Posted on May 4, 2013 by Sam Kaye
I’m leaving for Israel and my father hands me two bags. “Take these with you. The furrier, Shlomo, your great grandmother’s brother-in-law, left them to me. Find out if it’s meaningful for you.”
The first is black felt, light to the touch, with a golden Magen David embroidered in cord on its front. The Tallit inside is thin, composed of silky white fabric that is shifting towards an aged grey. Blue stripes run along its slender frame while an intricate latticework of linen falls away from the edges only to tangle up with the Tzitzit at the corners. It’s German Reform, classic and beautiful. So light I barely feel its weight when I try it on. So thin and delicate it barely covers my shoulders. It’s not my first Tallit.
The second bag is old and mustard yellow, fine prismatic threading has frayed across its front where it spells out the words “Tefillin” in Hebrew. The Tefillin inside are old with paper caps atop the Shel, each heavy with lacquer. The leather is cracked and aromatic, the black stain no longer present along the edges. The two bags go into my duffel, right next to my other Tallit, but as I put them down one Tefillin fall out of their yellow bag. The paper top tips off and the shin of the Rosh stares up at me like blurred eye still heavy with sleep. I stare back. What do I do with you?
Why does a Reform Jew wrap T’fillin?
Rav Landes tells me “Sam, You are going to learn many things here. And a lot of other things in the years to come. Wherever you end up. But the most important thing you can learn to do THIS year is to learn to Daven.”
I’m not sure how to respond. I know how to pray.
At Mincha, as we pray Kaddish, I hear Rav Landes bellow out “Yehai SHMAI Raba…” and it shakes the room. I glance up from the borrowed Art Scroll in my hands and I understand what he means “learn”.
The next morning I have my own Siddur sitting next to the yellow bag from home. Illan helps me wrap my right arm- the leather is too short. I have to hold my hand in a fist and keep my elbow bent so that the Retzu’ot don’t come undone.
After breakfast I sit down with Meir and ask him to show me how to wrap them myself.
When my mind drifts in the morning I reach between my eyes. I press the box into my forehead and feel its pressure and coolness, I feel the resistance of my skin. I focus on the blood flow in my arm, the growing warmth and tightness- like being grasped firmly by a helping hand. I touch the edges of the yad with the tips of my fingers and kiss them.
I return to my prayer.
I’m sitting in the Hospital Bed, the nurse has just switched on the first light of the day and handed me a pain killer for my broken foot. I drift in and out of consciousness for an hour… or maybe two? An old man is standing by the edge of my bed and he asks me in Hebrew if I want to wrap Tefillin and Daven. I try to explain that my Sidur is on the nightstand behind my head and Shlomo’s Tefillin are over there in the suitcase and I can’t get out of bed because I can’t walk! But he doesn’t speak English and my Hebrew isn’t any good and my tongue feels so thick and my brain feels so slow. Instead he gently takes my left arm, (how can I tell him I don’t wrap with my left arm) and slips the leather around it. I’m surprised to find there’s extra leather, so much we have to loop it around my hand 3 more times. It makes me laugh… and the old man doesn’t understand why. But he smiles at me and we wrap the Tefillen together. Two strangers. Two brothers.
Bind them for a sign. Bind them between your eyes. Bind them on your arm.
The question remains.
How? How do I bind them… and still be myself?
I want to be bound up in God. I’m afraid to be bound up in God. I’m afraid to lose my tradition. I’m afraid to lose myself.
I’m looking down at the shorn strap in my hand. The other half of it is still attached to my arm. It snapped while I was tightening the binding… but how can I wrap my Tefillin with no strap? There’s a moment of intense vertigo and I feel lost. I’ve broken something irreplaceable. It’s hard to stand.
I hold the Shel Yad against my arm so it won’t flap. I press the Shel Roash into my forheard. I daven in that position, halfway between embracing and mourning.
I put the broken Tefillin back in their yellow bag.
The Freedom to Obey.
It’s what I want to exercise. The right to question and fight and struggle and even walk away.
But also the right to bind. And to follow. And to be answered. And to come back.
Not because I have to. Because I want to.
Meir hands me the new set of Tefillin. He adjusts the strap on my brow and checks the length for my arm. This time it fits.
The leather is new and fragrant. The tops are plastic and intricate. The parchments are pure and complete.
But they don’t fit into the Yellow Bag.
But neither do I.
People want to know how I choose which Mitzvot I follow. Which Hallacha I obey.
It’s not so different from putting on Tefillin.
You grasp it in your hands, examine it for weakness and flaws, and methodically, with great intent, place it upon yourself.
And then slowly.
Loop by loop.