Commentary for Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed Pesach

14 Apr

On Shabbat Chol HaMo’ed we read the story of Moses pleading to God on behalf of the Israelites to not wipe them out after the sin of the golden calf. During this discussion Moses famously asks God to “let me behold Your presence (Ex. 33:18).” God responds by allowing Moses to see… something. What Moses actually sees is a tricky theological question. The text says that Moses sees God’s “back,” and also talks about God’s “face” and “hand,” but if God is infinite and limitless then there should be no way to distinguish between any of these parts, and even the idea that God has a humanoid body is only just human anthropomorphizing of God to make God easier for us to understand.


One of the stranger Midrashes about what Moses saw says that Moses saw the knot at the back of the headpiece of God’s tefillin. Ignoring the above theological issues relating to God having a head and arm on which to lay tefillin, this opens up the question of what is written in God’s tefillin.


Our tefillin contain the first two paragraphs of the Shema, as well as two sequential passages that appear in the Torah between the time that the Israelites depart Egypt and Pharaoh changing his mind about letting them go. These passages (Ex. 13:1-10 and 11-16) are read on the first day of Chol HaMo’ed of Passover, and are from where we derive many of the mitzvot and customs of tefillin. One of these is that the tefillin should be worn on the wearer’s weaker arm, which Kli Yakar connects to the idea of God’s “strong hand and outstretched arm” that brought us out of Egypt- something we could not possibly have done by ourselves.


Just as our tefillin praise God, it turns out that God’s tefillin contain some praise for us. Specifically, according to the Talmud (Berachot 6a), the verse “Who is like My people Israel (I Chronicles 17:21)?” Other commentators make use of the symbolism of the knots of the tefillin, including the knot at the back of the headpiece that God showed to Moses, as demonstrating that God and the Jewish People have chosen to tie themselves to each other. This connection mirrors that of the two pieces of tefillin: though they are separate pieces, they are both essential to the functionality of the whole. For this reason, although God’s presence is not always apparent to us, God will always be there when we are looking. Or, as Rabbi Yehudah HaChassid put it in his famous hymn Anim Zmirot (also the place the most people are likely to first come across the idea of God’s tefillin, “His tefillin-splendor is upon me and my tefillin-splendor is upon Him, and He is near to me when I call to Him.”

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