From Heart of Jerusalem

As we wrap our tefilin, we bind with our G-d


What is the power of a hug? Sometimes it’s all about the context.

Recently, someone sent me a story regarding a fellow named Yankel, a survivor of Auschwitz who began his journey there packed into a cattle car in the winter of 1944. To insure that transports arrived at the camp on an efficient schedule, so that prisoners could be immediately processed, trains were often held en route until the crematoria were ready for them; cars would often sit in stations overnight and even for days on end with no food, blankets or other supplies for the frozen and desperate Jews inside.

That first night in the cattle car it was bitterly cold and Yankel, a teenager, was freezing along with all the others when he noticed an elderly man he recognized from his town. The man was violently shivering from the cold and looked like he was in agony, so Yankel wrapped his arms around the man and began rubbing his arms and legs to try and keep him warm. Yankel was freezing himself, his fingers were numb and the exhaustion was beyond description but it was clear this older man would not make it without some help so he kept rubbing the man’s body hour after hour, begging him to hang on, not to close his eyes.

Finally, the long night ended and as the sun rose, some light came through two small windows high up and began to slightly warm the air. Yankel looked around. In horror, he realized he was surrounded by frozen bodies; the only two people who had made it through the night were him and that old man. The car was filled with a deathly silence; everyone else had died.

Only two men had survived. The old man had survived because someone kept him warm, and Yankel had survived because he was warming the old man.

The greatest gifts we have in life are what we give to others.

This week we read the portion of Bo, one of the most significant in the entire Torah. With the tenth and final plague of the First Born, the Jews will finally leave Egypt. And the Torah carries a powerful description of this Exodus in all of its drama, concluding with a verse that says it all:

“And it was on this day: Hashem took the Children of Israel from the land of Egypt in thei Legions.” (Shemot 12:51)

One would have expected this to be the concluding verse of our parsha, but Bo continues with an additional short chapter that seems to be out of context, with little relationship to the Exodus. Indeed next week, in parsha Beshalach, we will conclude the story of the Exodus as the Jews, having left Egypt, are pursued by the mighty Egyptian chariots, ending in the dramatic miracle of the splitting of the sea. So what is this chapter doing here?

Interestingly, the additional story in Bo contains the first two (of four) chapters written in our tefillin. It is the first time we encounter the mitzvah of tefillin, as we are enjoined to have them as a “sign on our hands, and a memory or adornment between our eyes” (ibid. 13:9; 16). 

What is the mitzvah of tefillin doing here? We need to understand what tefillin are all about before we can consider the context of their appearing here, of all places. 

The Maharsha, in his commentary on tractate Brachot (6a), suggests that the secret of tefillin is that in binding them to our bodies we are demonstrating that we wish to bind ourselves to Hashem. Tefillin, it seems  is all about d’veikut, connecting with Hashem.

How does a person connect with G-d? What does it mean, to bind ourselves to Hashem? Perhaps it might be easier to consider how we connect with anyone.

Imagine I’m on a trip and I realize our daughter’s birthday is coming up, so I find a big store and look around to look for a present she would like. Normally, if I was traveling I would look for something nice and small that would also be easy to pack. But then something catches my eye and, getting excited, even though it is expensive and will be quie cumbersome to carry, I decide it’s worth buying it.

Upon arriving home I can’t wait to see my daughter’s face when she opens this big beautifully wrapped gift, because that look will say it all. So I give her the big box and watch with anticipation as she unwraps this big box and opens up her brand new … NBA-approved Michael Jordan personally-autographed leather basketball.

Needless to say the confused look I get is the not the look I was hoping for, because my daughter does not play basketball, has no interest in basketball and probably is wondering who this strange man is that just showed up thinking she wants a basketball!

In fact, getting her a basketball would not only not make us closer, it would probably distance me from my daughter, because it would mean I had no idea who she is and what she really wants and needs.

On the other hand, my showing up with a new book on obstetrics, or the cycles of birth, would probably get me a big hug as she just finished medical school and is looking forward to her internship in Obgyn.

We connect with people when we understand what they want and even need of us, and we become distant from them when we are doing exactly what they don’t want of us. The same is true regarding our relationship with Hashem. When we figure out what Hashem actually wants of us, we allow ourselves to connect with and become closer to Hashem.

Now, obviously G-d does not need anything from us but does want certain things from us (though they are really for us).

Hashem created us for a purpose, and when we are fulfilling that purpose by doing whatever it is Hashem put us here to do, we inevitably become more connected to Hashem. Which of course begs the question: How do we know what Hashem wants of us? Obviously Hashem has to tell us, He has to reveal what our purpose is in this world. (That is why every religion, or at least every monotheistic religion, has to have a revelation of sorts.)

This we call Torah and mitzvoth.

In the Torah, Hashem reveals to us what we are doing here, what our purpose is. Of course that’s a lot to take in — 52 portions; 613 mitzvoth. So Hashem gave us a mini-Torah and put it in our tefillin, and when we bind them to our arms (signifying all we do) and to our heads (signifying all that we think and feel and plan) we have a chance to consider what it is Hashem wants of us in all we do and say and think and plan.

Perhaps that is why these two paragraphs of our tefillin appear here, just as we finally leave Egypt and slavery behind. Because in Judaism freedom was never the goal, it is just a vehicle; the real question is what we choose to do with our freedom, and with the gift of time we finally, as a people, could reclaim.

And that is a question, particularly given the incredible gifts bestowed upon us in this generation, we need to think about every single day.

Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.

Rabbi Binny Freedman is Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta in Jerusalem. A version of this column was previously published.