“I will betroth you to me 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; according to the received tradition, the tefillin, Shabbat and circumcision are known as “the signs of the covenant”. Despite the significance of tefillin, the placing of tefillin on one’s weaker arm every morning service (other than Shabbat, festivals and Tisha B’Av) is a mitzvah that has waned and now waxes again. 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 of them come from the end of this parasha Bo. The other two mentions of tefillin are in 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. Jewish educator Stephen Bailey notes that all four passages have a common conceptual thread, teaching about redemption and service.
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 and 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 concept of redemption in Judaism requires us to recognize that our freedom is dependent upon our connection with the life force and that in return we must serve life and humanity.
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 the bicep of our weaker arm. The bicep symbolizes our strength and our ability to do. The weaker arm reminds us 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 stand in service to the life force, known as God, with the values stated in Hosea recited as we wrap the tefillin around our finger in a sign of commitment to the covenant: “And I will betroth you to me with righteousness and justice and with love and compassion and you shall know God.”
The tefillin encapsulate the teachings of the Exodus: let my people go in order that they should serve Me. After decades of enslavement to greed and consumption, to selfishness and apathy, it is time again to serve life, as manifested in our relationships, community and environment.