Forced Phylacteries

In this week’s Parsha we finally begin to enumerate the commandments. After 14 Torah portions with only a few scattered commandments given to individuals (procreation, circumcision, and gid hanasheh), Hashem directs the Jewish people in the matters of Passover- for then and for all time. In juxtaposition to those instructions, He also includes commandments that are related or inspired by the Exodus. One of them being the donning of Tefillin.

 

But what does Tefillin have to do with Egypt? More generally -now that we’ll have many more commandments from here on- why do we need so many? Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, the famed Rosh Yeshivah in Volozhin, explains as follows: If we look closely at the verse (13:9), we notice that Hashem gives us the mitzvah of Tefillin “because Gd took us out with a strong hand”. Typically, this verse is understood to mean simply that we wear our Tefillin on our hand just like Hashem figuratively used “His hand”. The Netziv posits that the theme of “strong hand” goes a step further, saying that in order for us to truly become observant and willfully religious people, we have to first be “forced” into certain activities. 

 

Much like a child needs to be trained in certain activities even while it goes against their own (inexperienced, uneducated and ignorant) mindset, Hashem gives us the mitzvot as a means to teaching and reminding us of the proper ways to live. True, they can be seen as burdensome and difficult at the outset, but once we engage with them and incorporate them, they become an enjoyable and meaningful part of life. The “strong hand” does not refer only to how Gd took us out in the past, but it’s also how Gd instructs us now, in the present. By following His lead, inculcating all of these practices, we become better people. Instead of perpetual fear and apprehension of the mitzvot, in a counter-intuitive way, if we “force” ourselves to do them -just jump right in- then they will become part of who we are; a person of worth, value, and purpose.