by Reb Gutman Locks at Mystical Paths
I went to daven minchah (afternoon prayers) at the Kotel as usual, but as I walked in, the men at the tefillin booth asked for help. I have a general rule to pray before I help with tefillin because you can get so caught up there that you put off praying until the very last minute and sometimes even later. So I rather pray first and not have to worry about it. But I saw a group of young American boys standing by the booth and a few of them did not want to put on tefillin. “I am reform. We don’t do that. Tefillin is for the orthodox. No. I don’t believe in it.” These were a few of their objections.
Why is it so important for nonreligious Jews to put on tefillin at the Kotel? It is not just for the mitzvah of tefillin, although certainly this is a good enough reason. When they put on tefillin here, the experience of the mitzvah of tefillin combines with the spiritual feeling of the Kotel. Then, if you motivate them in the right way, their hearts can open and they can change their entire lives in just a few short minutes.
I knew if I prayed first they would be gone by the time I finished, so I jumped in. With a lot of effort I convinced one of the most stubborn boys to cooperate. He had what he thought were very good arguments as to why he did not want to do it; after all, he had never done it before, he didn’t believe in it, they don’t do anything anyway, and a few more like these. I was able to convince him to try it with a good heart and see for himself.
It is not just that I have answered all these questions before so I know how to counter their objections, but also, since I seem to them to be an old man they are a little more apt to listen to me than the younger guys who were trying to help them. Obviously, I use this to my advantage. No. Better to say; to their advantage.
The boy I helped tried his best not to have a good time. He tried real hard to be totally indifferent about it, but standing a few inches from the Kotel, praying for his family and loved ones got to him. He stayed by the Wall for a full ten minutes. No one was forcing him to stay there praying. Once he started, he wanted to be there.
Meanwhile, we were working on one of the other kids who refused. He was a bit of a wise guy. Well, not really, but he was using this as a defense against our attempts to convince him. I told him to look at his friend who also did not want to put them on who was standing by the Kotel for the last ten minutes praying. Just then his friend turned around. He looked totally different than when he walked over there. There was light on his face and it looked like he had been crying and smiling at the same time. One after another we tried with this boy and finally he gave in and put them on. Then as soon as he had them on he wanted to take pictures to show everyone back home the first time he ever put on tefillin.
I spoke to the entire group stressing why it is so important to marry a Jewish girl. Up until then, although some of them had heard that they were supposed to marry a Jewish girl, they did not really understand why. They had a ton of questions and were asking them all at once. Then right in the middle of this, their nonreligious Israeli guide came and pulled them away. It seems that the next stop on their itinerary, or the pizza, was more important to him than their being plugged back into their ancestors’ understanding of life. I quickly gave them my web address so they could keep in contact.
Almost immediately I saw a tourist with two nice teenage boys. It turned out that he was Jewish but his kids were not. Yikes! I explained to the boys about idolatry, that they must never think of G-d as a limited being, a man or a spirit. It is important to help non-Jews, too, especially if their father is Jewish. Remember, you only have their attention for a couple of minutes. You have to use your time wisely. Instead of giving them a lecture on why they should behave themselves, it is best to give them a practical principle that will help them to guide their spiritual choices. I tried to get the father to put on tefillin but he would not. He was very polite, humble, a nice guy, but he did not want to put on tefillin. I think in such a situation he felt that putting on tefillin would separate him from his sons. And obviously he loved them very much and did not want to do such a thing.
While I was busy talking to him one of the other men from the booth brought the non-Jewish boys to the stand and started to put tefillin on them. I quickly called over explaining that they were not Jewish. They came back to their father and I told them to try to convince him to put on tefillin. They tried a little but he smiled and refused.
They walked away leaving me to wonder, what kind of world are we living in when a man intermarries and brings his kids to the Kotel? His non-Jewish kids wanted to put on tefillin but he didn’t. What did he really want for himself and them here?
Within a minute someone called me over. Oy! A young Jewish guy from Holland with a non-Jew was saying, “No, I am not going to put them on because I believe in Yashka as the Messiah.” He believed in the x-ian myth and would not budge an inch. His face was stern as he defended his belief. I gave him several very good reasons why that myth could not be true but he fought off whatever I said without even listening. He became even tougher as he defended that tale. He contradicted himself time and time again, but someone had firmly convinced him that no matter what, he had to believe in that man’s divinity or else he would go to hell. He walked away unchanged.
Then came a large group of soldiers. We helped them all. One after another, Jews from all over the world walked up looking for something. Within a couple of hours, besides the many Israelis, we put tefillin on Jews from Belgium, France, Russia, Chile, Argentina, Canada, America, Denmark, Germany, and a half a dozen other countries. By the time I looked up, it was getting late and I hadn’t davened yet. I left them to watch the stand and went to pray.
What is the point here? What a unique time we are living in! We see millions of Jews coming to the Kotel to look or to pray. At first they might seem to be entirely different people with wildly varying lifestyles and even different shades of skin color. Their backgrounds are completely different. They speak different languages. They do not know each other, but nevertheless, they all come from the same grandparents Abraham and Sarah and the same few tribes of Israel. They have been living for generations in so many different lands scattered all over the world, with such different customs and occupations. But they are all coming here now looking for something.
If you ask them why they have come, they will give different reasons, “History, Just a vacation, To see what’s here, A cousin’s wedding …” but really, they are being pulled here by a 3,300-year-old promise that is recorded in the Torah: “He will return and gather you in from all the peoples to which Hashem, your G-d, has scattered you. … He will bring you to the land that your forefathers possessed... “[i]
These Jews might think that they are looking to see where they came from, but in truth, they are looking to see where they are going.
[i] Deuteronomy 30:3-5
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