The day I put on tefillin for the first time it felt as though the gift of the ages had been handed to me in a velvet zipper bag. They were written with love, constructed with care, handed down by the humble and pious throughout the ages in fulfillment of God’s command. They represented my connection to the generations, my connection to our fathers and mothers, my connection directly to Moshe Rabeinu on Mount Sinai. It was more than 40 years ago. I still remember that feeling. Elation. Joy. Wonder.

Over the years, my prayers have changed, colored by great loves and punctuated by great losses, those moments when life chips away the layers of innocence. Like so many before me, leaving my Judaism was my path to finding it again.

At the age of 18, I took off my kippah and tzitzit, stuck my tefillin into a drawer and went off to a small liberal arts college. Vegetarian food delayed my inevitable separation from kashrut. I stayed away from Jewish institutions and Jewish life for a long, long time, hiding myself, if that’s even possible, from God, from Torah, from the mitzvot. Hiding from our people.

During those years without a Jewish anchor, I lost both the belief and the feeling that wrapping a strap around my arm and putting a box on my head could somehow get me closer to God. In the act of putting those tefillin away, the feeling that they would bring me closer to my Jewish neshama, closer to becoming that guy who, from time to time, can see hints of why Hakodesh Habarachu put him on this magnificent earth, vanished.

Over the years, I found a new spirit in Shabbat and a new heart in the land of our people, gaining my voice as a Jewish poet and liturgist.

Several months ago, I wrapped tefillin at the Kotel for Shacharit. It was not out of any great personal calling. It was in support of the Rosh Chodesh prayers of the Women of the Wall. Putting on the tefillin didn’t feel particularly special. It did not call back that great moment when those black boxes first hung powerfully on my arm and over my head. Frankly, it felt empty and hollow.

What happened afterward, however, I could not have predicted. The next month, back at the Kotel with the Women of the Wall, I opted not to put on my tefillin. “This is not me,” I thought. “It would be another empty gesture.” As the prayers progressed, my connection with tefillah faded. And I knew why. Without my tefillin, I was just another observer to the events of the day, not a participant in prayer.

Later that day, a photo appeared on an Internet news service illustrating a story about men supporting the Women of the Wall. There I was, wearing my signature hat, observing another man praying at the Kotel wearing his talit and tefillin. It looked like a photo of my disconnection with prayer, like evidence, admissible in court, that I’d made the wrong choice.

So, I’ve begun wrapping tefillin once a month. I make no bold commitment. Once a month. That’s the plan, at least for now. Some might call it a step closer to our heritage and my responsibility. I simply say that it’s a step closer to me being me, a step to help bring me closer to God, a step to help bring me closer to standing with Klal Yisroel in prayer, in love, in unity. It turns out that the boy who was once deeply connected to the mitzvah of wearing tefillin is now a man deeply connected—on my own terms, in my own time—to the joy of tefillin. I had forgotten. I will buy myself a new pair.

There isn’t a man in Jerusalem who could persuade me to start wearing tefillin with any kind of conviction or regularity. There isn’t a person alive who could convince me that everyone who wears them—men and women, young and old—is somehow living a life of special holiness in service to God and our people.

I’ll tell you this: I’ve seen the love and dedication, kavanah and kavod that the Women of the Wall are bringing to Torah, tefillah and tefillin. I have heard them, surrounded by the fear and hatred of others, praying with dignity, joy, faith and zeal. Again and again. That’s exactly what I needed to get me wondering why I’ve taken this privilege for granted.

Here’s a prayer/poem about tallit and tefillin:

Bind and Wrap
We wrap ourselves
In the unreachable
With a sheet of broad cloth.
Fringes tied with turns and knots.
We wrap ourselves
In God’s holy shelter.

We bind ourselves
To the unknowable
With each turn of the strap.
Black leather strung from a box.
We bind ourselves
To God’s holy word.

We bind ourselves
To the unknowable
With each turn of the strap.
Black leather strung from a box.
We bind ourselves
To God’s holy word.

How do we hold on to the gifts around us?
How do we see the mysteries near to us?

Bind and wrap.
Bind and wrap.
Throughout our lives,
Bind and wrap.

“Bind and Wrap” is © 2013 Alden Solovy and www.tobendlight.com. All rights reserved.