Sunday, January 22, 2012

Measure twice, cut once / Parshat Bo

I was a fan of “This Old House,” a PBS program in which old houses were rehabbed in wonderfully creative ways. Norm Abrams -- carpenter par excellence -- came to be a regular feature on the show and eventually spun off his own show about carpentry. He then published a book entitled Measure Twice, Cut Once: Lessons from a Master Carpenter. When my husband finished our basement many years ago, this was his mantra: “Measure twice, cut once.” (He also had a slogan: “Abba Construction Company: if it’s straight, it’s a miracle.”)
More than a principle for carpentry, “Measure twice, cut once” is a principle for life. Anyone who has hit the reply button too quickly and sent out a nastygram knows. Anyone who has spewed personal venom at another person in a fit of pique knows. Anyone who has dashed off an analysis of something only to realize two days later that it was lopsided and missed the mark, knows.

This is what came to mind when I read a verse in parshat Bo that seems very much out of place. We find it not once, but twice. First, following the commandment to eat unleavened bread each year and tell our children the story of our redemption from servitude in Egypt, Torah tells us:
And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand (l’ot al yad-kha) and as a reminder on your forehead (u’l’zikaron bein einekha) -- in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth -- that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt. You shall keep this institution at its set time from year to year. (Exodus 13:9-10)
And again after instructing the Israelites to dedicate to God the firstborn of their cattle and offspring. Torah says that when a child inquires about the meaning of the sacrifice of the firstborn of the cattle, and the redemption of firstborn sons, one must explain:
…Therefore I sacrifice to the Lord every first male issue of the womb, but redeem every firstborn among my sons. And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand (l’ot al yad-kha) and as a symbol before your eyes (u’l’totafot bein einekha) that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt. (Exodus 13:15-16)
The phrase “a sign on your hand and a symbol/reminder before your eyes” is well known to us from the Shema that is recited twice daily, but that comes from Deuteronomy 6:8 which reads slightly differently: Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol before your eyes… We now have three occurrences of “a sign on your hand and a symbol before your eyes.”

In the first instance, the eating of matza serves as the sign and symbol. In the second, the redemption of the firstborn is the sign and symbol. In Shema, all of Torah is the sign and symbol. From this we can learn that anything can be a reminder of what is truly important if we invest it with symbolic meaning. A paperweight on your desk can serve to remind you that your opinions should carry weight, and therefore you should let them be heard. A child’s drawing -- framed and visible -- can remind you to value the efforts of everyone.

Another observation. In the first instance of “a sign upon your hand and remembrance before your eyes,” both “sign” and “remembrance” are singular, but in the other two occurrences, “sign upon your hand” is singular, while “symbol before your eyes” is plural. One for the hand; two for the eyes.

The Sages long ago decided to interpret this verse literally, and accordingly created tefillin. But for us moderns, the hand represents what do in the world -- our physical, psychological, emotional impact on the world. Eyes represent our perceptions and ideas; eyes are gateway to the brain. The eyes require twice as much attention, symbolism, reminder as the hand. This is a great lesson for many of us: think twice before acting. Measure twice, cut once.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


  1. I especially love the idea of seeing a paperweight as something more than an item to weigh down papers.

    So find meaning in everything.

    (Oh, and your husband's slogan is spot-on.)

  2. Thanks for your comment. He says that there are undoubtedly some great tools behind the wallboard in the basement. He also did a mathematical proof on the back of one of the pieces of wallboard, so that's embedded in the house, as well.