observance, their time is once they can be seen.

The Glory of Tefillin

R. Eliezer doesn’t explain how the tefillin will strike such awe in those who see us.  Tur Orach Chayim 28 reports that his father, Rosh (imagine that family, where the father’s the Rosh and the son is only the author of the Tur!) noted Yehezkel 24;17, where the Talmud understands the word פאר to refer to tefillin.

What makes them a פאר, Rosh said, is that they bear testimony to the Divine Presence in our midst.  That would mean that tefillin are proof of a pre-existing fact, not the cause of it. They are a glory because of what they say about us, not what they do for us.

To find out how we bring the Divine Presence into our midst, we need to detour to commentators who took the verse more generally, that there are situations where “the nations” do or should see the Name of Hashem upon us, aside from tefillin. Those will be instructive about tefillin but will also bring us back to an important Pesach message.

Our Actions Shape What Happens to Us

Chovot haLevavot is an 11th century work that still resonates today, because the otherwise unknown R. Bahya ibn Paquda (a religious court judge in Saragossa) explicitly wrote it to combat the claim that Judaism was only about specific religious practices. There are, he pointed out, basic Jewish obligations of how to feel and think (Chovot haLevavot means Duties of the Heart, and that was his point—we are obligated, as Jews, to shape ourselves internally and externally. So if someone says they do the actions of Judaism, a thousand years ago, we already knew that wasn’t Judaism).

In his seventh section, third chapter, he speaks about the obligation to notice all the good Hashem does for the world (feeding all of creation, for example), which should lead us to consider the Torah in its fullness and realize that we need to use all our capabilities, physical, intellectual, psychological, and spiritual, to serve Hashem better. If we do that, Chovot haLevavot says, Hashem will send good and fortunate experiences our way, to the point that other nations of the world will see that Hashem’s Name is upon us.

That is a complicated claim at the individual level, but Radak and Ramban thought it would happen at the national scale.  Radak says it in explaining Yehezkel 22;4’s reference to our being an embarrassment among the nations. The embarrassment is that we were supposed to be a nation that fulfilled Hashem’s Will, in which case, on a national scale, our history would go so well that all the nations of the world would see that, notice it, and have fear or awe of us.

Ramban, on Shemot 13;16, notes that there are open and obvious miracles (like in the Exodus) and there are hidden ones. When hidden miracles happen on a larger scale, people will notice and connect it to our relationship with Hashem.

In our own times, events in the State of Israel, 1948, 1967, into today’s outsized role in technological development, are examples where the nations of the world are forced to take notice. This despite the fact that, while there is much to be proud of in terms of Torah study and service of Hashem in the State of Israel, there’s much room for improvement as well.  Rabbenu Bachya, Radak, and Ramban would all likely say that if we only acted better, we would have an even more obvious Name of Hashem upon us, as a nation, with all the glories that implies.

The Supernatural Name and Bringing It Back to Pesach

Torat Chayyim  to Baba Kamma 59b’s suggestion for why tefillin is the marker of that aspect of our lives puts Pesach squarely back in the picture. He notes that tefillin invoke the name Shakkai (as Rashi had said), and that Name has long been understood to refer to Hashem Who abrogates Nature.  While non-Jewish nations operate within the natural order, when we Jews are acting properly, we connect with Hashem, Who is unbound by that.

That was one message of the original Exodus as well.  The Egyptians were certain they knew how the world worked, and the parameters of how it could work (and remember that they were the most advanced civilization of their time, just as many of us think we’re living in the most advanced civilization of our time).  The plagues and the Jews’ leaving and the Splitting of the Sea meant to teach them and us that Hashem is unlimited.

When we learn that again, and wear tefillin to mark our awareness of it, we can hope to return what we had on the original Pesach, a world in which we and many around us knew that Hashem is not just our God, but the Master of the Universe, to Whom Nature is a construct, to be torn down and rebuilt at will.

Once we know that’s part of where we have to get back to, and part of what tefillin are about, we can also see that it should be part, if not much, of the story we are to re-experience Seder night. Part of our re-experiencing the Exodus needs to be remembering what was clear back then and should continue to be clear now, that we can, if we try, be the bearers of Hashem’s Name, in a way that strikes awe in all around us. Chag Kasher ve-Sameach.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Gidon Rothstein has served in the community rabbinate and in educational roles at the high school and adult level. He is an author of Jewish fiction and non-fiction, most recently "We're Missing the Point: What's Wrong with the Orthodox Jewish Community and How to Fix It." He lives in Bronx, NY with his wife and three children.