Thursday, November 4, 2010

Burnt Tefillin: A Lesson in Religion

It was the summer of 1985. I had just completed my service in the Israel Defense Forces, and I took up residence in Jerusalem. As I put on my tefillin one morning, it suddenly dawned on me that it was time to give these "loaner" tefillin back to the army. I should really buy a new pair, I thought. With so many religious stores to choose from in Jerusalem, where should I go?

I went back to my Yeshiva to speak to one of the rabbis, and he told me of a tefillin factory in Beit-El where they make the "top of the line" tefillin. He told me that it would be expensive but worth it, and that to help me out, he would would write a letter asking that I be given the "yeshiva student discount."

As he wrote the letter, he looked up to me and asked "Why is a young man your age buying new tefillin? Don't you still have the pair from your Bar Mitzvah?" I told the rabbi the story, that just a few months earlier, on Tu B'Shvat (in February, 1985), my platoon was attacked in Southern Lebanon by a suicide bomber. I explained to the rabbi that the suicide bomber drove a car filled with explosives toward our Safari truck, and, in a flash moment, triggered a massive explosion just a split second before his intended impact with our truck. On that truck were 14 soldiers, along with all of our personal equipment, our weapons and explosives -- and 14 pair of tefillin. The truck and all that it contained -- tefillin included -- went up in flames, but the 14 soldiers (10 of whom were wounded) miraculously came out alive.

As I told this story to the rabbi, he remembered hearing of the incident, and with an anguished look said "Yes, that's right, I did hear that story. That was such a terrible tragedy, 14 pair of tefillin burning."

Shocked and dumbfounded by his response, I calmed my immediate inner rage, mustered up all of my courage, looked the rabbi straight in the eyes and said "Rabbi, with no disrespect to you, I choose to look at the story a bit differently. Instead of focusing on the tragedy of 14 pair of burnt tefillin, I instead celebrate the miracle of human lives -- my life and the lives of my comrades -- who survived the bombing, can go on living, and can even come to you seeking advice on where to buy a new pair of tefillin. After all, Rabbi, had one of my friends been killed, could I have come to you asking where to buy a new one? Aren't we always taught that Judaism places the sanctity of life above all other things?" The rabbi saw that I was trembling, agitated and emotional, yet he continued to write his letter. He finally completed the letter, placed it in an envelope, and handed it to me.

I returned the loaner tefillin to the army, and my burnt tefillin were soon replaced by a beautiful new pair from the Beit-El factory. I still own that very same pair, and every morning when I wear this special pair of tefillin, they remind me of the near-death experience that my comrades and I went through, and -- as a result -- they remind me of the sanctity of life.

They also remind me that the rabbi never did answer my question.