The Challenges of Fluency

Two years ago, on an early morning flight to New York, by the time I boarded the airplane the overheads bins were already full and I was forced to gate-check my bag.  Reflexively, despite the inconvenience, I quickly took my Tefillin out of the bag before handing it over to the agent.  Personally, I never check my Tefillin.  I have heard too many horror stories about lost luggage to trust my Tefillin to the uncertainty of the baggage claim experience.  I found a small spot in the overhead bin, nestled my Tefillin in securely, and took my seat.

After the flight landed in New York, there was the usual rush to deplane.  Knowing that I would need to wait at baggage claim, I joined the crowd in quickly exiting the plane.  Thankfully, my bag was one of the first to appear on the conveyer belt, and I was ready to leave the airport when my stomach sank. My Tefillin were still on the plane.  In the rush to start my day and knowing that my bag had been checked, I had completely forgotten to take my Tefillin with me.  Trying not to panic, I went to the JetBlue office to see if they could radio the flight attendants and possibly retrieve my Tefillin.

As I was in the office working with the agent, a friend I was traveling with noticed the pilot walking past the baggage claim holding what looked like my Tefillin bag.  I ran over to the pilot and he happily returned it to me.  I asked him why he thought to go out of his way to take this bag with him. The pilot replied, “I saw the Hebrew letters written on it and figured that this must be really important to someone.  And so I took it with me in the hopes of returning it to its rightful owner.” I thanked him profusely, telling him that he was one hundred percent correct; this bag with Hebrew letters on it IS really important to me!

I was reflecting on this story this week as my son, Moshe, began to take on the awesome privilege and responsibility that comes with wearing Tefillin.  For any Jewish man, Tefillin are unique in that wherever he goes in life and whatever he chooses to accomplish, at every stage of life and under all circumstances, Tefillin are constantly by his side.

For a Jewish male, there are very few rituals as omnipresent as Tefillin.  Whenever you travel, you think twice to make sure your Tefillin are with you.   Leaving shul, you are always aware before getting out of the car to make sure that you take your Tefillin with you so that your Tefillin are shielded from the hot Florida sun.  And while still in school, a Jewish boy always makes sure that his Tefillin are in his bag as he leaves home for the weekend.  With the exception of Shabbos, Yom Tov and (for some people) Chol Hamoed, one of the very first things a Jewish man does every single day upon waking up is to take his Tefillin and embrace the messages and lessons they are meant to teach.

But, therein lies part of the challenge.  Because Tefillin are so ever-present, it is inevitable that most men also begin to take them for granted.   We get so used to this ritual that what begins as something new and exciting becomes, over time, something we do at best by rote and at worst with weariness or even irritation.

Chazal themselves anticipated this challenge with Tefillin and instituted, as part of the process for putting on Tefillin, the recitation of three verses from Sefer Hoshea (2:21-22): “And I will betroth you to me forever.  I will betroth you to me with righteousness and justice and with goodness and mercy, and I will betroth you with faithfulness; Then you shall know Hashem.”  Notice that the word used to describe our love for Hashem is not one of marriage, but rather engagement.  When a young couple is first engaged, their relationship is filled with newness, passion, and diligent commitment.  Everything is fresh and everything is exciting.  Over time, as the years pass, it’s only natural for that same couple to get more used to each other, and some of that excitement and passion lapses.  The challenge for any healthy couple is to work hard to constantly find ways to reintroduce that excitement and newness into their relationship.

Similarly, when Jewish men put on Tefillin every morning, we daven to Hashem that this mitzvah should always feel like the period of engagement.  That the enthusiasm and joy that we felt the first time we put the Tefillin on is the same feeling we should feel the thousandth or ten-thousandth time we put them on.  We daven to Hashem that this mitzvah should never become monotonous or burdensome.

The challenge of not doing mitzvos by rote is, of course, not particular to Tefillin, but applies to any mitzvah that we do with regularity.  The Navi Yeshaya (29:13), in a biting criticism, already warned us against the pitfall of “Mitzvas anashim melumada,” mitzvos that are done by going through the motions in a robotic and habitual fashion.   Yeshaya explains to the people that the problem isn’t that we weren’t keeping the mitzvos.  The problem was that we sometimes fell into a trap of simply going through the motions of our Judaism without also doing so with a sense of passion and excitement.

After twenty, thirty, or even fifty years of saying the same Shmoneh Esrei over and over again, many of us struggle with maintaining a freshness and excitement in davening.  Martin Buber called it der fluch der gelaeufigkeit, the curse of fluency.

And that is the great challenge of our generation.  Judaism is being learned and practiced today in unprecedented ways.   Easy and open access to Jewish texts in English means that there are more people learning Torah today than ever before.  The ease with which we can purchase a Lulav and Esrog, locate a nearby Minyan, or gain access to Kosher food, means that our level of religious observance is unparalleled in Jewish history.

And yet many of us still struggle to find the passion and feeling in everyday Judaism.   We have all of the externals, but our practice is oftentimes void of emotion. The Alter of Kelm comments that this is almost an unavoidable conundrum.  We invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in educating our children and indoctrinating them with a knowledge and understanding of Yiddeshkeit.  The problem is that it quickly becomes practiced by rote.

While these challenges have plagued our people for thousands of years and I don’t pretend to have all of the answers, allow me to offer a few suggestions:

  1. Educate yourself: Constantly seek opportunities to learn and challenge yourself. Whether it is a deeper understanding of the Parsha or a new learning project altogether, learning is the ultimate way to expand your way of thinking and introduce yourself to new and fresh ideas.
  2. Choose one mitzvah at a time to review: Whether it’s a mitzvah you have been performing for two years or sixty years, choose one mitzvah at a time.  Study it, learn more about it, and look for new opportunities to understand it.  Explore the deeper meaning behind it and internalize how that mitzvah contributes to a more elevated life.
  3. Understand the words that you say: Maybe I am being presumptuous, but despite the fact that many of us daven three times a day, we lack a full appreciation for what the words mean. Take one paragraph of davening at a time.  Try to better understand the words and their meaning.  Don’t be afraid to mark up your siddur with observations, explanations, or personal reflections.  View your siddur as a set of musical notes and borrow those notes to create your own music.
  4. Look to others for inspiration: As my son Moshe prepared to put his Tefillin on, I watched his excitement and enthusiasm and used his passion as inspiration to reflect upon my relationship with my Tefillin. We have people all around who can inspire us.  It can be a baal teshuva, a convert, a student back from Israel for the year, or just your neighbor, but find a person whose Judaism is infused with passion and excitement and allow him or her to inspire you.

This past week was an opportunity for me to revisit what Tefillin are, the halachos surrounding them, why I wear them, and what lessons they can teach me.  As a result, I feel more connected to my Tefillin than I have in years.  I look forward to continuing that journey and invite you, with whatever mitzvah you want, to join me in the process of infusing our Judaism with renewed freshness, passion and excitement.

About the Author
Rabbi Philip Moskowitz is the associate rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue.
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