I’ve been thinking about tefillin this week. Not just because it’s in this week’s parshah, Eikev, but more because it’s summer. In Canada, summer is the season for cottages and camping —both have been challenging this year. So I’ve spent some time remembering summers gone by and I keep coming back to one memory when one of my sons was invited to go camping with a school friend and his family. The friend isn’t Jewish which raised some logistical questions for us. My husband and I decided years ago that we wanted to teach our children how Judaism enhances their lives, not restricts it. We decided we needed to raise them with increasing awareness of how to navigate a world that doesn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat or Jewish holidays. We wanted them to learn where Jewish law is flexible, how it can be adhered to, while still developing relationships and having experiences in the world at large. All was going well until the camping trip invitation.
I called the friend’s mother to ask about the food arrangements (perhaps the family is vegetarian?). She told me they camp by a lake and catch fish to eat. She asked if that was ok and I mentioned that we’re Jewish, my son keeps kosher but he would know which fish he could eat so all should be fine. She didn’t know what kosher was, she’d heard the word, but so long as my son knew what to do, she was comfortable. Great opportunity for family education on ‘Jewish living in the wild’. My family sat down and we went over the kosher fish identifiers (scales and fins) and refreshed on the difference (kosher wise) between hot and cold food, cooked or fresh, packaged or binned and some of the ins and outs we had taught the kids before. Everything was good to go. We started packing for the trip and my son reached for his tefillin, which he put on every morning. That’s when it hit me.
I asked if his friend knows he puts tefillin on. He said his friend wouldn’t know what tefillin is, so probably no. He thought for a moment and then asked if it would be ok to walk away from the campsite to put his tefillin on so he wouldn’t look odd to his hosts. I told him it would probably be ok, but if they asked why he was leaving the campsite he shouldn’t lie about it. Then I pictured him in the woods putting tefillin on and I told him not to stand in front of a singular tree and pray, find a place with a few trees grouped together but remember to face east (some of the nuanced sensitivities Jewish law has about praying to a tree, didn’t have time to explain it all to him, too busy focussing on the food thing). Also, don’t go too far from people because campsites always have bears nearby —any bear tracks nix the whole deal! He asked what to say if they ask what he’s doing and he can’t lie. I came up with a blank. He could say he’s going to pray…in the woods…away from everyone…not too close to a tree…with a book and a velvet bag…no worries…not weird at all.
All this time I thought keeping kosher would always be the challenge and suddenly the food was easy, it was the tefillin. We get so used to it, we forget how strange it can look to others. I enjoy watching adolescents practice putting tefillin on. Most often the arm straps are too tight and the skin bulges. One wonderful moment involved a boy somehow ‘tefillining’ his arm to his head and searching for his father to untie him. Beautiful moments of passage.
You can’t help but ask why the Torah would command us to do this, as it does in this week’s parshah. We are to place ‘these words’ on our arms and between our eyes. From that statement onward, we develop laws and practices of how and when and what. According to Jewish law, every component of the tefillin has to be a product of nature, mostly animals. Tefillin is symbolic of our partnership with God and so we turn to nature to see God’s Hand in it all. But the boxes themselves, as well as some of the stitching, must be perfect squares. Perfect squares don’t exist in nature —that’s entirely us. And so the union of nature and perfect squares embodies the partnership between us and God woven together.
The configuration of tying the tefillin on the arm, and its placement on the head, spells out one of the names of God. We are literally writing God’s Name on our bodies as we put on the tefillin. The placement on the arm symbolizes restraining our physical might to never harm the partnership. The placement ‘between the eyes’ puts the tefillin where the soft spot of our heads was when we were born. The front fontanel, the soft part of the skull, only hardens in the first year of life. It symbolizes the flexibility of our minds, our thoughts, our perspectives. The tefillin knot at the back of the head lies on the smaller fontanel at the back of the skull that hardens between the ages of 2 and 3. In other words, I place the symbolic commitment of my partnership with God on the parts of my skull that remained flexible even after birth.
At one point, while putting on the tefillin, it is customary to quote the prophet Hosea: “I betroth you to me forever. I betroth you to me in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness and mercy. I betroth you to me in faithfulness —and you shall know God.” It’s the statement of intent and commitment that we would all want to hear from our intimate partners and, in turn, be able to pledge to them.
In today’s world, some people choose to tattoo the names of their lovers onto parts of their body. Jewish law prohibits permanent tattoos, but the desire to ‘wear’ the identity of a loved one, to clothe ourselves with them, seems very primal. The Torah has told us there is a ritual where we can ‘write’ the name of God on us, commit ourselves to the partnership, restrain our ability to harm it and always remember to be flexible within the partnership —it’s called tefillin.
The strange looking, hard to explain, cherished right of Jewish passage that embodies the expressions of love, partnership and commitment we would all crave. My son’s camping trip with his friend went really well. The tefillin question never came up, they were too busy asking why the fish had to have scales AND fins.