וארשתיך לי לעולם, וארשתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים. וארשתיך לי באמונה, וידעת את הי
And I will betrothe you to me forever and always, and I will betrothe you to me in righteousness and in justice and in loving-kindness and in compassion. And I will betrothe you to me in faith and belief and reliance, and you will know God.
I remember when I first read this passage. I had just inherited my great-grandfather’s tefillin and I was sitting in my room trying to learn how to put them on correctly. At first, I thought I could just figure it out intuitively. When that didn’t generate a great deal of success, I pulled out my lap top and my Art Scroll. Open on my screen were diagrams for wrapping the tefillin, and I was carefully cross-checking my siddur for the appropriate order of actions and the blessings. I was completely engrossed in the particulars of how-to and was in the process of wrapping the leather bands around my arm rather perfunctorily when my eyes touched upon this last bit of text. My heart was stolen. In that moment, I forgot to continue wrapping the straps or to say the bracha. I dropped the leather and sat in wonder, marveling at the beauty of the text before me.
It became my custom to recite this text as a letter to God.
I recognize that as I put on my tefillin today, I am binding myself literally and figuratively to you. I want you to know that even though I plan to take off these boxes after davenning, I choose to align myself with you forever and always. I know that no matter where I am in the world, you are there with me. And as I bind myself to you, I am taking on your qualities of righteousness and justice and loving-kindness and compassion. I recognize that as I embody these qualities and believe deeply in your ability to be present with me, I will encounter you and know your wonders in the world.
Tefillin, for me, was a very sweet and private ritual with God. Wrapping the leather around my arm, I felt like I was adorning myself for a date with my Sweetheart. Wrapping the last bits around my finger like a wedding band, I felt like God had picked me up for our date and what a lucky girl was I to have a date with God! This prayer was like a greeting card which I presented to my Love with deep gratitude and joy: Happy Anniversary! Only, God and I celebrated our anniversary every day.
This year, my tefillin ritual has morphed a little. As the gabbait for the Egalitarian minyan, I most often bind the leather quickly and efficiently after I finish taking care of the needs of the community and so that I can join the communal davenning or so that I can start leading services. Even when I take my time and set my kavannah (intention or direction), I am very aware of my dear friends around me, wrapping their own tefillin and getting ready for their God-dates. And it’s not that I don’t still feel like I am stepping into a lovely adventure with my Beloved; just that I feel like we are going to a drive-in theater where all of the couples sit in their cars and watch the same material go by.
To be fair, I have morphed a little. I see the world around me differently, and I understand God differently too. When I was little, God was this beautiful, loving Presence that could do no wrong. Now I have seen more of the world, and I see the places where there is injustice or poverty or pain. I am still deeply in love with God; deeply grateful for God’s loving presence in my life and the way that I see God acting positively in the world around me. That is all true. But now I feel like God and I have been together for a while. I see my work in the world as the product of our union. And since we have been married for some time, and I am starting to pop out “kids,” I feel like I can kindly point out places where I think my Sweetheart would do well to improve.
Now when I recite my love letter, sometimes it feels like this:
When we got married, I told you that I was binding myself to you forever and ever. I was so impressed by the Being that you are in the world. You have such a deep sense of righteousness and an ability to create justice. You engage others with such deep compassion and loving-kindness. You are always present for me and I know I can depend on you. This is what I know about you. Each day, I wake up and feel blessed to be your wife. You have taught me how to engage with the world with these beautiful qualities and for that I am deeply grateful. But, Dearest, I know you can move mountains. Today, I am recommitting myself to you, and to the values that you have modeled for me. But sometimes lately, I feel like you have lost track of your values. It feels like you have gotten so caught up in the dramas unfolding around you that you forget that you can step in and be the change you wish to see in the world. Could you please be a little more present? I know you are, but maybe could you be a little less subtle? I will also commit to this, and I see that I don’t always act like the woman you fell in love with. Can we do this together?