“I will espouse you forever” are the beginning words one says upon wrapping the tefillin around the fingers and this quotation from the prophet Hosea indicates the significance of wrapping tefillin, first mentioned in this week’s parasha “Bo”. The tefillin embody the eternal relationship between God and the Jewish people; the tefillin stand with Shabbat and circumcision as the sign of the covenant. Despite the significance of tefillin, the placing of tefillin on one’s weaker arm each morning service (other than Shabbat and festivals) is a mitzvah that has waned and now waxes again, being practiced by women as well as men. Perhaps the study about tefillin will lead to the mitzvah of tefillin.
Tefillin, two leather boxes with leather straps, are worn on the hand (arm) and head. Inside the leather boxes are found the four passages from the Torah that mention the tefillin, two from the end of parasha Bo and two from the book of Deuteronomy (those two paragraphs are the ones that also mention the mezuzah and form the first two paragraphs of the Shema.) The mitzvah of tefillin connects us to some of the deepest teachings of Torah, all four passages mentioning tefillin teaching about our obligation to serve God.
The passages from Bo mention “this observance will be for you as a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead – in order that the teaching of God is to be on your lips – for God brought you out of Egypt with a show of strength” and “it will be a sign on your hand a symbol on your forehead that God brought us out of Egypt by force.” As such, the tefillin serve as daily, physical reminders of our delivery from slavery by “God’s might”. The passages from Deuteronomy connect tefillin with serving God through mitzvot. As Jews we understand that redemption derives from our connection with the Life Force and requires us to serve life and humanity with every fibre of our being.
The wearing of tefillin demonstrates how to serve, highlighted by the sentence in the first paragraph of the Shema to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” The hand tefillin is placed on our bicep, a symbol of our strength and our ability to do, with the recognition (by placing it on our weaker arm) that our strength and autonomy have limitations. It rests near our heart, symbolic of the seat of our love and compassion. The head tefillin is placed with the box at the hairline between the eyes, near the “third eye” with the knot at the base of the skull. This placement emphasizes the nature of soul and intellect in our service. Heart, soul and body unite in service to God, as we literally bind ourselves with words of Torah. At that moment, we embody the values taught by Hosea and recited as we wrap the tefillin strap around our fingers in a sign of our commitment to the covenant: “And I will espouse you forever: I will espouse you with righteousness and justice and with lovingkindness and compassion, and I will espouse you with faithfulness and you shall know God.”
The tefillin encapsulate the teachings of the Exodus: let my people go in order that they should serve Me. The essence of Torah and Judaism is service. Thousands of years later, the call to move from slavery to service remains true as ever. After decades of enslavement to greed and consumption, it is time to serve again.