“Why do Jews wear those funny boxes on their heads?” While such a question would be considered offensive in most other contexts, it was beautifully innocent coming from the overeager 4th grader on a tour of Temple’s sacred spaces. Stepping back from my emotional connection to the rites and rituals of Judaism, I must admit she had a point. Tefilin, the black leather boxes traditionally-observant Jews wear on their heads and forearms during prayer, do look a bit funny. The answer to her question was more complex than she could have anticipated.
I explained that we sometimes read the biblical text quite literally. Why do Jewish holidays begin the night before? “There was evening, there was morning, a first day” we read in Genesis, a model of night and day different from the secular solar ordering. Thus when it says “you shall bind them as a sign before your eyes”, that is exactly what we do! The last words of this week’s Torah portion, Bo, offer further explanation: “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt (Exodus 13:16).” Those funny boxes, then, not only serve to fulfill one of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot but also as a reminder of our freedom in this world and our obligation to emulate God by striving to bring freedom to all in need.
Rabbi Aaron Meyer