Our Exodus is just beginning, andthe Torah is busy preparing Israel for its commemoration. Parashat Bo concludes 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, so that the teaching of the Lord will be in your mouth, that with a mighty hand the Lord took you out of Egypt”. This is the first of four verses which speak of binding God’s word to our arm and head—verses from which flows the mitzvah of tefillin.
The Talmud Menahot in 34a-35b repeatedly claims that details of tefillin are a “halakhah of Moses at Sinai”. This is remarkable since tefillin are only obliquely mentioned in the Torah. Even if physical writing and binding is intended, the Torah 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 any clue how to fulfill the command which is given four times in the Torah.
Aside from the halakhic lens, there is also a more spiritual way of approaching this subject of tefillin. The tefillin of the head are described in our portion as a “memory between your eyes”. Ramban in his Torah commentary to 13:16 offers a proto-neurological explanation. The eyes mediate between external reality and internal memory. They transfer images of shapes to the brain. The straps that bind the tefilah shel rosh between our eyes then surround the head and fasten in the back of the skull, under which Ramban believes is the region where memory is stored.
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 Torah and the mitzvot are not always on our minds and in our mouths. The mitzvah 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, you would adjust your necktie and lapels before you approach him or her. When I pray in the morning I want to be sure my tie AND tefillin are just right for my audience with the Supreme Judge!”
I would like to invite all of you, men and women alike, to join us in the international World Wide Wrap on Sunday, February 3rd. CSI 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 it on in a while, is welcome to join us to wrap together followed by a nice brunch. We will have practice wraps each of the next two Sundays, and I am available and anxious to have you visit with me in the privacy of my office for a refresher that will take 10 minutes. Unlike many, I am not going to show you once and say “Now you’ve got it.” And I promise I will not be as punctilious as my friend with the mirror. Join us in evoking our collective memory!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham