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The Weaker Hand

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein


"God spoke to Moshe, saying: ... It shall be a sign upon your hand ... and it shall be for you a sign upon your hand and frontlets between your eyes, that by strength of hand God took us out of Egypt." (Shemot 13:1-16)

Within this paragraph in our parasha we find two mentions of the mitzva of tefillin (phylacteries). In the latter, we additionally find the exegetic source of one of the main details of this mitzva, namely, that we place the tefillin upon our weaker hand.

Immediately, two central questions spring to mind:

1) What exactly is the exegetic derivation of the ruling that we place tefillin upon our weaker hand?

2) Since two other places in the Torah also mention the mitzva of tefillin, is it possible to deduce this law from all the sources, or is it derived solely from this verse? If the latter is true - why is it found here alone?

Let us first examine the source of the ruling. The Talmud (Menachot 36b-37a) examines the verse in Shemot 13:16 and finds that the word "yadekhah" (your hand) is not spelled there as would be expected. Rather, it has an extra hey, the equivalent of a silent English "h," added onto the end. Rav Ashi therefore interprets the word "yadekhah" as "yad keha" - meaning "weak hand." This exegesis is only one of many in a list of alternative sources for this detail of the mitzva, but in the end it seems that Rav Ashi's view is actually the one which is accepted - for we know a right-handed person paces tefillin on his weaker hand (the left), while a left-handed person places them on HIS weaker hand (the right). Indeed, Rashi (Shemot 13:9) quotes this as the source.

It is clear now that we have answered the first of our questions and the beginning of the second. The verse in our parasha is indeed the source for the ruling that we place the tefillin on our weak hands, and since this verse contains the only spelling of the word "yadekhah" with an extra hey, it is the only source for this law. This being so, we are left with the second half of our second question - why is this verse the only source?

I would like to hazard a guess at the answer to this, and although I lack really solid proof, it seems to me that there is some basis for my explanation.

If we read Devarim 8:1-18, especially verses 11-18, we come across a problem which crops up repeatedly throughout the later books of the Tanakh.

"Guard yourselves lest you forget the Lord your God ... when you [arrive in the land of Israel and] eat and are satisfied and you build good houses and your cattle become plentiful ... and everything you have becomes plentiful, then your heart will become haughty and you will forget the Lord your God who took you out of Egypt ... and you will say in your heart, 'My strength and the might of my hand is that which has produced for me all this wealth.'" (Devarim 8:11-18)

The problem of hubris arises in the wake of verse 10, "And you will eat and you will be satisfied and you will bless the Lord your God for the land which He has given you." If one eats and is satisfied, but forgets to bless, then one may be led quite easily to forget that God is the source of all economic and political might, that it is God and not you who has conquered the land:

"Yeshurun became fat and he kicked [away God's yoke] -

You have become fat, thick and covered with excess -

And he abandoned the God who had made him,

And lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation."

(Devarim 32:15)

These four lines in Parashat Ha'azinu begin a litany of the sad events which lead to Am Yisrael's downfall - and seemingly it all begins with this arrogance.

Indeed, there seem to be two problems inherent within a belief system which has at its core the belief that "It is my strength and the might of my hand which has produced for me all this wealth."

Firstly, there is a religious problem - on both the personal and communal level. Belief in and reliance on our own strength will lead us to employ force as the method of choice in solving all problems. This danger arises specifically after Am Yisrael arrives in the land, as we quoted previously, "...for the good land which He gave you. Beware lest you forget God..." (Devarim 8:10-11). When people arrive in a new land and establish national institutions and begin amassing economic, social and military might, there is the definite danger of becoming intoxicated with the sweet wine of independence and power. It becomes easy to forget that is not you alone who has wrought all this might, and that "man does not live by bread alone, but by the word of God" (Devarim 8:3).

The second problem is not a religious one wherein we usurp God's place as the Almighty Ruler, but it in fact concurs with and flows from God's own expressed desires and our sense of national mission. Am Yisrael entered the land with the feeling that "God is a man of war" (Shemot 15:3). They initially felt, "Here we come to conquer the land, as God wishes!" In such an atmosphere, it becomes all too easy to convince oneself that one is but an extension of God's power and God's will. One forgets that this violence and this militancy is human, wielded by human beings who need to reflect upon and balance all their actions.

Clearly, I am not attempting to advocate pacifism; we are not pacifists and are very prepared to employ force when necessary. But we have to understand that such a state, where we have to use force and even violence, is far from ideal. We are, at the core, people of the spirit, not of the sword. Although force is sometimes necessary, and sometimes God Himself may enjoin us to lay down our ploughshares and take up our swords, we are never to identify militancy and violence as ideal in any sense.

In light of the above, why specifically in our parasha do we encounter the command to place the tefillin upon our "weak hand?" It is to serve as a reminder that "with a strong hand, God took us out of Egypt" (Shemot 13:16).

It is specifically at this stage - when the exodus was happening before their very eyes, that the danger of arrogance was at its height! In Egypt they had no swords. They had no bread. And now, they are leaving, rejoicing as they march to battle with Egypt - the great superpower. They leave to conquer new lands and subjugate this unruly oppressor. "Who stands in OUR way?" echoes the shout amongst the camp. It is at this sharp, unimaginable junction between slavery and freedom, between subservience and mastery, that there is the most potent danger that they will indeed become drunk with power - a most poisonous draught.

At this point, Am Yisrael need to awaken every morning and, instead of raising up the spear in their mighty right hand, they need to place tefillin on their weaker hand. Thus, they are to remember that force is not the best way to do things, and that God does not rejoice in battle and death, but rather in hope and life and things of the spirit. We serve with the "weaker" hand.

On the other hand, in Devarim where the mitzva of tefillin is mentioned for the last two times, why do we not need to learn of a weak hand?

There such an idea is totally unnecessary. For forty years, Am Yisrael has been weak of hand, has been totally helpless, unable to do anything on their own. In such an atmosphere, where every morning one got up and collected the manna, who could have the gall to think, "I live not by the word of God! My strength and might has done all this!" Such a person would not be a scoundrel and sinner; he would simply be a fool. Every day God nourished the Jews by His own hand. It is clear that at this stage the desert awareness was present in everyone - in one word, "Dependence!" Not for a moment could they have survived without God in the desert. Thus, in Devarim there is no need to stress the plight of man, because no one felt it more strongly than the Jews themsel.

It beas well to consider these things today. We are, thank God, no longer a despised and trodden-upon nation, led to the slaughter. Just as Am Yisrael were required to make a sudden transition from slavery to freedom, so in a sense have we, and we face the same tests as they did. It is thus all too appropriate for us to reflect every morning upon the fact that we do not wear our tefillin on our sword arm but rather on the weaker one, the yad keha.

(Originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Bo, 5759 [1999].)


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