Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 24 July 2021 / 15 Av 5781

Blessings over Tefillin: Forever Falling in Love (Part 4)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“I am not emotional about being the oldest man in the world; but it does mean something to me that I have donned tefillin for longer than anyone else.”

Yisrael Kristal, 1903-2017, was officially recognized as the oldest living Holocaust survivor in 2014. In January 2016 he was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest man.

While wrapping the tefillin strap around the hand, the following two verses from Hoshea (2:21-22) are recited:“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 loyalty and you shall know Hashem.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508) was one of the greatest scholars and philosophers of his generation. He was also a brilliant statesman who worked for the Portuguese crown. However, with the death of the king, he lost his royal protection and was forced to flee. After barely escaping with his life, he settled in Spain, where his wisdom and expertise in all matters drew him to the attention of the Spanish monarchy. The rabbi became an essential member of the inner royal court, even during the Inquisition, throughout which he tried every avenue available to save the distinguished and venerable Jewish community. He finally left Spain, together with the remnants of Spanish Jewry, in the great expulsion of 1492.

Among his many works, he wrote an indispensable commentary on the Torah and the Prophets. In his commentary on Hoshea, he explains that the traits mentioned in the verses above are the qualities that encapsulate the characteristics of the Jewish People — to follow the Laws of the Torah with justice and righteousness, and to go even further than the letter of the law by pursuing kindness and mercy as well. And, by doing so, we shall “know Hashem.” This is a truly inspiring and uplifting concept with which to begin our day.

However, the wording of the verses seems to be a little unusual. According to Jewish law, there are two distinct steps to marriage. The first is “betrothal,” (kiddushin or erusin in Hebrew, when the bride is already technically married). This step shares some superficial similarities to the engagement period of today, the difference being that it carries with it significant legal obligations and responsibilities. Afterwards there is the marriage stage also known as chupah or nesu’im. Betrothal, by definition, is supposed to be transitory. It is the bridge that takes a couple from being without any formal relationship to sharing the ultimate relationship of being husband and wife. The main purpose of the betrothal period of time, which was traditionally twelve months in Talmudic times but generally much shorter nowadays, is to ensure time for the couple to prepare to marry and establish a beautiful Jewish home together. No couple wants to remain in a permanent state of betrothal. Yet, G-d declares, “I will betroth you to Me forever.

Years ago, I heard the most beautiful explanation from one of my rabbis for why G-d chose to use the phrase “I will betroth you to Me forever” and not “You will be married to Me forever.” Understandably, remaining in an indefinite state of betrothal is the last thing that any couple wants. Nevertheless, there is one enviable element found in betrothal that marriage often does not possess: constant and recognizable growth. Once a couple settles into the rhythm of married life, their growth together is liable to be less noticeable. Hopefully, growth will always be a part of their relationship, but, over the years the sense of freshness and excitement becomes less evident, and their growth together takes on a less obviously identifiable dimension to it. However, from betrothal until marriage, their growth together is palpable. They learn new things about each other every day, and their excitement and their anticipation draws them to new levels of connection. As the day of their marriage approaches, their emotions reach heights that they never before knew existed. It is this sense of intensity that G-d is conveying to us.

As we put on our tefillin in the morning, we declare, “I will betroth you to Me forever.” Each day is a brand new occasion to connect to G-d with verve and passion, and to experience a renewed sense of growth. Just as a betrothed couple does so with every single additional day. Sustained growth in anything is not the easiest of things to achieve — especially when it is in the realm of spirituality. But, as we wind the tefillin straps around our hands, we should feel a frisson of excitement as we remind ourselves of the infinite potential in our relationship with G‑d.

In closing, I would like to share with you a truly inspiring and poignant story that emphasizes the magnitude of the mitzvah of tefillin. Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, zatzal, was the beloved and revered head of the renowned Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem, whose unaffected love and concern for every single Jew was legendary. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s at the young age of forty, and, despite its debilitating progress, the Yeshiva flourished under his dynamic and caring leadership to become the largest yeshiva in Israel. Towards the end of his life, someone introduced Rav Finkel to Howard Schultz, the (then) owner of Starbucks. During one of their meetings, Howard Schultz signed a blank check and handed it to Rav Finkel to be used at his discretion. At the time, the monthly budget for the Mir Yeshiva was two million dollars. Despite being stricken with a degenerative disease that was becoming progressively worse, Rav Finkel was responsible for raising that huge amount of money every single month. He could have covered that month’s budget with the blank check, and, presumably, Howard Schultz would not have batted an eyelid. Instead, Rav Finkel filled out the check for $1,200 and handed it back to Howard Schultz. And then Rav Finkel told him, “Take this check to the store across the street and tell them I sent you to buy a pair of tefillin. And then put them on every day.”

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