A Sign on Your Hand, A Reminder Between Your Eyes: An Embodied Jewish Theology of Solidarity and Liberation

Bo, Exodus 10:1−13:16

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Hilly Haber

The people cried when Moses told them. He had expected wild clamor: the sound of symbols and exultant singing and dancing. But the people wept out of their eyes. Goshen was very still. No songs and shouts...They just sat with centuries in their eyes and cried.
- Zora Neale Hurston (Moses, Man of the Mountain)

Zora Neale Hurston imagines the Israelites on the eve of their freedom. When Moses tells them they are leaving Egypt, rather than celebrate, they cry. Hurston's midrash offers us insight into the weight of the history the Israelites carry with them out of Egypt and the challenges of embracing and living in freedom. How will the Israelites tell their story to future generations born into freedom? How will their bodies, bent by the weight of bricks and mortar, learn to move freely? And what lessons do their bodies teach us these thousands of years later?

As this newly liberated people readies itself to leave Egypt, God commands them to tell their children the story of their redemption: "And you shall explain to your child on that day, 'It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt'" (Exodus 13:8). Our sages interpret this verse to mean that in every generation, each of us must see ourselves as if we, too, came out of Egypt (BT Pesachim 116b). Each year, during the holiday of Passover, we retell the story of the Exodus from Egypt, and each year we are taught to relive that movement from slavery to freedom.

Our tradition teaches us that simply by telling this story we are transformed. In The Origin of Others, Toni Morrison writes, "Narrative fiction provides a controlled wilderness, an opportunity to be and to become the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination" (Toni Morrison, The Origin of Others). As we tell the story of the Exodus, we join, even if for a just moment, with the Israelites on their march from Egypt. For just a moment, we carry their burden as our own, and we re-emerge from the wilderness with new questions about freedom and liberation, about injustice and oppression.

Looking to American history and the experience of Emancipation, womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland elaborates on what it means to cast off the shackles of slavery:

Freedom from enslavement was freedom for being human...The freed people now had the possibility of taking up the responsibility of human living without restraint. In sum: that responsibility was this: to be a human subject, to be a person, to be a woman or man who consciously and intentionally in word and deed assumes and affirms her or his own personhood and humanity (M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: body, race, and being).

As Copeland writes, to be a slave is to have your humanity and dignity called into question at every turn. To be free is to lift up and affirm the dignity and humanity inherent in yourself and in all people. Freedom is a practice and an ethic, a way of building liberative communities which uphold and affirm the humanity of every person and aspire to solidarity with those whose humanity and personhood is called into question daily. Think about the person who has come home from jail or prison, whose identity was subsumed under the label "inmate" and who is now navigating return as an "ex-con" or "parolee." Think about the family seeking a better life in another country who is labeled "alien" or "illegal." Solidarity is powerful; it "teaches us to imagine, to hope for, and to create new possibilities....rather than dismiss "others," we act in love; rather than refuse "others," we respond in acts of self-sacrifice--committing ourselves to the long labor of creation, to the enfleshment of freedom" (M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom; body, race, and being).

The call to solidarity which emanates from our texts goes beyond an annual recitation of the Exodus narrative. God pairs the commandment to retell with a commandment to enflesh:

And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder between your eyes-in order that the Teaching of Adonai may be in your mouth-that with a mighty hand Adonai freed you from Egypt (Exodus 13:9).

The medieval commentator Moses ben Nachman (Nachmanides) interpreted this verse to mean that "you should inscribe upon your hand and between your eyes the theme of the departure from Egypt, and remember it continually." The 19th century commentator Rabbi Naphtali Zevi Yehudah Berlin (Ha'Amek Davar) adds that the observance of Passover is not sufficient and that this story demands a daily remembrance (Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot).

From this verse, our sages derived the daily practice of wrapping tefillin (phylacteries) around head and arm -- an embodied and physical ritual with which to commemorate liberation from Egypt. Beyond the halachic implications of this biblical passage, we have in this commandment an embodied theology of freedom. This points toward what theologian Anthony B. Pinn describes as:

"body theology...a discourse genuinely concerned with the implications of existence (and meaning) present in the physical body and the body as metaphor, mining the body for its theological import. So doing involves the ability to construct theology that does not seek to avoid or ignore the body, but rather a theology that is done through sustained contact with the body, again as metaphor and material" (Anthony B. Pinn, Embodiment and the New Shape of Black Theological Thought).

Pinn offers here a roadmap with which to construct a theology that does not start from sacred text, but from the scars, stories, and triumphs carried by our bodies. The body itself is a starting point for doing theology, for saying something about God and what it means to be human.

In Parshat Bo, we are taught to retell and to embody the story of the Exodus. These commandments offer pathways to building Jewish theologies and communities which aspire toward liberation and solidarity, communities which hold up sacred text together with lived experience, which see in Jewish stories and histories deep wells of empathy and understanding with which to march in solidarity with all people on the path out of Egypt.

Originally published: