Michelle Schwartz
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Reverberations and aberrations: Tefillin laying fallow

Pondering the meaning of religious observance after all those prayers to save her son's life were futile

During a year when the land lays fallow, as it rests from owners planting, threshing, and sowing, there are religious items that are gathering dust in observant families’ homes. For generations, age-old and sage-scribed religious objects, natural parchment encased in leather boxes embossed with shiny letters and images, have been donned each morning as a gateway to the spiritual realm. Thought to imbibe us with the ability to transcend the physical world, the tefillin are bound to the head and arm, long straps are wound in a specific method and pattern, hopefully intertwining our hearts and minds with something, with Someone.

Yet, I know of too many families whose sons’ and husbands’ tefillin now lay dormant. The excitement of the pre-Bar Mitzvah gift has long worn off, the thrill of the bo bayom first official day of wearing phylacteries is only present in photographs of the smiling young, hopeful man. And then life happened.

I think of the concentration camp inmates who yearned for any religious object to connect to their tradition in the face of irrational existence, in a culture devoid of the natural order of the word. But upon liberation, although many survivors embraced their faith, wrapped themselves in familiar, worn tallitot, and donned tefillin, others spit on God and religion, and never reclaimed their tefillin.

A month of holidays are behind us on the last corner of the calendar, and my husband’s voice leading the congregation on Yom Kippur reverberates in my ears. I picture him as a young boy, restless in the back of shul or with his friends playing in the hallway, half-listening to but absorbing his father’s melodies and tunes. Known in liturgical terms as nusach, the traditional melodic prayers passed from one generation to the next, my husband carries his father’s repertoire with him and presents it to us as a gift at the close of Yom Kippur. But how my husband, the father of our most precious and valuable souls – including the boy we lost and buried together — still manages to pray to God and lead others boggles my mind and rips at my heart. His father survived the camps and chose to continue to believe, as did mine, so maybe we are genetically programmed to hold tightly to faith, and to keep those straps and boxes close by.

The year is supposed to start anew, but it has begun with a vengeance. It’s not unusual to have a flood of deaths after a month of holidays, and we can often accept the graceful end of life of a great-grandparent, however painful and life-altering. But it’s the tragic accidents, new diagnoses, and disquiet in Israel that are senseless and cause suffering and pain and torment. How do we rationalize a healthy fun-loving 20-year-old who slips and hits his head on Shmini Atzeret and is gone a few days later? How do we understand a 3-month old baby in a stroller who is thrown from her precious parents and sweet life? What do we possibly do when our core beliefs are shaken by a community leader who falls from grace, shrinking from the pedestal of ethics he created for himself (and possibly we bowed to), whose personal demise is inextricably linked to the status of conversions which drowned in the mikveh waters along with his ego. All of this on the heels of a summer of fresh-faced boys EyalGiladNaftali ripped from their lives in a stolen car on the side of a road that could have been ours. These are more than just the simple stresses of life and I am honestly not sure I can bear it. Yom Kippur echoes in our psyche, and our modern day sukkah huts may still be standing in our yards, but the days are already awash with tears.

Several years ago, the community prayed along with us for the health of our son. I watched and cried as he was chosen to open the Aron, the Ark of the Torah, so that in the merit of that holy deed his scans the following day would be deemed good. It was the culmination of the annual audit of the Book of Life, with its tally of deeds and a glimpse into the future. The congregation was with us, we were a single but communal voice praying, pleading, beseeching, and how could the outcome be anything but good? My husband was at the helm, my son at the sidelines, and the congregation was alongside and behind us shaking the heavens. But the scans the following day showed the cancer had spread. Say what? What, then, was Yom Kippur all about? What does any Yom Kippur or holiday or religious observance mean?

Somehow my husband continues to lead and pray, and my hair remains covered. We welcome Shabbat, keep a kosher home, observe to the best of our ability, but sometimes we are hanging to our beliefs by our fingernails. The tefillin no longer speak to all of us, the chain that bound us to them is loose, and that saddens me deeply. They are lost in luggage and unclaimed, forgotten in the washing machine, or simply sitting on a shelf in the closet. I walk over to my son’s tefillin knowing he is gone from his world and can no longer wear them. But my heart knows that he stopped donning them when he was still alive. I am wise enough to know that each person’s religious observance is not and should not be the same, but I childishly want everyone to hold on as desperately as I do. I am afraid that if enough people dismiss the traditions that have bound us as tightly as the tefillin on our men’s arms, then I too, will unwind.

About the Author
Michelle Schwartz is a wife, mother of 4 children (3 of whom are in this world), and savta! Michelle works at a local university in academic guidance.
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