Many of you have heard me talk about my zaydie, the rabbi, who was born in Germany and marked his Bar Mitzvah in 1933, the year that Hitler rose to power. You’ve heard me talk about his Bar Mitzvah tefillin, one of the only possessions that made it through the journey north to Liverpool, across the Atlantic to Toronto, to Saskatoon, to a suburb of Cleveland, and then finally, to Orlando, where my zaydie sat with me when I was just eight years old, and gave them to me.
You’ve heard me say that there was so much I didn’t understand in that moment—the remarkable significance of this gift, the profound symbolism of Jewish survival, the tenacious devotion to mitzvot, his implicit nod to egalitarian Jewish practice—but from that day on, I was changed. I felt as if my zaydie had chosen me for something special. I cherished those tefillin; I learned how to wrap them and say the blessings. I took them to middle school, to summer camp, to college, to Rabbinical school.
And though they are now long past pasul—the state of the parchment, boxes, and straps renders them unfit for use—these tefillin are far from irrelevant. They continue to inspire me to help others find a connection to this beautiful mitzvah.
I’ve started to bring my daughter Hannah to minyan with me on Sunday mornings. At three and a half, she loves to look at the sifrei Torah in the ark, she loves to open the Siddur and find Hebrew letters, she loves to assemble her favorite puzzles. And—she loves to help me put on my tefillin. When she counts seven wraps around my forearm, straightens the loop on my head, tucks the end of the leather strap under the palm of my hand, I feel as if my heart might burst out of my chest.
I realize that tefillin is one of those mitzvot that can be hardest to take on. When many of us close our eyes and imagine the kind of person who might wear tefillin, it’s probably someone who looks very different from you or me. It’s a mitzvah that gets in our personal space. It’s hard to remember exactly how the straps work. We’re always afraid of more reasons to look uncertain when we come into public prayer spaces.
But—I will argue—that this mitzvah is one of the most powerful practices that we can engage in as Jews. Tefillin hold deep wisdom on how we ought to come into the world.
As I told our WFRS sixth graders and their families on Sunday during our family program, tefillin engage and animate our heads—the seat of our intellect and emotion, the place where we process and plan all of our deeds—and our hands—the instruments that allow us to partner with God in creation and fulfill our obligation to repair the world. But before we are fully awake, we wrap tefillin over these sacred parts of ourselves and meditate on how we will use these tools during the day. And—most importantly—this mitzvah is one of the ways in which we show our love for God, as we learn from the Ve’ahavta:
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might. Take to heart
these instructions with which I charge you this day. Teach them to your children. Repeat them at
home and away, morning and night. Bind them as a sign upon your hand, and let them serve as a
symbol on your forehead. Inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and upon your gates
This Sunday is the annual World Wide Wrap, a day when Conservative shuls across the country come together to celebrate, learn about, and wrap tefillin together. Beth Torah, Anshai Torah, and Shearith Israel will all join for minyan in our Fonberg Chapel at 8:30am. We’ll provide extra pairs of tefillin and plenty of personal trainers to help you wrap. Minyan will be followed by breakfast in Topletz Auditorium, during which Rabbi Ari Sunshine will reflect on the meaning of his tefillin practice. Whether you’re an experienced tefillin wrapper or you’ve never tried it before, I encourage you to come out and participate in this wonderful event.
See you in shul,
Shearith Israel clergy, staff and congregants share