Our Exodus is just beginning, Parashat Boconcludes with Moses telling the people on the very day of their departure to remember this day and to commemorate it with what we know as Passover, the eating of matzot and the retelling of the story. Furthermore, he tells Israel in 13:9 to place it "as a sign upon your hand and a memory between your eyes."-tefillin.
Tefillin are only obliquely mentioned in the Torah. It does not explain. The oral tradition, which you and I refer to as the Talmud, is very clear-black, square, leather boxes of precise specifications held onto the body with matching black leather straps. Indeed, tefillin are the most complete example of the importance of oral Torah in the development of Judaism. Without the oral tradition, we would not have a clue about them.
The area where the tefillin's knot rests on one's head is the region where the Rambam believes memory is located. If so, then perhaps the old halakhic debate about torn tefillin straps is really about a rupture in memory-what happens if your memory is no longer intact? Is it possible to repair the memory, even incompletely, or is only perfect memory acceptable? If the mitzvah of tefillin is about looking at past current events, about stimulating the recall of our collective memory and then acting with this consciousness, then how can we function when "the ties that bind" break?
Dementia is one of the saddest and most painful of all human conditions. Anyone who has had someone they love suffer from the gradual or sudden loss of memory has struggled with the mystery of human identity and relationship. Can I be me without my memories? What happens to a relationship when one party no longer recognizes the other?
It is possible that contemporary Jews are suffering from a form of collective dementia. We no longer remember our sacred history, and thus the Torahand the mitzvot are not always on our minds and in our mouths. Themitzvah of tefillin is designed to restore that memory daily, to bind us to our past and motivate sacred conduct. Even if the ties have become tattered, it is our task to repair them, so that we and those we teach can again see, recall, and be motivated by the great passage from slavery to freedom, and from spiritual isolation to our covenant.
There was a man who prayed at the synagogue where I grew up. Every time he finished putting his tefillin on, he took out a small mirror. One day I got the nerve to ask him about it. He said, "If you were going to see the judge in traffic court, wouldn't you adjust your necktie and lapels before you enter the courtroom? When I pray in the morning I want to be sure mytefillin are just right for my audience before the Supreme Judge!" Think of talking to God, every day.
I would like to invite all of you, men and women alike, to join us in the international World Wide Wrap on Sunday, February 8th. Agudas will be one of hundreds of synagogues participating as we recall our past and connect with other Conservative Jews all over the world. Anyone, whether you have never put on tefillin or have not put them on in a while, is welcome to join us to wrap together followed by a nice breakfast and additional interfaith program. I will not be as punctilious as my friend with the mirror.
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
Please note that Rabbi Abraham will be away next week at a prestigious conference at the 92nd Street Y as part of a grant Agudas as received. His message will return on Friday, February 6th.