Bo–A Sign and a Reminder

You shall tell your child on that day [on which you celebrate the feast of Unleavened Bread], ‘It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’   It shall serve for you as a sign (‘ot) on your hand and as a reminder (zikkaron) on your forehead, so that the teaching of the LORD may be on your lips; for with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt.  (Exodus 13:8-9)

The Rabbis derived the injunction to relate the story of the Exodus at the Seder from this verse, and the name of the text recited at the Seder, the Haggadah, from its first word, “you shall tell” (v’higgadta).   Scholars have different opinions about what serves as a “sign,” and the Rabbis used this verse to support the practice of wearing phylacteries (tefillin), but my mind’s made up: the celebration of the festival itself  is the sign.   We could paraphrase the text as saying, “the festival shall be a reminder, like a string on your finger.”

An interestingly similar text occurs when, after the Israelites cross the Jordan, God tells Joshua to take twelve stones from the middle of the river and place them on the other side where they lodge.  Then Joshua said to the Israelites, “This shall be a sign (‘ot) among you: when your children ask in time to come, —What do those stones mean to you?’ you shall tell them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off  before the ark of the covenant of the LORD;  . . . So these stones shall be to the people of Israel a reminder (zikkaron) for ever.”  (Joshua  4:6-7)

In both texts, the sign is bound up with a verbal explanation to the next generation.  Without the story, the sign really doesn’t signify.  With the story, the meaning is imprinted in both the teller and the hearer.

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