Today’s Torah reading contains a core mitzvah that is no longer observed by most Jews, but, I would maintain, is sorely needed. Let me ask all the men here today, did you put on tefillin last week? Will you be putting on tefillin tomorrow?
On the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, as the Jews were about to go forth on their journey towards freedom, just before they left, Gd gave them a number of mitzvot to observe, among them was (Ex. 13:9): V’haya l’cha l’ot al yad’cha, ul’zikaron beyn eynecha, “You shall wear a sign upon your arm, and a crown upon your head.” This verse is the 1st mention of the mitzvah of tefillin in the Torah. It tells us that tefillin are to be an insignia on your arm, and a crown upon your head, as a daily reminder of what Gd did in redeeming us from the slavery of Egypt, and a reminder of who you are as a Jew, as relayed in the holy scrolls from the Torah placed within them. The verse continues: l’maan tih’yeh Torat Hashem b’ficha, “in order that the Torah of Gd shall be in your mouth”—i.e. so that you will be inspired by Gd’s Torah.
Now what does tefillin have to do with inspiration? What’s the purpose of tefillin, of wearing a sign on your arm, and on your head? Everyone has signs and reminders. Walk into any home or office—and you’ll see pictures on the walls and on the desk of dear ones—reminding the occupant of his/her love and responsibilities towards them. There may be a plaque that has been given to him by some organization—that’s a reminder of an achievement and dedication to a good cause. There may be a picture of a hero on the wall as a reminder of someone admired.
These reminders serve 2 purposes: to tell our visitors and our guests what we stand for and to remind ourselves as well. They are, using the words of the Torah to describe tefillin—an ot, a sign and a zikaron, a reminder. Tefillin are a daily reminder of the evil within as personified in the slavery in Egypt and a sign of our Gd-given potential for goodness and holiness as personified in the holy scrolls from the Torah within the tefillin boxes.
But why do we have to wear them? As the 2nd part of the verse teaches: l’maan tih’yeh Torat Hashem b’ficha, “so that the word of Gd may be in your mouth,” so that you will inspired to speak up and help bring Gd’s light to the world, the light from the holy tefillin that you are wearing.
Now we don’t wear tefillin on Shabbat and Yom Tov, because the light of the holy day—if observed—is sufficiently inspiring. And women do not have to wear tefillin because a woman’s body is her tefillin—i.e. her body is a constant reminder of her inherent unity with Gd in being able to co-create another human being with Him.
A few years ago I shared with you a fascinating article by Dr. Steven Schram from the Jewish Forward called: “Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription For Mental Clarity.” Schram points out that when worn properly, the leather straps and boxes of the tefillin stimulate acupuncture points associated with improved concentration and inspiration.
For example, the straps hit the point called “Heart 7” under the pinkie on the side of the wrist—a point used in Chinese medicine to treat every psychiatric disease. The spot on the nape of the neck, where the knot of the head tefillin hits, corresponds to acupuncture point “du-16,” which “directly stimulates and nourishes the brain.”
Schram was not a particularly observant Jew and hadn’t worn tefillin since his Bar Mitzvah until a friend urged him to try it. He went to his rabbi for a refresher course, because he forgot how to do it. For a while he would put them on in the morning sitting on his adjustment table, say the Shema and meditate. And then at an acupuncture seminar he had an “aha” moment. He carefully mapped it all out and it became a lead article in the Journal of Chinese Medicine. (Number 70, October 2002)
Kabbalah, as you would expect, takes it even further as it tells us that one who wears tefillin is “enveloped by the supernal mind, and the Divine Presence does not depart from him.” As Aryeh Kaplan wrote in his book on tefillin: “When a man wears tefillin and also contemplates their significance, his very thoughts are elevated close to Gd…But even the physical act in itself can bring man to the loftiest heights.”
Yigael Yadin, the great Israeli general and archeologist not known for being religiously observant, had been poking around in caves in the Dead Sea area near Qumran when he discovered a pair of tefillin intact from the time of the Bar Kochva Rebellion—1900 years ago. That made them the oldest pair of tefillin ever to be found. One day he noticed that one of the little parchment scrolls inside was different from the others ever so slightly…and he decided to investigate. He was in Jerusalem and his lab facilities were in Tel Aviv, so he took the train with the tefillin in his pocket! I don’t know how one puts such a find in one’s pocket. I guess he was used to handling valuable artifacts. On the train, as irony would have it, a young Chabadnic approached and invited him to put on tefillin.
Yadin writes he noticed that his Hebrew accent was somewhat strange, so he asked him where he came from. He answered, “I just recently came from Russia!”
Yadin then asked him, knowing how difficult it was to observe any mitzvot in Russia let alone acquire a pair of tefillin, “And did you put on tefillin in Russia?”…perhaps looking to get out of doing it.
To which the young man proudly answered, “From the day I became Bar Mitzvah I never failed to put on my tefillin.” Whereupon Yadin said, “In that case I will comply with your request.” And he put on the young Chabadnic’s tefillin with his ancient ones in his pocket.
After he finished and sat down, a lady passenger approached and told him that she recognized him and she had derived great satisfaction from the fact that he—a secular Israeli—had put on tefillin. She told him that her son was the only religious fellow in his paratrooper unit and that he had lost his life in the 6-Day War. As he was dying, his buddies asked him if had any last request and he had answered with his last breath, “Put on tefillin.” and from that time all the members of that unit have been putting them on regularly.
Yadin writes that when he heard this he felt an unexplainable emotion suddenly overwhelm him and he meditated on the fact that here he was amidst all these events and in his pocket were the oldest pair of tefillin in the world. Although at the time their discovery was still a secret, he felt compelled to show her the tefillin he had found. And as he did, both of them burst into tears.
What an amazing dovetailing of events! The tefillin discovered in the cave by the Dead Sea after almost 1,900 years; the distinguished secular archeologist whose passionate interest in them was purely historical—a record of a by-gone past; the encounter with one to whom the mitzvah of tefillin was a matter of vital present day application—the Chabadnic who in Russia had defied the soulless communists; the paratrooper who had worn them and died with his last breath imploring his fellow soldiers to do this mitzvah in his memory. Tefillin has the power to animate the Jewish soul and elevate one to great heights of Jewish consciousness.
Why put on tefillin? As the Torah tells us: l’maan tih’yeh Torat Hashem b’ficha, “so that the Torah of Gd shall be in your mouth,” so that you will be inspired and live an inspired life. Besides, is there a better way to start your day? Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis