by Reb Gutman Locks @ Mystical Paths
Lowell (pictured here) is from Kentucky. After I helped him to put on tefillin, he said that he was going to discuss tefillin with his Reform rabbi. A few weeks later I received this letter…
I am Lowell’s Reform Rabbi in Lexington, Kentucky (USA).
Let me first thank you for being so welcoming and engaging to Lowell. Second, let me thank you for the wonderful videos of you sharing Sukkoth, debating x-ian messiah, and engaging people in so many thought provoking ways. Third, as to tefillin; there certainly are many ways to observe our tradition. Some are fixed habits in all of us, some are expressions of need in the moments when we are most fragile inside.
For me, it is in these latter moments that wrap and withdraw, almost into the tallit [prayer shawl] and tefillin. Powerful stuff, indeed. On a regular basis, though, it is, for me, just another act - and Maimonides admonishes us to never let ritual become rote. Thus - with both sides of this Jewish coin (tradition), it is good that we have each other.
Kol tuv, [All the best]
Thank you for taking the time to write, and for your kind words.
With all due respect, I think that you are making a terrible mistake. We should never let any mitzvah fall to the level of being a ritual, to being “just another act.” When we stop and think what a mitzvah is, and why Hashem has given them to us, we begin to experience what they have always been intended to accomplish.
Let me explain. Tefillin (and all mitzvahs) are not mere rituals, G-d forbid. They are spiritual exercises specifically designed to accomplish a certain purpose. When we do an exercise we develop a particular muscle, or skill. A spiritual exercise also develops a certain muscle. It develops our spiritual muscle.
G-d commanded each of us to be holy. He said, “You shall be holy, for I am holy...” [i] If I would ever dream of attaining such a lofty level, and would dare say that I am holy, well, I would be embarrassed to even think of such arrogance. But, no, this is not arrogance, it is a G-d given commandment!
Actually, G-d wants us to emulate Him. He wants us to know Him so we can accomplish His purpose in having created us. In order to know something we have to somehow receive it, at least get some of it into our heads. This is also true about knowing G-d. So G-d, in His infinite wisdom and kindness, gave us these commandments so we would be able to move in the direction of holiness. It seems that the old saying “It takes one to know one” fits here.
Many Jewish sources tell us that the very purpose of man being placed in the world is to reveal G-d’s Presence. This means that we have to actually experience a truth that we all already know, but is presently being hidden. G-d fills and surrounds everything. Since G-d is infinite, He has to be right here now, too. He is here, but He has chosen to hide Himself in order to give us freewill. If He would not hide, and would be seen by all, no one would even think to transgress His will. We would be like angels, very holy, but without freewill. As I said, in order to experience a revelation of holiness, we too have to somehow become holy. We do this through His mitzvahs.
The blessing we say when we put on tefillin is, “Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy with His commandments and commanded us to wear tefillin. Wow! Really wow! When we do what G-d tells us to do, we actually become holy. That’s not a ritual… not at all. It’s a privilege… an opportunity to experience holiness.
When we put on tefillin, and stop to remember what is happening, we begin to approach the degree of holiness that G-d wants us to reach. And all this is only from His kindness because He wants us to have the immense joy of actually seeing Him. This is neither a ritual, nor is it a burden. The mitzvahs actually take away a burden.
There are so many other unique things about tefillin that add to the experience, such as, they are a sign that we are His people, they are an act that only Jews do and never have the non Jews ever tried to copy (unlike almost all of the other mitzvahs,) that in the cave where they found the 2000 year-old Dead Sea scrolls they also found pairs of tefillin, but even though all these and much more add to the uniqueness of the experience of putting on tefillin, the fact that they make us holy stands out the most. After all G-d did say, Marc, “be holy.”
With warm regards,
[i] Leviticus 19:2