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Archive for August 17th, 2007

Tefillin Meditation

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 17, 2007

As a child of maybe seven, while exploring the basement of our suburban home, I found a curious item, a velvet bag containing little boxes with long black leather straps attached to them. Hauling them upstairs I asked my father if I could use the straps for a craft project.


He took the package from my hands and drew the objects out tenderly. “I have not used these since the beginning of the war,” is what I recall him to have said. He continued: “I used to keep kosher, say the Shema every night, and pray with these every morning.” I regarded this latter statement with surprise. We went to Friday night synagogue together occasionally, lit candles, had a chanukkah menorah and a seder, not much else.


“These are called tefillin,” he explained. “They contain hand-written scrolls with verses from the Torah about love. During my term of service in World War II I lost my sense of a loving God. I stopped keeping kosher, praying and using these.” He was in the Signal Corps, I later learned. He helped lay communications lines which found him given leave to the nearest town, which was the just liberated site of Auschwitz. He was gravely injured, evacuated and spent six years in the hospital, wounded for life, leg crushed, marrow infected. His continuing survival remains a modern miracle.


My father wandered off with the tefillin. We did not discuss them again.


A year later my yiddish-speaking Grandfather Benjamin came for an extended visit. Every morning he would go to the dining room and mumble for an hour, putting on a similar set of boxes and straps (his boxes are much tinier than my father’s) and a tallit prayer shawl. My mother says at first I would watch him intently and after some weeks she found me beside him everyday, with a ribbon wrapped around my arm and a towel over my shoulders.


One day “Pop Pop” turned to me for the first time in the midst of his prayer, took off his tefillin and wound them properly onto me, uttering urgently in to me incomprehensible Yiddish. He went home the next day and enter a “rest home” not long thereafter. Often I’ve wondered, given my pixie hair cut in those times, did he think I was a little boy? Or sensing his mortality and knowing I was the only family member drawn to Judaism religiously, had he made a strategic decision?


Pop Pop’s tefillin became my own. One day they even returned to the Ukraine with me, their and his place of origin. The spiral of spirit continues.


At an Ohalah Conference (Association of rabbis and cantors dedicated to cultivating Jewish spirituality) my friend and roommate, Rabbi Shefa Gold, taught me how to meditate on sacred relationships while putting on tefillin. Here is my version of that remarkable idea:


One of the most powerful of the tefillin prayers is from the prophet Hosea and the same prayer often used as a commitment statement at Jewish weddings.


V’eirastikh li l’olam
I betroth you to me forever.
[We are in this together]


V’eirastikh li b’tzedek
I will betroth you to me equitably.
[We will share the challenges]


and with impeccability
[I will stay with you to get it right]


and with lovingkindness
[I will care for you]


and with compassion
[I want to hear your pain, your joy
to strive to understand]


v’eirastikh li b’emunah
I will betroth you to me in faith
[I will be there for you]


v’yahdaht et Adonai.
So that you will know God.
[So that you will experience what is only possible through relationship.]


While putting tefillin on, one does seven windings on the arm (see omer and other parts of this site describing the sephirot).Three of the windings are on the wedding ring finger. And all together the windings on the hand actually shape the Hebrew letter “shin”, for Shadai, a name for God as Nurturer (shadaiim are breasts or hills). This tefillin practice turns out to be a powerful ritual of commitment.


With or without the actual tefillin, you might try this:


1) Do your tefillin hand windings and address each part of the verse set above to God.
2) Do the verse set again, checking each of the statements in regard to your relationship with your committed partner, friend, parent or child.
3) Do the verse set again, do it about your relationship to yourself.
4) Repeat the verse set and again address each part to your relationship with God.


What do you notice having done this?
What changes for you with each step?
If a friend, partner or relative of yours lays tefillin also, try putting on your tefillin and doing this spiritual experiment together!


Posted in Tefillin, Torah | 5 Comments »

Weekly Parasha: Shoftim, Devarim 16:18-21:9

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 17, 2007

Weekly Parasha (Torah Reading) Shoftim Devarim 16:18-21:9Haftarah Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

Focal Point Devarim 17:14-20

14. When you come to the land the Lord, your God, is giving you, and you possess it and live therein, and you say, “I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me,”
15. you shall set a king over you, one whom the Lord, your God, chooses; from among your brothers, you shall set a king over yourself; you shall not appoint a foreigner over yourself, one who is not your brother.
16. Only, he may not acquire many horses for himself, so that he will not bring the people back to Egypt in order to acquire many horses, for the Lord said to you, “You shall not return that way any more.”
17. And he shall not take many wives for himself, and his heart must not turn away, and he shall not acquire much silver and gold for himself.
18. And it will be, when he sits upon his royal throne, that he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah on a scroll from [that Torah which is] before the Levitic kohanim.
19. And it shall be with him, and he shall read it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the Lord, his God, to keep all the words of this Torah and these statutes, to perform them,
so that his heart will not be haughty over his brothers, and so that he will not turn away from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, in order that he may prolong [his] days in his kingdom, he and his sons, among Israel.

This text is about Leadership – the Leadership of Israel, and what G-d expects of it. Earlier in this Parasha we find Dev 16:20 “Justice, justice shalt thou follow, that thou mayest live, and inherit the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.” which clearly envisions what is the basis for the existence of the inheritance. Justice.

To get a king is not formulated as a command – it’s a prediction – there will come a time when the People of Israel will say I will set a king over myself, like all the nations around me…” when the People will want what the rest of the world wants, and that is a rejection of G-d.

1 Samuel 8:7 And the LORD said unto Samuel: ‘Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee; for they have not rejected thee, but they have rejected Me, that I should not be king over them.

The People is supposed to be ruled by G-d, through Elders/Judges who expound on Torah and apply it to every day life. That’s the IDEAL.

In reality it is quite different. G-d takes into account that the People will want a King, and then states what this King is to be like. Those statements are commands:

He may not be a foreigner, he may not acquire means to bring the People back into slavery, he may not have many wives or hoard riches, and above all, he must write a Torah scroll and read it every day of his life, so he can keep it.

I have been scourging the State of Israel in my Divrei Torot lately, and I suppose this isn’t going to be any different.

Civil Government is not ideal for the People of Israel – in fact it’s supposed to be governed by G-d and Torah, not by elected officials. Elected Officials will always pose a risk and a possibility for corruption, but G-d has made provision for this eventuality in Torah. Commands that very clearly stipulates under what conditions those elected officials are to rule. Above all they need to keep Torah. They need to be so well acquainted with Torah that they have in fact written an entire scroll for themselves, so that they can keep it with them at all times.

I doubt the current Leaders of Israel have done that, or are anywhere near such close proximity of Torah. In fact, one only has to look at the recent additions to the Legislation of the State of Israel to realize that they are in fact very far from what G-d states is the obligation of a Just Leadership:

A Racist Jewish State

On a more local level – how do we exercise Leadership? Do we accept Community Leaders that do not know Torah, that discriminate against converts, bnai teshuvah, that honor the rich and the “powerful” for aliyah? How about Leaders that accept and encourage prejudice and violence against those that do not belong to their specific Community? Does your community hide rabbis that abuse their position to violate children sexually, beat their wives. Are your Leaders on the forefront when it comes to safe-guarding civil and human rights in Society?

If they are – congratulations! If they are not, you need to do something about it.

Shabbat Shalom!

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