Alabamian Phylacteries and Red Skies: Through Tragedy and Triumph

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11 Jul 2014

The Facebook post seeking the rightful tefillin owners
The Facebook post seeking the rightful tefillin owners
Thunder clapped around me, lightning flared above me, and rain fell upon me as I scurried to the A train this past Wednesday night through a New York City thunderstorm.
The weather mirrored a mood that many of us have been steeped in lately. Dark days, in light of recent tragedy in Israel. Somber, and frightful.

When I emerged from the subway at 42nd Street, though, the atmosphere had transformed dramatically. The howling winds and the pounding torrents had subsided. A murky, blackened sky had been replaced with one of radiant red and yellow hues. (I snapped a photo on my iPhone – see below.) It was still dark out – but more propitious, somehow, a glimmer of hope cracking through the clouds.

And then, with this appropriate backdrop, I received a text from my friend: “Ull prob tell me to a get a life,” she typed. “But r these urs? Someone posted them on fb.”
Attached was a photograph of a tefillin bag. The flowery design etched into the bottom right corner immediately caught my eye on account of its familiarity. My eyes traced upwards to the Hebrew name etched above: Noach Shmuel ben David.

“That’s me,” I whispered aloud to myself, pressure forming in my chest. “These are my tefillin.”

Indeed, six months ago, I lost my tefillin traveling over the intermediate days of Passover. I never knew for sure, but figured they’d somehow slipped out in the overhead compartment.

To put it plainly, I was crushed. For starters, tefillin are extremely expensive. More importantly, though, anyone who has owned a pair knows the sentimentality packed into those little black boxes. It’s the sort of thing you imagine gifting to you grandchildren in a symbolic transference of historic Judeo-responsibility.

For a while, I felt sad and embarrassed. I still hadn’t told my parents. I felt as though I lost something precious – a hole in my spirit that even a shiny new pair couldn’t fill.

Which only compounded my excitement when, a few hours after my subway ride, I received a call from a woman named Aliza confirming that against all odds, she had my tefillin in hand. She was on a driving trip with her family and stopped at a store in Alabama which sold unclaimed baggage and items from the airlines. They had come to find a cheap cell phone – instead, they discovered multiple pairs of tefillin. They were so taken aback and excited at the prospect of returning them that they bought the whole lot, at $45 each.

“It’s been the highlight of our trip,” she said. “We are shaking from excitement to be able to do this for people.”

That excitement was unmistakable in her voice – it even outshone mine. Her joy in returning this precious item to me was as if it had been her own. Maybe I’m being silly – but I felt something right then. I experienced a tangible connectedness. And maybe that sort of communal connectedness is overplayed and overrated – I know I roll my eyes at it sometimes. But there we were. Two Jews sharing a beautiful and exuberant moment, riding high on a wave of spiritual energy from this propitious event.

The kidnapping and murder of Eyal, Gila’ad and Naftali has placed “Jewish unity” on full display. The mothers of these children have spoken often of the swells of prayer and spiritual energy focused their way by masses of Jews who have come together over this tragedy.

The aforementioned spectacular sunset
The aforementioned spectacular sunset
Maybe I’m forcing connections here, but the connectedness and joy I felt over my rescued tefillin and its earnest rescuers is what I now choose to help me move forward.
Because we’re in this together. Not just in – all in. Through good and through bad, through tragic and through triumphant. That makes our comradery more nuanced, more sophisticated, more special. It’s diversified. It’s complex and complete. It’s like any relationship in which the empathy of shared lows allow for an intensified appreciation of shared highs.

It occurred to me that tefillin contain the passage of the Shema, “Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One”. The letter ayin in “shema” and daled in “echad” spell out the Hebrew word eid, or witness. This verse, then, refers to the eidus, or testimony, that the Jewish people bear to the world. Of justice and goodness, of morality and peace, of love and kindness.

And all of it we do as an eidah, as a true and unified collective, respectful of difference yet irrevocably united through thick and thin, through pain and joy, in our own suffering and in our own celebration.

This connectedness – it is what sustains us in this confusing, broken, frightful time; that we may hurt together and cry together. And yet we mustn’t forget that it’s also what will color our lives in ways wondrous as well, when we may laugh and sing and dance together as well.

More on the story – Rabbi Uri Pilichowski talks about he and his famliy’s discovery of the cheapest pairs of tefillin in the world.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.