Parshat Mishpatim: The Mumim of Milah and Mitzrayim

It is 2:30am and I am half-asleep, but I want to quickly jot down some reactions to Aviva Zornberg’s parsha class this evening…

Aviva called our attention to Rashi’s comment on Shmot 22:20, one of the verses about the proper treatment of the stranger: “You shall not wrong the stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Rashi says, “If you vex him, he can vex you by saying to you that you also descend from strangers. If you have a defect, don’t point it out in your friend.”

In Hebrew, the final line of Rashi’s comment reads as follows: “Mum she-becha, al tomar l’chaverecha.” So we are back to mumim, my favorite subject! Aviva noted that it was strange to refer to the experience of Egyptian enslavement as a “mum”; why should having been slaves constitute a blemish? She answered that this terrible experience served as a wound in us as a people, such that we will never be fully intact. We will always bear the scars of our history inscribed in our national consciousness.

When I heard her interpretation of Rashi’s mumim, I began to think about the real physical scars we bear as well, i.e. Brit Milah. Perhaps the pain of circumcision is an attempt to reconnect ourselves with the formative scars of our people. Just as our first experience as a nation was one of wounding, so too is our first experience as individual human beings.

The Torah teaches that only those who are circumcized were allowed to eat of the korban pesach (Shmot 19:6), thereby linking the metaphorical wound of slavery with the physical wound of milah. According to the midrash in Shmot Rabbah, God had to reiterate the commandment of circumcision because Bnei Yisrael had abandoned this rite while in Egypt. Perhaps, I would like to suggest, the reason they did not perform circumcision in Egypt is because they had no need to inscribe a wound on their flesh when they were already in the midst of such a terrible national experience of wounding. Just as we do not wear tefillin on Shabbat because Shabbat is an “ote” in and of itself, so too did Bnei Yisrael not need to perform brit milah in Egypt — the enslavement was enough of a reminder of national wounding.

The parallel to tefillin reminds me of the Gemara in Brachot 6a that I discussed a couple of days ago, in which we learn that we wear God’s tefillin and God wears our tefillin. Perhaps our way of wearing God’s tefillin is through Brit Milah — we inscribe our covenant with God in the flesh. And perhaps God’s way of wearing our tefillin appears in this week’s parsha after all the mishpatim:

Exodus 24:9-10 states: “Then Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, and seventy elders of Israel ascended, and they saw the God of Israel: Under His feet there was the likeness of a brick of sapphire [livnat ha-sapir], like the very sky for purity.” Rashi explains that this brick had been before God during the period of Egptian slavery “as a symbol of Israel’s woes — for they were subjected to do brick-work.” God keeps a brick in front of him to remind him of the pain of Bnei Yisreal’s enslavement. The brick binds him to the suffering of His people living, alas, in an unredeemed world. And this, I would suggest, is the way that God wears our tefillin.

We wear God’s tefillin in the form of Brit Milah. And God wears our tefillin in the form of the livnat ha-sapir at His feet. The milah and levenah are thus counterparts of one another. Parshat Mishpatim might put it this way: Ayin tachat ayin, shen tachat shen, milah tachat levenah.

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