TEFILLIN – A Bonding Story

Any body who thinks Judaism is devoid of feeling, or  finds mitzvos to be tasteless, justs needs to look at his tefillin and ponder the parshas inside them to discover a gamut of wonder and intimacy.

There are four parshas in our tefillin. Two come from this weeks parsha, and two from Deuteronomy. In our head tefillin, each parsha is contained in its own bayis, and all four homes are made from a single piece of leather  (similar to the menorah which had to be formed from one piece of gold).   Our arm tefillin contain all four in one large bayis – hopefully we will get to touch on some meaning behind these laws and distinctions, but first back to our parshas, and we’ll try to discover any unifying themes and order.

After the final plague in our parsha (Bo), the smiting of all first born, man and animal, Hashem gives us the mitzvah of redeeming our first born (man and animal), which He rightfully reclaimed ownership after the plague, as well as taking us from bondage to a land flowing with milk and honey.  The paragraph concludes that we are to make these a sign on our arms and a memory between our eyes. In other words, this is the first of many dictates regarding tefillin, and from it we learn that this parsha in included in its contents.

In the very next paragraph, these mitzvos are reviewed (with modifications), along with a question from the son who asks us (on seder night) what is the meaning of all these customs, to which we include in our response, not merely that Hashem redeemed us from slavery, but that He did so with a vengeance, and at a high price to our Egyptian oppressors. And this paragraph also concludes with the mitzvah of tefillin.

The third and fourth parshas, we may recall, are the (first) two paragraphs of the shma we say morning and night, which both conclude with the mitzvah of tefillin  (these also include the mitzvah of mezuzah, which consists therefore of these two paragraphs).

There are many levels and faces to the meaning of the mitzvah of tefillin, and its parshas, but as we set out in the beginning, now that we have some background, we are going to look into a more emotional aspect and how we can rejoice in them.  In order to do this we are going to delve into some thoughts by The Maharal  (complimented by an elaboration by Rabbi Beryl Gershenfeld,).

One reason that these four parshas were chosen in particular, is because they combine to reveal four aspects of our relationship with Hashem, which, in essence parallels the four levels that any loving relationship can be categorized into. (we can certainly use the mother-child, or wife-husband relationship as a wonderful parable.)
The first level, the Maharal describes as the companionship and fondness expressed through giving to the object of one’s affection as a mother is constantly doing for her family, and for her children even before they are born. This is a simple level to attain, especially for those with a good heart and generous hand  but in itself is quite limited.  This level is portrayed in the first parsha, wherein (if we keep track with our prefatory comments) it discusses how Hashem was so good to us to redeem us and bring us to such a pleasant land, in other words basic chesed.

The second level he describes is that of a more intense devotion and commitment to provide and protect.  The litmus test if level of one’s love towards another has reached this level is when there is a conflict of interests and priorities must be decided. (The word De-Cide, shares the same suffix as homicide, genocide, suicide, and here it refers to killing a dea – a thought or option for choosing the superior one.)  When a child sees a parent cancel another appointment when he/she is in need, their feeling of being loved is very strong.  So too, sometimes another child is infringing on her child in some way (physically, psychologically, socially) the parent may take up justice for her beloved child and call a teacher, or restrict visitation, or if an infraction happens before mommy, she may take direct action to protect her child, and so is the way of all who want to prove their affection to want the opportunity to stand up to difficult trials so the object of their affection will see.  (This is how the great tzaddikim serve Hashem.)  This idea is portrayed perfectly in the second parsha, in which Hashem tells us how He had to strike out against our captors to do kindness with us.

The third level a relationship can reach revolves around the desire to unite with one’s beloved.  No longer do individual acts of chesed and temporal displays of affection suffice, rather one seeks a total intimacy, an unbreakable bond.  Parents naturally identify with their children, very much as an extension of them, and any glory their children receive is felt quite personally, as in any insult or rejection. This is clearly a fitting paradigm for husband and wife as well. This is paralleled by the third paragraph in our tefillin, which follows the recitation of the Shma (declaring G-d’s unity), and describes an ideal for all Jews to have a total loving devotion to their creator, and to know Hashem in all their ways.
The final level we can aim for in our relationships is to transcend being self-centered to being other-centered.  In all of the first three levels we may give to our friends and loved ones, and even seek tremendous intimacy, but we are still the centre of our lives, and the other is but an aspect or welcome addition to my world.  In the fourth level we turn to the other and say ‘I am at your service’, in other words, to devote our lives for another is the greatest and most perfect level of love.  This is probably not portrayed any better in our world than the love of a parent to a child.  A parent gives all his energy, his best years, life savings, develops a wealth of wisdom, suffers countless nights to raise their children, not to mention what how an expecting mother will reconfigure her life routine to properly care for her unborn child.  And a good parent will do this all with great love and a deep willingness and supernatural devotion.  The final parsha in our tefillin portrays this level, for as we introduced, it discusses how Hashem will support us when we do good, and He will turn the entire creation to serve us.  Conversely, it details how Hashem will withdraw His investment in us when we fail to do what is right, and through the same equal and total devotion, He will turn the world on its head to discipline us in order to reprove us to improve our ways, as a truly loving parent does for a child.

How fortunate are we to have such a special relation with our Father our King, and how lucky we are to have constant reminders of our precious lot in this world; this we declare in our prayer Aleinu, when we thank Hashem for another day of life, and returning to us our neshamas when we say Modeh Ani upon awakening, and this we can contemplate when we bind ourselves with our Tefillin. (Our thoughts can be manifold, as our the compartments of our head-tefillin, while our actions are singular, albeit guided by this varied awareness of our relation to the One whom we in turn are devoting ourselves to.)    It is no wonder with a mitzvah so drenched in meaning and emotion, that on the verse of the Book of Esther, at the end after a triumphant salvation from Haman’s plot: (which you may recognize from Havdalla, when we return to the world of action, and should consider the depth of our tasks in the coming week), “And to the Jews there was light, happiness, joy and glory/preciousness  (there is no exact single word translation)” the gemarra elucidates: Light, this is Torah, happiness, this is yontiff, joy is bris milah, and Glory/Preciousness is tefillin”.

May we all rejoice in our great fortune to be amongst the Jewish nation, and to have such a splendid inheritance of mitzvos, such as tefillin, and shabbos – have a joyous one,.