I’ve been a little obsessed this week, trying to understand the idea of וּמִלֵּאתָ֧ אֶת־יָדָ֛ם , u’mileita et-yadam (Exodus 28:41). This motif of yadam, hands, shows up repeatedly with reference to some notion of Aharon and his sons being “consecrated” and I keep wondering why the hands are the vehicle, symbol, or metaphor for how this occurs or is described.
Rashi describes this idea of u’mileita et-yadam, filling their hand or hands, as a kind of installation ceremony for someone entering office for the first time. The Seporno describes it as “completion,” that they should be completed and worthy to perform their avodah, service. The Netziv says that the Kohanim should be able to perform without any weakness, without slacking off. The Netziv writes further that their hands should be filled with avodah, and he compares this to the events in next week’s parsha, Ki Tisa, following the Cheit Ha’Eigel, the sin of the Golden Calf. Here, B’nei Yisrael were called to rise up against one another: מִלְא֨וּ יֶדְכֶ֤ם הַיּוֹם֙ לַֽה׳, Mil’u yedchem hayom l’Hashem (Exodus 32:29), “Consecrate yourselves today to Hashem.” We learn here an added ,not so subtle point, that the focus of this “filling” or “completing” is Hashem.
This morning, while putting on my tefillin, I thought about how wrapping the straps around our hand and fingers immobilizes our hand. It’s not a time to start cracking eggs and making breakfast or doing other mundane things. Our hand is now dedicated to one thing: our personal avodah.
I then got to wondering why it’s called Tefillin shel Yad, Tefillin of the Hand. Why not Tefillin shel Z’roah, Tefillin of the Arm. Perhaps this could be a time to remember how Hashem took us out of Miztrayim, Egypt, with a zro’ah netuya, an outstretched arm. And tefillin is, after all, deeply connected to leaving Egypt.
Perhaps this motif of the hand being for dedicated, complete service to Hashem actually goes back to Avraham, who had to compel himself to fulfill Hashem’s will at the Akeida: וַיִּשְׁלַ֤ח אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶת־יָד֔וֹ, “And Avraham ‘sent’ his hand.” (Genesis 22:10) I grew up learning that this meant that it was so difficult for Avraham that he had to force his hand to do this. The Ksav V’hakabala (Rav Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg, Germany, 1786-1865) describes this in a positive way:
דלקיחת המאכלת לא היתה בעצלות ושפלות ידים כעושה דבר דלא ניחא ליה, אבל בזריזות גדולה
Taking the knife was not done lazily or with a humble hand,
as one who does something that is uncomfortable for him, but with great zeal.
I suspect that this could also be traced, not surprisingly, back to Adam Ha’Rishon, after the Cheit Eitz Ha’Da’at, the Sin of the Tree of Wisdom. Hashem, concerned that Adam would “send” his hand to take from the fruit of the Eitz Ha’Chaim, Tree of Life, cast out Adam and Chava from Gan Eden to work the land: וַֽיְשַׁלְּחֵ֛הוּ ה׳ אֱלֹהִקים מִגַּן־עֵ֑דֶן לַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה. (Genesis 3:23) This is, again, a form of שלח, shalach, sending, and this work would have to be through Adam’s hands.
Looking at this earlier use of sending out and hands with regard to Adam, we can better understand how Avraham, casting out his hand, might be a tikkun, fixing, of Adam’s cheit. We can also consider the word שׁוֹלֵחַ, sholeiach, sending out another way, as we often apply it today, as in a שַׁלִיחַ, shaliach, an agent appointed for a specific, and in this case, holy mission.
We might also consider why the Tefillin shel Tad is placed near the heart. The heart determines how our hands are the “ultimate applier of our heart’s desires.” Our hands are the shlichim of our heart, the agents of our avodah. And this may explain why we call them Tefillin shel Yad. Our body, as expressed through our hands, should be fully “on hand” and committed to our service of Hashem.
Some recite a preparatory passage before donning their tefillin that emphasizes how we were commanded to put tefillin on our yad as a memory of the z’roah netuya, and tefillin alongside our lev, our heart, to empower or harness our desires and thoughts to serve Hashem. It would seem that there are many kavanot, intentions, that can be considered in putting on tefillin, from Adam Ha’Rishon to the Kohanim (who also use hands in their avodah) or in simply reciting the passages within the tefillin. And if we go back to that first Rashi, that this was the inauguration for the Kohen beginning his avodah, then we have a daily inauguration ceremony of our own to celebrate.