This week we will be reading from parashat Eikev. Near the end of the Torah portion, Moses once again reminds the Israelites of the mitzvah to “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead…”1
The mitzvah to lay tefillin (phylacteries) has always struck me as a very curious tradition. As a reminder, Tefillin are made up of two leather boxes with straps that are worn on the left arm, if you are right-handed or the reverse if you are left-handed, and on your forehead. Traditionally it was only worn by men, but nowadays there are many progressive Jewish women who also choose to wear them. There is even now the custom by some to wear tefillin made out of vegetable parchment especially if one is a vegan or a vegetarian.
In the tefillin you will find the words of the Shema and V’Ahavta. Nowadays tefillin can be a sign of devotion to God and our tradition, though originally it is thought that they may very well have been an amulet or charm to drive off demons.
There are a handful of reasons why tefillin are not particularly popular in Reform settings. The most pragmatic is because you are not supposed to wear them on Shabbat. And since weekday minyans are very uncommon in a Reform setting, it is rare to see them outside of a traditional worship space.
All that being said, I am going to make an interesting connection here, so please bear with me. Tefillin, traditionally, are a sign of devotion to God and the Jewish community. Like the tallit and the kipa, it is one of the handful of ways we can outwardly demonstrate our Jewishness and our ever present Jewish journey towards perfecting the world.
So too, I think, masks can also be a form of Jewish expression as well, like tefillin. They protect us from the demons of the covid virus. And they also represent our desire to, at least, help heal the world.
It was our hope that by now we would not need them. Alas, with the rising number of delta variant cases, it is all the more incumbent upon us to once again, demonstrate our devotion to humanity as well as to our family and friends.
It is our fervent hope that one day we will no longer need them. But until that day comes, may we continue to wear them so that we may be blessed, and receive the promises also made in Eikev, to be able to endure and prosper in the land in health and peace.
Rabbi Benjamin A. Sharff
1 Deuteronomy 11:18