Kenneth Brander
President and Rosh HaYeshiva, Ohr Torah Stone

Reliving Parshat Bo in Gaza

As the Jewish people take their first steps as free people out of Egypt on their journey to the promised land, they are commanded to remember this seminal moment in their history. After being instructed to observe the holiday of Pesach, they are given two other commemorative mitzvot: Pidyon HaBen, the redemption of firstborns, in thanks for their own firstborns having been spared during the final plague (Shemot 13:12-15); and the laying of Tefillin, a daily reminder of God’s outstretched arm (Shemot 13:16).

These obligations take effect immediately. The Gemara (Kiddushin 37b) explains that while it seems that these mitzvot should be observed only when the Jews entered the land – “when the Lord your God shall bring you to the land promised to your ancestors and to you, and grant it to you” (Shemot 13:11) – their observance in fact begins already in the desert, to prepare the people to perform these commandments accurately in the land of Israel.  The Gemara reads the words of the Torah as saying that it is in the merit of the fulfillment of these mitzvot that we will live and prosper in the land.

Just a few weeks ago, these two mitzvot in Parshat Bo – Pidyon HaBen and Tefillin – were the focal point of an amazing experience in Gaza. Naftali Stetman, a student at OTS’s Straus-Amiel Emissary Training Program and an officer in the Negev Brigade, was out with his unit, far away from his dear wife and newborn son (whose birth and Brit he was home for, thank God). But thirty days had passed since the birth, and Naftali had to perform the mitzva of Pidyon Haben while fighting in Gaza. So he called together his unit, found a Kohen among them, and using his Tefillin – the only object of value on hand that was his own property – he led a moving Pidyon Haben ceremony, explaining the ritual, sharing words of Torah on the mitzva’s relevance in our time, and dancing together with his comrades in celebration of this moment of unity. In his remarks, he urged those around him not to lose sight of the greater narrative that can be so easily overlooked in moments of crisis: the story of our people and the values we stand for. It is these deep commitments that underlie all else.

Naftali was sharing with us as a soldier, as a father and as a Jew that we are not meant to see the land as simply bequeathed to us by our ancestors, which we get to hold onto one way or another. On the contrary, we must treasure the land as if it were a gift, continually earning our place within it through our commitment to our Torah ideals and our fulfillment of the divine will.

Our identity as a people is deeply tied to our place in Eretz Yisrael. The Sifrei Devarim (Eikev #43) makes an astounding claim, in light of the verses in the second paragraph of Shema, which speak first of the exile from the land and then of the mitzva of Tefillin. The midrash halakha boldly derives from these verses that the observance of mitzvot is incomplete in the diaspora. Only in Israel, where we have a holisitc identity as a people, do mitzvot take on their full meaning, as we build a society committed to the ideals of Judaism.

Furthermore the other mitzvah in this week’s portion,  Kiddush haChodesh, the consecration of the month and the capacity for us to sanctify time is also connected to the land. The Rambam, in his Sefer ha’Mitzvot (Asin #153), postulates that for the Jewish calendar to be maintained, there must be a Jewish community living in Israel. For Maimonides, even if there are millions of Jews living outside of Israel,  if there is no  Jewish community in Israel the Jewish calendar ceases to operate. For the calculation of time that facilitates the observance of mitzvot loses its meaning if there is no Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael !   

For only in Israel is a holistic Jewish experience possible. This is the meta-narrative that is brought to life by Naftali and his unit. The land of Israel is not simply ‘ours’, a birthright with no strings attached. Only by continuing to live with a commitment to protecting our nation and our people, sharing our common values and heritage, and caring for those around us – Jew and non-Jew alike – do we merit to live in Medinat Yisrael. Our connection to the land of our ancestors becomes bereft of meaning  if we fail to live up to our spiritual ideals, both in the heat of war and in the days that follow. Parshat Bo reminds us of the centrality to mitzvot and the ideals they reflect – a critical reminder as we chart the path forward through these difficult times, to strengthen our commitment to core Jewish values and our connection to Jewish community.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Kenneth Brander is President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone, an Israel-based network of 32 educational and social action programs transforming Jewish life, living and leadership in Israel and across the world. He is the rabbi emeritus of the Boca Raton Synagogue and founder of the Katz Yeshiva High School. He served as the Vice President for University and Community Life at Yeshiva University and has authored many articles in scholarly journals.
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