The practice of putting on tefillin, small leather boxes which contain the Shema and the Veahavta, is not common among Reform Jews. Traditionally, Jews put on tefillin before the weekday morning service. So much of our prayer is intellectual or mental; we do most of our praying from the neck up. But the practice of putting on tefillin is tactile, it is physical. We put on a physical prayer apparatus that we can feel. It is something I do and I can testify that it changes the experience of prayer for me. It grounds me in my body, not just my mind.
In this we week’s Torah portion we discover the first time this commandment is given, “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder between your eyes—in order that the Teaching of the LORD may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand the LORD freed you from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:9) This commandment immediately follows the command to hold a holiday each spring to remember the Exodus and to eat unleavened bread for seven days. In other words, the practice of tefillin, is to remind that God liberated us from slavery.
The liberation from slavery and the imperative of human freedom is so central to Jewish religious belief that we are to remind ourselves of it six days a week, excluding Shabbat. Commenting on this verse, Nachmanedes (14th Century Spain) wrote, “The meaning thereof is that you are to inscribe the exodus from Egypt [in the tefillin] upon your hand and between your eyes, and remember it always.”
Perhaps just as the shackle and the scars from the slave master’s whip are physical reminders of slavery, tefillin are physical reminders of human freedom. Think of them as empathy boxes. Just as we were once slaves and now are free, we think of others who are currently enslaved and help them find freedom.
~Rabbi Dean Kertesz