Frightful Phylacteries

tefillin-secondlebanonwarWe are seldom aware of the fact that one of the common, day-to-day accessories of Jewish life can sometimes be frightening.  In a passage that describes the blessings that we are destined to enjoy when we fulfill the commandments, the Torah says that in the future the general attitude toward the Jews will drastically change.  “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the Name of the Lord is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you”(Devarim 28:10).  What does “the name of the Lord is proclaimed over you” refer to?  Rabbi Eliezer interpreted this verse as referring to the Tefillin that are worn on the head, presumably because of the Divine Names that are written on the parchment scrolls contained within the Tefillin.  According to his approach, the Torah makes a statement regarding the messianic era: when someone catches a glimpse of a Jew wearing Tefillin he will be overcome with a feeling of fear or reverence.  This interpretation doesn’t raise any obvious difficulties vis-à-vis the verse itself or its context; it does seem to contradict, however, our common experience.  Are Tefillin a unique feature of the messianic era?  Jews don Tefillin on a daily basis throughout the world, even though the messianic era has not yet arrived.  Although they don’t typically parade around the streets while wearing them, there are plenty of times that Jews are seen while they are fully outfitted in their Tefillin boxes and straps.  Nevertheless, we don’t seem to find that people react to them with much more than curiosity.  How could Rabbi Eliezer express a view that is seemingly at odds with reality?  Will there be some type of new reality in the messianic era that will account for this phenomenon?

tefillin-gifUpon further reflection, it makes sense that there will actually be no difference, at least with regard to the Mitzvah of Tefillin, between our own time and that future era.  The only thing that will change will be us – ourselves and our statures.  Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman (born 1912), the prominent Israeli Rosh Yeshiva, author, and political figure, suggests that it is not because of a deficiency in contemporary Tefillin that we don’t inspire any reaction in onlookers.  It may actually be because of a deficiency in us –contemporary Tefillin wearers.  It is axiomatic that when our spirituality is lacking, our Mitzvah performance is affected.  If we suffer from a weak “heart” or “head” – i.e. we have weak emotional and intellectual connections to spirituality – our Mitzvah of Tefillin will also be weak.  Hanging a pair of Tefillin on the head of a scarecrow will engender no reverence in anyone, no matter what era of world history it happens to be.  If the Mitzvah of Tefillin, in particular, was to be fulfilled as a mere external action which lacks inner depth and connection, how could it ever truly affect anyone?  The messianic era will herald a time of deeper Jewish connection, commitment, and love for Torah.  The message of the Tefillin Phenomenon of that era is that we must remember at all times that even though we strive to fulfill the Torah’s commandments, their true impact is not achieved if they remain shallow and bereft of feeling and connection.

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