Not too long ago, I was with a group of venerated rabbis and scholars and I asked a question: Have you ever lost your tefillin, like left them on a subway or at an airport ticket counter or some other such place?
I was surprised that each rabbi, one more respected than the next, admitted that he had, at one time or another, left his tefillin somewhere. Sheepishly, they told me stories of tefillin abandoned and retrieved. One left them at an airport; they were recovered by a policeman. Another left them at a train station, where three angels—a conductor, a food service worker, and a bus driver—found them. Most merely suffered a scare before they were returned, but a couple had lost their tefillin for good and had to replace them at great cost—like a diamond ring, a good pair of tefillin costs many thousands of dollars.
Tefillin is one of the most precious possessions a Jewish man can have. They are a symbolic binding of man to God. It is said that God Himself wears tefillin that mirror ours. And yet, as sacred and as expensive as they are, we manage to lose them.
In Bernard Malamud’s The Fixer, the protagonist, Yakov Bok, a luckless Jewish handyman, lets his “prayer things” fall with a plop into the Dnieper River, where they sink like lead. Phillip Roth wrote about his father, Herman, who left his tefillin in a locker at the Y never to retrieve them, not even in order to pass them on to his son.
Most men do not actively, decisively, or intentionally lose their tefillin. Certainly not the group I was talking to, veterans of Talmudic combat, middle-aged men with the wild eyebrows and the distinguished faces that suggested years of devotion to study. Yet lose their tefillin they all had, and, knowing I was a psychoanalyst, they wanted to know what I made of it all: Was there some hidden, unconscious force leading them to misplace, on occasion, the leather straps that bound them to God?
“Losing things is a big topic,” I said. “It could be a lot of things, self-punishment, it could be a wish to forget, to destroy—or it could be a wish to lose something in order to find it again.”
“Sometimes it takes that,” said one of the big rabbis. “You lose things to find things, but you think it could be also intentional?”
I didn’t have to answer. One of the group’s younger members chimed in. He was what we call a tzorva marababana, a young man one who is singed by the fire of the rabbis, but not yet a rabbi or a great scholar himself. “I don’t know about intentional,” he said, “but I have a story which I will tell you privately.”
Later, when we were alone, he told me the following tale. When he was 19, he fell in love with a non-Jewish cashier at the food store near his house. It wasn’t a real love, he said, and he had no long-term plans. In fact, he admitted, he was too young to have any real experience of what goes on between men and women, but there was something between him and that woman, and he couldn’t deny it.
She was, he said, a very sweet girl fun gor an ander’re velt—from completely another world— a Latina, but something about her felt very familiar. She even reminded him a bit of his sister. And he could swear she felt something, too, but neither of them ever said anything.
I confirmed that sometimes, in these types of situations, you can say a lot and still remain completely silent, and the man nodded and went on.
“I was in a big rush,” he said, “I was flying to California one morning and before I got a cab to the airport, I dashed into the store to buy something to eat. In my haste I left my tefillin on the counter. I didn’t realize until I landed on the West Coast that I had lost them. And I didn’t know where.”
He felt a brief panic, he said, but, strangely, he was in no rush to retrieve them. He borrowed a pair while away on his trip, and told himself that, when the time’s right, he’ll find his tefillin once again. When he got back home, he visited the store once again. The woman he was in love with handed him his tefillin.
“I saved them for you,” she said. “I knew you would come back for them.”
I was moved by the story, but I didn’t have too much time to reflect on it before the young man asked me if something similar had ever happened to me.
When I was 13, I told him, I’d left my pair on the Jewel Avenue bus in Queens, and a neighbor of mine spotted them and brought them back to me. And even though I had only lost them once, I thought back about that experience frequently, admitting to myself that, maybe, I wanted to lose them again. Who, after all, was this God who took us out of Egypt? And why are we obliged to worship him till the end of time, wrapping ourselves up in leather each morning? I asked the question every morning, I admitted, and every morning shrugged my shoulders and admitted that such were the trials and tribulations of chosenness.
The young man looked at me wide-eyed and told me he could relate. Losing his tefillin to a non-Jewish woman felt, to him, heavy with meaning. I agreed. Wanting to lose himself to the woman, he lost his tefillin instead, and she, knowing enough about his religion, understood what they meant and held on to them until he was ready to recommit himself.
“She must have been a help somehow,” the young man told me, “or in your language, a cure, maybe.”
I agreed heartily. After all, it doesn’t take a psychologist to know that even the pious among us find ways to communicate—consciously or not—that we are ambivalent servants of God. Pieces of piety and heresy finally float up, seemingly against our will, often with the help of the sacred objects we imbue with so much meaning.