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Tefillin: Crucial Symbols of Human Redemption
Father Dominique Pire - a Belgian Dominican priest - won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1958 for his work with refugees. He was once asked on what he pinned his hopes for world peace.
Father Pire answered that he believed in the basic goodness of human beings. When asked why he was hopeful, he told the following story.
He once visited a camp of Algerian refugees in Morocco. One of these unfortunate souls received him with effusive, traditional Middle Eastern hospitality. This refugee had practically no food in his tent, and nothing to offer except an egg.
The priest was so touched by this poor man's kindness and generosity in his terrible circumstances that he had the egg preserved. It sat on his desk as a reminder of human goodness.
However, Father Pire was not naive about the world. Side by side with the egg was another object on his desk. He had a tile from Hiroshima that had been in the atomic blast.
Over time, the priest found himself wondering which object weighed more in the scale of humankind - the egg or the tile. If it is the tile, the world is lost. If it is the egg, there is hope for the world.
For him, these two objects became crucial symbols of the choices before human beings: the ability to do good or to be destructive.
Signs and Symbols
All of us would do well to have some signs and symbolic reminders of the moral choices we must make every day. As Jews, we are fortunate to have such symbols as part of our daily religious life.
In this week's Torah portion, we read: "And this shall serve as a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead, in order that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth, that with a mighty hand God freed you from Egypt." Rabbinic tradition interpreted this verse as the source for the mitzvah of wearing tefillin (phylacteries).
These two leather boxes contain, in addition to this verse, three other verses referencing this as the tefillin shel yad, the tefillin we bind on our arms and hands. "The reminder on your forehead" was interpreted as the tefillin worn on the head, tefillin shel rosh.
Tefillin - with the Torah verses they contain - remind us of God's power and goodness in liberating us from Egypt. They also serve as a reminder of the evil of human beings such as Pharaoh.
But they are more than that.
They teach us about the inherent power of human beings to participate in their own redemption. After all, if the Israelites had not been brave enough to take a lamb - an object of Egyptian pagan worship - and smear its blood on their doorposts, they might never have been liberated.
Perhaps the most important message of tefillin is that the teachings of God's Torah must be in our mouths, that we must articulate them and act on them. Tefillin shel yad are oriented toward the heart.
Together with the tefillin shel rosh, they symbolize that we must use our emotional, spiritual and mental powers in service to God and God's plan for the world.
They are daily reminders of our tasks in life. Are we destructive or redemptive? Do we use the gifts God bestows on us wisely, or do we squander them?
The choice lies in our heads and hands.
Rabbi Alan Iser of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn is also an adjunct instructor in the theology departments at Villanova and St. Joseph's universities.