Tefillin in The Army

During the closing days of Israel’s 1982 Peace in Galilee campaign in Lebanon, I was one of a group of ten Chabad Chassidim who got permission from the army to enter Beirut to cheer up the soldiers.

The soldiers welcomed us as though we were announcing the end of the war. The entire night we went from group to group singing, dancing, talking, laughing, and of course toasting l’Chaims!

There was no time to sleep. At the crack of dawn, we got our Tefillin out of our bags to offer them to the soldiers to do a mitzvah and put them on for a minute if they so wished.

At that hour of the morning, most of the soldiers were still asleep. I walked around looking for “customers” and happened upon a line of about ten open jeeps with two soldiers seated in each. Their motors were running, and they were waiting in the chilly morning to go out on a mission. It must have been some sort of combat foray because they were armed to the teeth and were wearing bulky bulletproof vests and steel helmets.

I approached the first jeep and asked them if they wanted to put on Tefillin? One soldier agreed. When he finished, I moved on to the next one and asked the driver the same question but was in for an unpleasant surprise.

He just listened, looking straight ahead, and didn’t even react to my question. So, I just stood there and waited for a reply. After a few seconds of silence, he turned to me and said (loose translations), “Get out of my sight, you parasite religious scum… If you don’t get out of my face, I’ll tear you to pieces… I hate you vermin..”

I “understood” that the answer was no. I tried to force a smile and figure out what to say, when suddenly the driver of the next jeep in line called out to me in a desperate tone of voice, “rabbi, rabbi! Come here. I want to put on Tefillin.” I turned, happy to get away and began to walk toward the third jeep in the line. “Tell me, rabbi,” he called nervously after I had taken a few steps and was still quite a distance from him. “If ..if I put on Tefillin will G-d protect me?”

It was obvious that the man was very worried. Yesterday he was probably sitting in his hardware store selling pipes and tools when they called him up to reserve duty and suddenly, he was about to enter the front lines.

“Listen, my friend,” I assured him, “G-d will protect you whether you put on the Tefillin or not. Don’t worry. He loves you because you are a Jew. But if G-d protects you for free, so why not do something for Him for free, and put on Tefillin?”

It seems that the soldier in the second jeep – the one that had cursed me out – heard all this. When I finished putting on the Tefillin on this soldier he called out, “Hey rabbi! Come over here!”

I turned around to see him rolling up his sleeve like he wanted to put on the Tefillin and motioning me to come over.

I took a few steps towards him. “What do you want? What happened?” I asked.

“Listen!” he replied, “What do you care? I want to put on the Tefillin, too.”

I gave him a look and an Israeli hand motion as if to say, “Are you for real?” And he replied:
“Listen, my friend. To put on Tefillin in order to go to Heaven or to be religious, that’s not for me. But to put on Tefillin for no reason… that I’m willing to do!”

I thought to myself – This is the essence of the Jewish soul in action. A Jew may reject all reasons, all explanations, including mystical explanations, for doing a mitzvah, but will embrace the deed itself. Because a Jew inherently wants to do what G-d wants. He is one with G-d not only spiritually, but also – and even more so – through his or her everyday physical life.

By Tuvia Bolton, as seen in Celebration Magazine Tishrei 5782 by Lubavitch of Wisconsin Pg. 40

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