A number of years ago, shortly after 9/11, Sarah and I travelled to Iowa, On our way home as we were going through Security, I got called over for additional screening.
A number of years ago, shortly after 9/11, Sarah and I travelled to Iowa. On our way home, as we were going through security, I got called over for additional screening. I saw the TSA officer going through my carry-on bag. He pulled out my Tefilin bag and was trying to figure out what was in there. He seemed like a really nice guy, but he definitely was not Jewish, and I don’t think he ever saw Tefilin before. He said to me, “Sir, what is in this bag?” I was about to say, “Oh don’t worry that is just my Tefilin,but I realized that he, of course, would not know the Hebrew word, Tefilin. So, instead, I said, “Oh those are my Phylacteries.” That certainly settled it!
Who came up with the word, “Phylactery” as a translation for Tefilin? A “Phylactery” sounds like something you take when you are constipated! At any rate, the officer said to me, “What is a phylactery?” I told him, “well you see, it comes from Deuteronomy when G-d commands us to write sections of Bible and put them in these black boxes.”
“What do you do with them,” he asked. I told him that I put them on my arm and head.
The officer then looked at me and with 100% sincerity said, “Now I am a believer like you. But why would the L-rd want you to put those things on your head?” I was stumped! I didn’t have a good answer for him then, and I have been looking for one ever since. Tonight, I would like to share an answer with you and relate it to the Seder and Pesach.
I will begin with two important Tefilin images from the 20th century. The first was in the beginning of the 20th century. As Eastern European Jews came over from Russia and Poland and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, some Jews did something very tragic. They threw their Tefilin overboard into the Atlantic Ocean. Their conception of Liberty was throwing off the Tefilin. They wanted to be frei, or free from Torah and Mitzvot.
The second image takes us to the days leading up to the miraculous Six Day War in Israel (1967). Troops from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia advanced to Israel’s border. Israel was being strangled. The low death toll estimates for Israel were over 10,000, G-d forbid. Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren was preparing the country’s public parks to be cemeteries. About a week before the war on Lag Ba’omer, the Lubavitcher Rebbe spoke to thousands of youth at the Lag Ba’omer Parade. He announced the first of the 10 Mitzvah Campaigns.* Jews all over the world, including the troops in Israel, should put on Tefilin, and he said, “This will be a merit for victory.” Israel was, of course, victorious and the Tefilin campaign resulted in over 400,000 men and boys putting on Tefilin.
So, this is all nice but what does it have to do with Pesach?
In order to understand the connection between Pesach and Tefilin we actually have to look inside the Tefilin. The Tefilin have 4 Torah sections.
But what sections of Torah are actually in the Tefilin? Most people, if asked, would probably say the “Shema.” This is correct. The 3’rd and 4’th sections are the first two paragraphs of the Shema. But what are the first two Torah passages in the Tefilin? The answer is they are passages from Chapter 13 of the Book of Shemos that deal with the Exodus and are all about the Seder!
So, now, I have a new way of understanding the essence of the Tefilin. We all have a beautiful Seder. We teach our children and grandchildren our deepest values and beliefs. We show them why we are Jewish and why we hope they will carry on our traditions. But then, we leave the Seder and Pesach and what then? Are these ideas only discussed one or two nights a year? Well, the idea of the Tefilin is to literally capture the magic of the Seder and put it in little black boxes. We then put them on every morning on our head (as we dedicate our thoughts, hopes and dreams) and on our arm (as we dedicate our actions) to the values of the Seder. The Seder is too amazing to be limited to Pesach! The Tefilin enable us to take the Seder with us each and every day and make our life all about those values!
The Seder will be soon be here… Then after Pesach, after you have had the holiest and deepest Seder experience**, bottle it up in your Tefilin and take it with you each and every day for the rest of the year until your Tefilin will be recharged with next year’s Seder Magic.
In 1973, during the Yom Kippur war, the Lubavitcher Rebbe intensified the Tefilin Campain. A Jewish man who was in his thirties (married with two children), who had not put on Tefilin since his Bar Mitzvah, heard the Rebbe on the radio. The Rebbe requested that all Jewish men put on Tefilin to bring a merit to the Israeli soldiers. This man decided to go to the shul (synagogue) nearby and put on Tefilin. He then did it a second time and a third and before the end of the year, this man and his family were 100% religious. That man is my father!
Now I mentioned that before wearing Tefilin, my parents had two children. Well, I am child #4 of 6! After my parents became religious, they had another 4 children! I literally only exist because of Tefilin! One of my favorite pictures is my father sitting next to me wearing his Tefilin holding my son at his brit milah (circumcision) – The Three Generations! We only exist because of the Gift of Tefilin. Please give your family the gift of Tefilin. Please take the magic that you will create at the Seder this year, bottle it up and make it part of your daily practice every morning.
Wishing everyone a Chag Kasher V’sameach! – a Kosher and Happy Passover.
Rabbi Nissan Antine
*10 Mitzvah Campaignincludes the Lighting of Shabbat and Holiday candles for women and girls. This Passover we have the privilege of lighting three nights in a row, Friday eve, Saturday night for the first eve of Passover, and Sunday night for the second eve of Passover. For more on the 10 Mitzvah Campaign, please visit: Chabad.org/10Mitzvot**The Passover Seder has been celebrated by the Jewish people under all circumstances throughout the centuries. A very important and holy part of the Seder is to have hand- made Shmura Matzah at each Seder and share it with all participants. Shmura Matzah is the Matzah of faith and healing!Postscript from Rabbi Antine’s mother – Susan Antine.We were at a friend’s house and the radio was on to a program titled, “The World of Chabad”. We listened to it with our friends and heard Rabbi Leibel Alevsky, Chabad Shliach with his lovely wife, Devorah, in Cleveland, Ohio, talking about putting on Tefillin. My husband David got very interested and the next day he went to the Chabad House. Rabbi Alevsky put on Tefillin with him and invited us to the Alevsky’s house for Shabbat meal. We knew that we shouldn’t drive there and since we didn’t live too far, decided to walk to their house.We were leading what we thought was a traditional Jewish life, yet Chabad taught us so much more. First, we koshered our kitchen, and then within six months we became Shomer Shabbat (Shabbat observant). Then we began to keep the Mitzvah of Taharat Hamishpacha (Mikvah for married couples). We had four more children, thank G-d!Now our house is filled with grandchildren and great grandchildren, thank G-d. This year, we will be celebrating our first great grandson’s Bar Mitzvah! And this whole journey began on account of the Rebbe’s call during the Yom Kippur war for all Jewish men and boys to put on Tefillin!Thank you, Rebbe and thank you Chabad for all you do around the world caring for the physical and spiritual needs of others.