One thing obviously can’t be simultaneously both public and private. According to one early commentary, however, the Torah’s description of the commandment of Tefillin seems to require just that. The Torah uses a unique word to refer to the Tefillin worn on the head: totafot. Rashi cites the early Hebrew grammarian and lexicographer Menahem ben Saruq’s (~920 – 970) explanation of this term as a synonym of “speaking,” and the Torah describes the Tefillin as a sort of conversation piece that reminds people about something specific. Someone that sees the Tefillin box resting prominently above the center of the forehead will be reminded of the miracles of the Exodus and talk about them. This interpretation suggests that Tefillin are intended as a public mitzvah, one that is performed openly so it will engage others. This explanation of totafot becomes surprising in light of a Talmudic interpretation of the passage of Tefillin. The verse specifies that the Tefillin that are wrapped on the arm are a “sign for you,” which the Talmud understands as indicating that the arm Tefillin are not a sign for others, just for you alone – and they must therefore be concealed when worn. If both the arm and the head Tefillin are considered one unified mitzvah, the Talmudic interpretation presents a significant challenge to Menahem ben Saruq’s approach.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, as quoted in the first volume of the somewhat obscure collection of his comments on the Torah entitled “Kol Ram,” takes the position that the seemingly mutually exclusive functions of the two parts of Tefillin do complement one another in a crucial way. The head Tefillin cannot accomplish its public role of cultivating awareness of the Exodus without the private role of the arm Tefillin of impressing this awareness upon ourselves first. As the Talmud itself says: Adorn yourself, then adorn others (Baba Metziah 107b). The dichotomous roles of the two parts of Tefillin remind us that if a person himself is wanting in the very area in which he attempts to inspire a change in others – in action or in attitude, he will not be seen as genuine and will therefore be ineffective . Furthermore, when someone has actually achieved some type of refinement of character or religious depth as a result of his or her spiritual growth, people will detect it and be indirectly inspired to proactively engage in their own growth even without anyone else’s suggestion or encouragement. But when a person lacks that pious greatness or authentic spirituality, they will not have any lasting influence in those areas no matter what nor how much they say or talk about it. If you want your children to be polite, do you lecture them about being courteous or do you show them how when you address them and others? If you want them to appreciate Torah study, do you preach to them about its benefits or do you show them your own eagerness to learn something new?
Why is this message hidden in the Torah’s description of the laws of Tefillin, of all places? This idea is clearly one of those that is self-evident. But since it is nevertheless easily forgotten, it is an idea that requires constant reinforcement if it is to be lived by. With that in mind, the daily commandment of Tefillin is a perfect place to subtly place this lesson, to show that this important guidance about the vital task of uplifting and inspiring others is worthy of constant reinforcement and reflection.