If someone were to ask me, “Rabbi, which of the many mitzvot you perform is the most meaningful to you?”, I would answer, “The mitzvah of Tefillin.” I realize this might sound strange coming from a Reform Rabbi. Such an answer would be expected from a Chabad Rabbi but not one who was ordained from Hebrew Union college, the bastion of Reform Judaism.
This answer is particularly interesting since I grew up in Queens, New York, and my family belonged to a very classical Reform congregation. I never even knew what Tefillin was, as it was not ever taught in our Hebrew School or mentioned by the Rabbi. Tefillin, by the way, are 2 boxes that contain the Shema, V’ahavta and 2 other paragraphs written by hand on animal skin, strapped onto the head and arm when praying the morning weekday prayer service fulfilling the commandment from Deuteronomy 6:8, “Bind them as symbols on your hands and on your foreheads.” I first learned of Tefillin during my first year at Hebrew Union College.
I will, however, never forget learning of Tefillin and purchasing my first pair. I always prayed in the morning and as the years went, I began praying with a Tallit draping my shoulders. When I added the tefillin on my head and arm, something powerful overcame me. It was like taking a battery in a smartphone that needed to be recharged and plugging it in. Putting on the Tefillin was my way of recharging my spiritual batteries that govern my thoughts (the box on the Rosh, the head) and my actions (the box on the Yad, the arm). A few years later, I met with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, may he rest in peace. We davened together at his home in Pennsylvania and I immediately noticed that he wore two pairs of Tefillin. One pair was the traditional one following the custom of the famous French Rabbi Rashi and the other followed the custom of his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam. A few days later I purchased a set of the Tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam and have been wearing both pairs ever since.
Tefillin has remained my spiritual anchor during these almost 50 years. I put them on every morning, except Shabbat and holidays. I have two sets of the 2 pairs. One is for my Florida home and the other stays on Long Island. I have brought them with me on cruises and to many countries throughout the world. My wife, Judy, has enjoyed taking photographs of me standing by a hotel window or on a cabin balcony with my Tefillin and Tallit offering my morning prayers.
I have put Tefillin on even when I am sick. I do so when I am tired or when I have a headache. If I am rushed and do not have time to pray the entire morning service, I still put the Tefillin on to fulfill this mitzvah. Why? Because no matter what is going on in my life, it is my spiritual anchor with God. It is like a boat that is adrift until it lowers that anchor. The captain of the ship knows that it is now safe and sturdy when he or she feels that anchor being grabbed by the ocean floor below. This is the way I feel when I put on my Tefillin every morning.
This Shabbat we read from parshat Lech Lecha, the narrative that describes God’s directive to Abram to leave the place where he was born and raised, and go south with his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot and those whom he converted to the belief in the One God. I would have to believe that this was an anxious moment for our patriarch. Anyone who has had to make a similar type move in his or her life, knows what I mean. Although Abram did not put on Tefillin, as the ritual had not been created yet, he, as with my Tefillin, had to have a spiritual anchor in his life that held him firm as he began this journey into the unknown. Maybe he did practice a ritual or ceremony that gave him spiritual stability, or maybe it was just his faith in God’s protective presence. Regardless, he had an anchor that now was with him and probably, like my Tefillin, stayed with him for the rest of his life.
Those of us who are aging have experienced many times of challenge, of change and of upheaval, in our lives, which have caused much anxiety and maybe even fear. I know it can also be said that these same words can describe the time we are now living in. For those of you who have had a spiritual anchor which could be your ritual or your faith, I pray that you continue to have it. For those of you who do not, I pray that you, no matter your age, can find such an anchor. It will help to hold you steady no matter how rough the waters become. God bless you and God bless America!
Rabbi Dr. Steven A Moss is Rabbi Emeritus of B’nai Israel Reform Temple in Oakdale, NY, a synagogue he has served since 1972. He recently retired to Boynton Beach, FL, and is serving as rabbi of Temple Sinai of Palm Beach County. He has also authored, God Is With Me; I Have No Fear, and A Poetical Journey Through Sefirat HaOmer.