In Parashat Ekev (עקב), Moses continues his speech to the Israelites, outlining the consequences of obeying or disobeying God’s commandments. The rewards of obedience include continuing to enjoy the benefits of the covenant – health, abundant produce and fertility. The Israelite’s enemies will be defeated and they will be able to enter the Land of Israel with God’s help. “They sit in my wardrobe, ready for action” – this may sound like a description of my dazzling new shoes, waiting to be taken out for their first excursion at a future communal event, but it is something quite different. This is how a wonderful rabbinic colleague of mine describes the coiled-as-a spring posture of her tefillin!
Many of us, especially women, I suspect, have tefillin in our various physical and metaphorical wardrobes, “ready for action”. This might be because tefillin are one of the last vestiges of gendered difference in wearing Jewish ritual symbols for Progressive Jews (alongside tallit katan).
The commandment in Ekev is one of no less than four times that this mitzvah is given to the Jewish people.
“Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart; bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead.”(Deuteronomy 11:18).
This quadruple mention might be the extra emphasis needed to embed this ritual in the face (no pun intended) of the uniqueness and the possible awkwardness of this highly distinctive mitzvah. It is an all-encompassing practice. It ties you up, it commits you. As the meditation before putting on tefillin in Seder HaTefillot, the siddur of the British Reform Movement, notes, laying tefillin is a multi-sensory experience:
“As a reminder of God’s ‘outstretched arm’, and opposite the heart to show in this way that the longings and desires of our heart should be controlled for the service of God, whose name be blessed. And on the head over the brain, showing that the mind that is in my brain, with all my senses and faculties, should be committed to the service of God, whose name be blessed.”
My senses are aroused when I wear my tefillin: the smell of the leather when taking them out; the sight of the boxes; the reminder of the texts that I literally place on my arms and my head; the sound of thebrachot as I wind the straps and remember the order of the ritual and the feeling that I have running my fingers over the mark that the straps leave on my arm for a few hours once I have removed them.
When I start my day with tefillin I find the divine in the binding, in the winding of the leather around my arms seven times, each one increasingly binding me and unwinding me ahead of my waking hours. Counting the strap being wound around my arm I am connected to myself, to others praying, and to my search for the divine.
I did not wear tefillin until I was thirty three. When I did, I almost felt the room spin. This action, more than any other, completed the departure from my Orthodox upbringing to my home in Reform Judaism. I was absolutely certain that something divine and awful (awe-filled) would happen once I put on tefillin. It didn’t; I was still me.
Well, actually, it might have. I felt stronger, I felt committed – I felt bound. I think the commitment came from the very action of binding of tefillin; the details of carrying out the complicated binding instructions and also, to be honest, how very peculiar I feel I look with tefillin on. What is most important, though, is that even after the unravelling, all is not unravelled as I still feel connected to the covenant through this action, through this ot, this sign of wearing tefillin. This emotion, this affirmation, is the key to this week’sparashah.
Now I share this drama to the full. “In the Jewish world”, says the transgender rabbinical student, Ari Lev Fornari points out in “Torah Queeries” (New York University Press, 2009, p 241), “tallit and tefillin are still privileged as markers of masculinity and Jewish authenticity. In light of this fact, it is necessary to appropriate symbols of Jewish masculinity so that women and gender-variant people can feel whole and seen in Jewish tradition.”
With wearing tefillin our Covenant is seen. Not for nothing do Chabad invite Jews to put on tefillin in public places. But it runs deeper than a tribal display of sacred symbol: putting on tefillin as part of the covenant is not value neutral. We bind ourselves daily to the ethical commitments encapsulated in the words of Hosea, which we recite as we strap the tefillin to our bodies. Their intimate language accompanies us on an arc from the private – “you to me” through the expression of the core values that should guide us and through there to the most profound spiritual promise
–”you will know the Eternal”:
“I betroth you to Me forever.
I betroth you to Me with integrity and justice, with tenderness and love.
I betroth you to Me with faithfulness
and you will know the Eternal.” (Hosea 2: 21-22)
This month, scientists maintain they have discovered the Higgs field, nicknamed the “God particle”. It is the “glue” that binds together neutrons and protons and so the “glue” that binds together the whole universe It is the ultimate, cosmic binding of physical matter. Yet the binding the Hosea envisaged and we associate with our daily ritual is transcendental: a covenant of integrity and justice, tenderness, love and faithfulness. These bring us to the presence of the divine. We wear tefillin, one of the oldest mitzvot, infused with these aspirations – to live with integrity and justice, tenderness, love and faithfulness. This is our compound, Jewish “God particle” that affirms the integrity of the universe and so fulfils the message of parashat Ekev.