What’s That For?

Musar from a three-year-old

I am enjoying the privilege of holidaying with my family in the French Alps, so I am far from a minyan. While my children rarely see me davening, especially wearing tefillin, this morning my second daughter Tehilloh (10) and younger son Shmuel Yosef (3) were in the room during Shacharis. When I was laying tefillin, my daughter remarked to my son that one day he would have to don them. As I was putting on the head-tefillin, my son asked her, ‘What’s that for – does it hold his kippah on?’ Then, being three, he suggested that I might need one to hold my neck on and another to keep my leg in place!

Other than causing me some amusement as I was trying to concentrate on davening, Shmuel Yosef left me considering something important. How often do I (or any of us) actually think ‘what’s that for’ when putting on tefillin? It’s so easy for regularly-observed mitzvos to become rote performances, devoid of real meaning. I realised that it’s easy to lay tefillin each day, but harder to experience the ritual as a means of connecting with God: a tool of subjugation of the most powerful human capabilities to the Divine agenda.

Many people say a meditation before donning the tefillin, one which I have just re-read. It reminded me that:

God has commanded us to wear the arm-tefillin to recall the ‘outstretched arm’ (of the Exodus), placed close to the heart to thereby subjugate the desires and thoughts of our hearts to His service; and upon the head, close to my brain, so that the soul that resides in my mind, together with all of my senses and capabilities, are subjugated to His service.

‘What’s that for?’ Three words of powerful musar (ethical guidance) from a three-year-old: God has many agents. It’s a good focal point with which to approach the pre-Rosh HaShanah month of Elul, which starts alarmingly soon.

This article first appeared on Cross-Currents