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by Daniel Lasar    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be ornaments between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8).



"Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be ornaments between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8).

The following is a true story about a friend of mine: After returning from a year of study abroad at Hebrew University in Israel, "Rick" returned to college in the States. The time in Israel had inspired him, and he had undertaken to increase his religiosity. Nonetheless, the college scene led him to revert somewhat in his attempt to synchronize Judaism with his prior contradictory lifestyle. He had been traveling around upstate New York with his non-Jewish girlfriend. They were in the middle of nowhere, directed there by an awkward mix of argument, confusion, and purposelessness. Late in the day, they pulled up to Sue's Country Kitchen to grab a bite to eat. As he was raising up a pancake to his lips, Rick was shaken by a startling recollection - he didn't put on his tefillin that day!

Ever since being in Israel, he had put on tefillin. It was a practice he felt comfortable acclimating into his daily routine. Seven months had passed; he had never missed a day. In Rick's mind, tefillin represented his lifeline to Judaism. As the gruesome discomfiture welled up inside him, he realized there was precious little daylight remaining in order to fulfill this mitzvah. He was too far from his college dorm, too far from any known Jewish areas to access tefillin. He was in a desert. Amidst a menagerie of emotions, Rick was experiencing a religious epiphany - if he failed to keep this one commitment to G-d, even for a day, then he had lost his attempt to return to Torah observance.

Trembling, he explained to his girlfriend that he hadn't put on tefillin that day. She wasn't even aware how important this particular practice was to him. In a zombified state, Rick approached the woman behind the counter, and asked if she knew of a synagogue in the area. She didn't know. He asked for a Yellow Pages directory, but was unable to find any relevant entry. He immediately ran out to a public phone, dialed information, and pleaded for a number for any Jewish organization around. Nothing. Sweating, and at a loss for a solution, Rick suddenly thought to ask for the number of a "Goldberg", figuring there had to be someone with such a name in the vicinity. It was a last-gasp effort. Hope renewed as a number was given.

The sun was dropping. He was thinking how he could have been so stupid and irresponsible. Wasn't putting on tefillin important enough to him? Had he gotten so deep in his relationship with his girlfriend that he was oblivious to his G-d? Rick dialed the number, explaining that though it sounded crazy, because the name sounded Jewish he called Mr. Goldberg with the hope of obtaining a pair of tefillin. Mr. Goldberg responded that he didn't know what those were, but gave him some phone numbers of Jewish interest. After a few calls, Rick wound up speaking with a rabbi, whom he asked where he could acquire tefillin. The rabbi responded that he was too far away to make it, but that he should simply do teshuvah (repentance) for his negligence. Rick didn't want to do teshuvah, he wanted to do tefillin.

Dejected, he glanced up at the amber sky. He was fighting the sinking sun. It seemed an impossible fight, pitting the yearnings of Man against the merciless constancy of time. The sun would not stand still for him; he had lost. The dark night loomed on the horizon. Rick silently said to G-d, "I messed up. Why? Because I was falling away. I forgot about You. I'm sorry." He returned to the diner, where he and his girlfriend decided to head back to school.

They passed by some quiet college grounds nestled in the trees. She suggested they look at the scenery there. He made a left turn, driving on the periphery of the campus. Then it suddenly happened. A sign caught Rick's eye - "Sapirstein Jewish Center"! With his heart pounding and racing with indescribable emotion, Rick leaped from the car and charged toward the building. He rammed though the doors and emphatically asked the young lady working there for tefillin. She didn't know what they were. He had come too far now to fail. His pleading eyes frantically surveyed the room, scanning methodically for the prize. There it was! Rick's eyes spotted that little, red velvet bag. He knew it contained a pair of tefillin. He scurried towards it and took it from the top shelf. The sun would set any minute. Rick confidently washed his hands and pulled out of the bag an old, dusty "granddaddy" pair of tefillin. Rick made the appropriate blessings in putting them on and proceeded to say the Shema prayer. He then took them off and replaced them in the bag, with a note thanking the owner, whoever he was. Rick had tears in his eyes. He couldn't believe he made it. Driving back to college, he noticed that it was such a dark, black night. A beautiful dark, black night.

Postscript: Today, Rick is an observant Jew studying in yeshiva. It may be that up there in your crowded attic lies an old family heirloom - a pair of tefillin stashed away in a modest sack. They embody tradition, they represent faith, they activate potential. Unzip the bag, unfurl the black, leather straps, make the blessings, and enwrap yourself in holiness.


Daniel Lasar writes from Wilmington, North Carolina.

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