Illustration: Israeli soldier lays tefillin (Image credit: Moshe Milner/Government Press Office of Israel)
No matter how dangerous it was, he would not relent. The chips would fall where they may and he would endure the consequences, but he would not deny following the path that his soul laid out for him.
Yehudah was a young Jew raised in a period when the vacuous sphere of atheist Russian society was manifest in every possible niche of life. It was incredulous that in this milieu, he discovered early in his spiritual trek the tenacious power of tefillin to connect him to the Source that was slowly revealing its radiance to him.
When he was compelled to participate in a month-long communist youth camp program, he had no place where he could put on tefillin without subjecting himself to unnecessary attention and hostility. Not willing to give up his newly discovered bond, he used his head—and his feet! When putting on tefillin, he would sit in a yoga position and everyone who saw him assumed the tefillin to be part of some quirky cult practice that was a safe and acceptable aberration.
Arkadi, a Russian Jew, had been putting on tefillin for a few years and assumed the practice with great love. When an accident confined him to a hospital bed, he was afraid to take his precious tefillin along, fearful they would be lost.
Two young men from a Hasidic community were told that there was a Jew in a hospital that wanted to put on tefillin. They had no idea who he was, but they spent a good part of their day to and from the New York hospital in order to bring him tefillin and help him put them on. They could hardly speak to each other because neither of them spoke the other’s language well enough, but the bond that tied them to their Creator tied them—Jews from opposite ends of the world and opposite ends of the Jewish spectrum—together as well.
There are stories of Jewish refugees living in Japan during World War II who were seen putting on tefillin and raised the Japanese authorities’ concerns that they were using the small black boxes on their head to send signals to enemy agents. Curiously, the Japanese assessment of the power of the little black boxes was not completely wrong—though of course, they miscalculated the "direction" of the signals.
Who can fathom the power of tefillin to create an indissoluble connection to one's Creator? Who can perceive the depths of courage possessed by Jews battered by years of deprivation during the Holocaust, that they would expend their fragile bodies and risk their lives in order to put on tefillin in the concentration camps and ghettos?
Who can begin to explain how the tefillin of David Delarosa remained unscathed and intact after the bus he was in was totally demolished by a terrorist bomb in 1988? Can you understand what propelled Delarosa, a young religious Israeli student, to return to the burning bus in order to try to save a young woman and her children?
Can you explain how a hassid of Chabad, who went to Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda outdoor market daily in order to bring tefillin to the workers and shopkeepers, survived a horrendous blast that killed others because he stepped aside momentarily to pick up his tefillin?
Hardy souls leave their Jerusalem homes in the predawn hours and make their way through the cold, dark, twisted roads during the thickest of the night, in order to witness the ethereal majesty of the precise moment of sunrise and to commence their morning prayers at the Kotel. The vatikin (sunrise prayer minyan) is comprised of a disparate conglomeration of Jews. No matter what their surface differences appear to be, they relinquish all that defines them as different and join together in a time-space, sharing a camaraderie unsullied by temporal affiliations as they pray together.
The tefillin that tie each Jew to his Creator can also transform bonds between Jews. They can transform strangers into brothers and brothers into Jews. One man considered it his sacred duty to always be on the lookout for the uninitiated Jew who would find his way to the Kotel, arriving there either by conscious design or by the force of irresolute meandering. He would invite them to put on tefillin.
Once he asked Yerachmiel—an American tourist who became a regular at the vatikin minyan—to approach a young man and invite him to try the tefillin. He felt that perhaps his own English was inadequate to make his request, understanding he didn't want to lose a "customer" or a soul.
When Yerachmiel conveyed the invitation to the young man, he was refused. The reluctant young man was a medical student, and explained that he refused because he objected to the closed-minded thinking that disallowed men and women from praying together. When Yerachmiel pointed out that the young man was himself guilty of being closed-minded in rejecting the invitation, he reconsidered and consented to try.
When it was time for Yerachmiel to retrieve the tefillin, the young man refused again! Now he was reluctant to take the tefillin off. He wasn't ready to relinquish the feelings that enveloped his entire being unexpectedly and so pervasively when he tied the tefillin around his arm for the first time in his life. He wanted to prolong the experience, and asked Yerachmiel to thank the man who sent him over and for being persistent as he was. The buoyant effect that sent his soul soaring was an experience that he had never experienced before.
The inspired individuals who look out for potential tefillin "customers" are in no perceptible way repaid for their self-imposed duty, which they perform with great diligence and profound love for their Creator—a profound love that they try to share with their uninitiated, long lost brothers.
They persist, undaunted by the perils of inconsistent weather or negative mindsets that they must negotiate with exquisite care, in order to overcome the reluctant soul and hold them for a transformative moment. This moment’s spiral effect can reverberate for a lifetime, in the embrace of an impromptu prayer. They are strangers trying to catch lost sons and brothers and entwine them through an experience of the ties that bind.
Can anyone measure the gratitude felt by two grown men, a father and a son, both generals, when they were invited to put on tefillin at the Kotel for the first time in their lives? Who can quantify the gratitude that they expressed, or imagine how far the latent sparks ignited in a group of left-wing teenagers, who saw and put on tefillin for the first time in their lives, will fly? This group did not appear coerced by others; they lined up patiently and excitedly, coerced only by the latent desire that lay buried in their souls, which needed to be coaxed into action by the love of another Jew.
No one could have been more surprised or delighted than a young man who, while being mugged, asked the muggers, "Is anyone of you Jewish? Did you put on tefillin today?” One of the muggers was a Jew and got sidetracked from his intent; he got interested in putting on tefillin and had a fight with the other two muggers who thought he was truly mad and ran away.
The power of tefillin has benefits way beyond the measure of anything that we can understand. When we tie ourselves to our Creator in the way that we are commanded to, we generate positive forces that are beyond our understanding. But with or without our understanding, the benefits accrue just the same.
Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the U.S., England, Israel, and Mexico and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space."