Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York to get a feel for the community and learn more about their cantorial program.
I don’t want to overload you with all the details, so I’ll tell you one of the most touching parts of my day, though I admit there were honestly many, including the emotionally charged service led by a second year cantorial student.
During a meeting with one the rabbis, we left campus to grab a cup of coffee and go for a walk on a gloriously sunny afternoon. I love how nature is a hidden gem in the city: the blue skies are almost as elusive as the patches of grass. So when I found myself in a park above street level on a perfectly clear day, I thought I had stumbled onto a little slice of heaven.
The rabbi and I talked about Israel, the chaplaincy program, and a lot of different subjects. It was a deeper get to know you chat than just the typical rundown of name, academic skills, and personal history.
Then, he asked me a question that was simultaneously predictable and surprising: “How do you feel about davening with tallit and tefillin?”
I paused. I’ve actually given a lot of thought to these traditional objects. For those of you who don’t know, a tallit is a prayer shawl that you wrap around your body and tefillin are small boxes containing scripture that are wrapped around your head and arm.
I told him that tefillin was outside my comfort zone- it was something I’d never tried and honestly a point of apprehension for me. Maybe that sounds silly, I remarked, but it was true. I explained that I understood the ritual in concept. I know that tefillin are there to remind us of G-d’s commandments and that the tradition comes from the book of Deuteronomy: “and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” But I confessed that I had a hard time understanding how these little boxes that I found awkward, cumbersome, and even intrusive added to prayer. How do they create a more fulfilling and spiritual prayer experience? How do they enrich the task that you are doing?
Obviously, there are many answers and interpretations to this question. All I am offering is one that finally resonated with me.
With regards to the tallit, it acts as a loving embrace and source of comfort. When you pray with a tallit, you feel as though you are surrounded by God’s love. I’ve noticed the connection before. I remember noticing during the part of the Rosh Hashanah service when the men up front pulled their prayer shawls over their heads that they reminded me of David hiding under his fuzzy blanket, and I almost started laughing in shul. This layer of love adds to your prayer experience, and I had no trouble picturing myself held in a loving embrace, as it is a metaphor that I visualize often during prayer.
Up until this point, the rabbi and I had been walking. We had long since left the park. He stopped on the side of the street, and I thought we were about to enter a building. He gestures to his head, illustrating how one tefillin resides smack dab in the middle of your forehead. He then gestures to his bicep. The other is wrapped around your arm and down your hand, the box facing inward towards your heart. This way of wrapping binds your heart, mind, and arm all together. If you are not consulting your heart in your thoughts and actions, you are acting without conviction. All three should always be tied together.
Then he holds up his hand, threading an imaginary strap among the fingers. The prayer recited when wrapping the band around the fingers is beautiful, translating to the following:
I will betroth you to Me forever. And I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you shall know God.
Coupled with the loving embrace of the tallit, the use of tefillin in prayer is an act of transformative love. Each and every time we put on the tefillin, we are betrothed once again to G-d . Daily prayer with tallit and tefillin becomes a very powerful symbol of unconditional love, and a renewal of connection and a promise to know G-d intimately resides in one’s soul. That is the beauty of these simple objects. I never knew my soul ached to express that relationship through this ritual until now.
Of course, the emotional connection would not be immediate. It takes time to grow accustomed to something entirely new (see my post about the first time I attended Shabbat services. Not a happy camper.) I’m not going to don these objects immediately either because I want to ease into them with a community or mentor who can show me the ropes. I want my tallit to be significant, whether because I make parts of it myself or pick out a symbolic design. I want to explore the text of the prayers that I’m saying as I betroth myself to G-d.
For now, I’m grateful to have a better understanding of a ritual that can be so significant and moving. It’s not that I never had good explanations before this one. I’ve just never found an explanation that connected so well with me. With this new knowledge, I’ll set some tentative goals. I’m hoping to be praying with tallit a year from now and have at least started to experiement with tefillin by the following fall. But who knows? The path of my Jewish self-exploration could take me anywhere.