Different Facets of a Single Verse

There is no one correct way to read the Torah. We have a tradition of “Seventy Faces of the Torah” suggesting that any verse can be understood a multitude of ways. Even “easy” stories (like the Garden of Eden) that tend to be read quite simplistically, can be understood in a myriad of ways.

The test of whether an interpretation has merit is whether or not it convinces the reader while remaining faithful to the text itself. Interpretations do not require any secondary or later commentators; the Torah’s symbolism can easily stand on its own.

Here is one verse that caught my eye today:

And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol between your eyes that with a strong hand the LORD brought us out from Egypt.

The commandment may be practical (Jews wear tefillin daily), but the meaning of this commandment, and why it appears in the Torah when it does, is deeply symbolic. So why is the commandment to wear what Jews call tefillin, paired with the Exodus?

The sign on our hand is connected to G-d’s strong hand (the verse uses the same word for both). So it means that the symbol between our eyes is meant as a complement or contrast to the sign on our hands. What could it mean?

One answer: The remembrance on our hands is of physical freedom, the relocation of the people outside Egypt caused by the G-d’s manipulation of the natural world. If so, then the symbol between our eyes may refer to the spiritual aspect of freedom from slavery. The hand led to a mental departure from servitude to Pharaoh, just as it led us away from the Egyptian worldview of harmony with nature, from their bread culture (hence the commandment to avoid leavening on Passover), the natural paganism of the Egyptian religion. Judaism, we are to remind ourselves every day with our tefillin, is a departure from not just Egypt the place (as symbolized by the hand) but also Egypt the mindset (as symbolized by the forehead). That mindset, of course, is inside us.

Another answer: The hand is for action, the eyes are for learning, absorption. G-d acted to take us out, and we connect that with the hand tefillin. The symbol between the eyes is there to help us learn and internalize the Exodus.

This idea is paired with the perspective that in Egypt the people were almost entirely passive, while G-d did all the work. That was when our nation was a baby in the womb. The Jewish people in the text are compared to mindless insects, merely capable of reaction, but not initiation or planning (we knew we were leaving, but could not even plan to bake bread in advance of our departure!). The eyes are passive, the hand is active. Thus the tefillin remind us of the Exodus.

But after leaving Egypt, we are to grow into full partners of G-d. He used His strong hand to bring us out – so we, too, wear a sign on our hands to not just commemorate the event, but also to emulate G-d’s own deeds. We are G-d’s emissaries in this world, so, with G-d’s example in Egypt always in our mind’s eye, it is incumbent upon us to address the wrongs that we see, and combat evil. Just like G-d in the first week of creation, we are to judge (using our eyes) the product of our creative energies. We create, and then we evaluate (is it “good?”) and decide what to do next. Hands, and then eyes.

There are many other aspects one could get from these verses, and as I said, Jewish tradition is that as long as the interpretations are faithful to the text, then they can add color and depth to our understanding. Why not add your own interpretation?!

[Another @iwe and @susanquinn production]

Comments are welcome!