My older cousin, Earl, was into Judaism in a bigway when I was a kid. I mean, he was cool and everything — playedguitar, had long hair, a beard, earth shoes and his own room in theattic — but the guy loved to daven. From what I can remember, thismade him something of an exception in the Leder clan.
Since then, Earl has gone on to write a couple ofgreat books about Judaism and morality, he teaches Torah all overMinneapolis and St. Paul, and he is generally renowned for hisbrilliance and his menschlichkayt. I respect him for all of that, butmore so for something he did when his 13-year-old cousin became a barmitzvah; it’s something I am sure he has forgotten by now.
Digging through the packages and envelopes of mypost-party bar mitzvah loot 25 years ago, I unearthed a small boxwith a card on top from Earl. “I know that you probably won’t usethese,” it said, “but every Jew should have them just incase.”
I opened the box to discover two smaller boxes,shiny and black, with stiff leather straps. I’d seen tefillin inpictures and on the praying Chassid curios for sale in the templegift shop. But these were mine, and one thing Earl said in his cardwas for sure — I wouldn’t use them.
For more than a decade, the tefillin I never usedstayed inside the velvet bag that held the tallis I never wore, onthe shelf in the basement bedroom of my parents’ home, where I nolonger lived. I couldn’t bring myself to throw away these artifactsof an irrelevant Judaism from an unenlightened era, but I had no usefor them either. That was until my liturgy professor in rabbinicalschool gave us an assignment — three weeks of davening at anOrthodox shul.
“Mom, UPS those tefillin in the basement, willya?”
I’ve been a proud Reform Jew my entire life. I’man unapologetic, “spirit of the law trumps the letter of the law”sort of guy. I drive to synagogue on Shabbat, believe in egalitarianJudaism, full rights for homosexuals, patrilineal descent, andhalacha is a part but not the sum total of my decision makingprocess. Had you asked what my reaction to wearing tefillin wouldhave been before I tried them, I would have answered you with thewords of the Reform movement’s Torah commentary on the verses abouttefillin in this week’s Torah portion: “Reform Jews stress internalcommitment over adherence to external forms…the biblicalprescription to ‘place a sign upon your hand and a reminder upon yourforehead’ was meant in a figurative way only.” Yep, that was me, Mr.Rational. Until I tried it.
Figurative or not, there’s something powerfulabout literally placing a tiny box with promises of redemption fromthe Torah hidden inside onto your upper arm facing your heart.Wrapping the thin black strap seven times around your arm andfinishing it off in the shape of a Shin (the first letter of God’sname), laced between your fingers, is meditative and connecting — tothe other men by your side, the Torah, the past, God. A shining blacksquare suspended just below your hairline with leather strapscascading over your shoulders really does remind you of who and whatyou are.
Fifteen years after those experimental days inrabbinical school, not always, not even very often, but sometimes, Iwrap myself in my tallis and my tefillin, sway to a rhythm unheardand lose myself in a world of ancient words. I guess I’ve learnedwhat Cousin Earl knew all along: Not always, but sometimes, what’srational isn’t what’s meaningful, and what once we dismissed, we maylater embrace. Certain things are worth keeping, as Earl himselfmight put it, “just in case.”
Steven Z. Leder is a rabbi at WilshireBoulevard Temple.
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