Taking Off My Tefillin
I used to love putting on tefillin every day, but as I got older, I lost my faith. Now they sit on my shelf.
Still, it was a gradual progression. I still put my tefillin on at first, but maybe just said a few prayers, or rushed through davening, or waited until the last possible moment before sundown. It was once so clear to me why I put them on; symbolism this, God that, heaven this, divine retribution that. But at some point, it became a chore. The warm pulse-pounding feeling in my arm no longer felt comforting; it felt distressing. When I reached to scratch my head and the armpiece hit me in the eye, I no longer shrugged it off as an inconvenience, but instead allowed myself to mutter, “Shit, that hurt!” because, come on, it did.
Eventually, toward the end of my junior year of high school, it reached a point where I almost completely stopped wearing them. They would sit at in my school’s beit midrash where they would go untouched for months at a time. When I did show up for davening—which was hardly regularly—I was usually 20 minutes late and would throw them on, without any of the accompanying prayers.
That’s where things stand now.
My parents know what is going on with me. They wish they could change it, but they realize it is out of their control. A few months ago, I made a deal with my dad: He let me to go a public-school prom that fell on Shabbat, and in exchange I promised that I would put on tefillin every day for the rest of the summer. I have been trying to follow my word, but I usually forget.
My dad wants me to take them to Israel with me, where I will be spending a gap year to take a Young Judea course starting in a few days, now that I’ve graduated high school. He wants me to “redevelop some sort of a connection.” But what sort of connection is there to form with cowhide and parchment? I used to know, but I just don’t feel that connection anymore. My old friend Woody has been replaced by my new shiny Buzz Lightyear; books like Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? These are the treasured things I take off my shelf these days.
But this might not be the end of the story. I come from a family of searchers. My parents went through various levels of religious commitment and thought before they settled on Orthodoxy. My three older brothers all went through similar ordeals, and they all eventually returned to the path. The only thing I can do is keep on open mind.
So, even though I’m not using my tefillin much these days, I’m keeping them on the shelf in their army-approved carrying case, because I might not be done with them quite yet. If you saw Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, you know that eventually Buzz gets outgrown, too.
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