Thoughts on the World Wide Wrap
This Sunday, is not only Superbowl Sunday, but for nearly 25 years it has been linked by the National Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC) to a program called “The World Wide Wrap.” Picking up on the then relatively new term the “world wide web,” the Federation of Men’s Clubs decided to embark on a campaign to increase knowledge of tefillin and to encourage its practice. Often, these men’s groups in synagogues held their regular monthly meetings on Sunday mornings, beginning with a morning service, followed by breakfast and a program, often a guest speaker. (Some of those speakers over the years were local sports figures, hence a natural connection with Superbowl Sunday.) At these morning services, some of the men brought their tallit and tefillin as a matter of course, others did not. The group leaders sought ways to educate others on this mitzvah and to encourage them to practice it, at least when they came to the synagogue’s morning minyan.
During the 1999 Biennial convention of the FJMC, they showed a new film entitled “The Ties that Bind,” This film not only explained the procedure for wearing tefillin, but also interviewed individuals who spoke of how meaningful this ritual was in their lives. The film proved to be an incentive for many men, and women as well, to adopt this mitzvah in their daily lives. Women, at least in the Conservative Movement, are permitted and encouraged to practice this mitzvah as well. There are a handful of examples from earlier times of women who wore tefillin including the first wife of King David, Michal, the daughter of King Saul. Supposedly, Rashi’s daughters also were tefillin wearers.
As the FJMC website relates, “Charlotte, North Carolina resident Leonard Stern was one who was inspired by this experience. ‘Laying tefillin was a totally foreign concept in Little Rock, Arkansas where I lived. Even as I became religious otherwise, I tended to turn down any opportunity to learn more about it. I now realize what a wonderful gift God has given us.’ he said.”
His experience reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago with one of our regular minyan attendees. He used to come to the synagogue in Dallas every morning and every evening, yet he never wore tefillin. When I questioned him on this, his response was interesting, “I’m not that religious,” he said. It seemed amazing to me that such a devoted participant in daily prayer did not feel “religious” enough to put on tefillin. One need not be religious, whatever that means, to wear tefillin or to perform any mitzvah. The mitzvot, and tefillin in particular, are intended to help us connect with the Holy. We say “asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav” before most mitzvot, praising God who has provided us opportunities through the mitzvot to feel a sense of holiness, to become more religious perhaps.
Leonard Stern, not only began putting tefillin on himself, but as president of the Men’s Club at Temple Israel in Charlotte, organized a program known as the “100-Man Wrap” in April of 2000. He gathered more than one hundred men and women, on a warm spring day, for an outdoor minyan for the Sunday morning service. Extra tefillin were provided and those who already knew how to put them on became personal trainers for others. It was news of the success of this program in Charlotte that spread through the national organization and led to the creation of the annual World Wide Wrap.
While we do not have a regular morning minyan or an official men’s club here, we have in the past participated nonetheless in the World Wide Wrap through our Sunday school. It always is scheduled on the morning of Superbowl Sunday, I guess to provide an opportunity for fans to offer a prayer on behalf of their favorite team. We have not had a World Wide Wrap program in the past few years and Covid is only part of the reason. However, we wanted to offer it once again this Sunday at 10:00 am. One incentive for us in our Religious School is that we have twin brothers who are beginning their preparations for their bar mitzvah ceremonies next fall. Traditionally, one mitzvah particularly associated with becoming bar mitzvah is the wearing of tefillin. Even though, tefillin is not worn on Shabbat or festivals, in some congregations, prior to the “big event” on Saturday, the young people are called to the Torah at the morning service on the Thursday prior to their bar mitzvah. At that time, they are expected to don their tallit and tefillin. So, this Sunday will be an opportunity for the boys to learn more about this mitzvah and to practice it. It also is an occasion when we can encourage others to share in this traditional and meaningful ritual.
Our rabbis picture God Himself wearing tefillin when He prays. Obviously, this cannot be taken in any literal sense, but let us follow their discussion. So, God prays? Yes, according to the rabbis. What does He pray? “May it be My will that my attribute of mercy overcome my attribute of justice.” There is often some concern that were the world to be judged purely by God’s attribute of justice, we could not pass the test, the world could not endure. It is His quality of mercy which balances things out and allows the world to survive.
But what about those tefillin on the head and arm of the Almighty? The rabbis speculate on their content. As we mentioned in a rather lengthy piece a couple of years ago, there are four compartments on the tefillin worn on the head and in each one Is a piece of parchment containing one of the four places in the Torah that mention the tefillin. These include the first two paragraphs of the Sh’ma (V’ahavta and V’hayah im Shamoa) and two other passages from Exodus mentioned along with the instructions for the first seder before departing Egypt (Kadesh and v’hayah ki y’viacha). These passages speak of our relationship to the One God, the love of God, the teaching of His commandments to our children, and reminders of God’s saving acts in redeeming us from Egypt.
Which passages then are in God’s tefillin? The rabbis come up with several of them, most notably a verse traditionally recited at mincha on Shabbat afternoon, “Ata echad v’shimcha echad umi k’amcha Yisrael, goy echad ba-aretz.” “You are One and Your name is One and who is like Your people Israel, a unique people on earth.” Thus, as we reach out to God and experience, literally, our ties to the Almighty, He is seen in this image as doing the same toward us. This description from the Talmud of God in His tefillin is picked up by the mystics as they attempt to explain what Moses saw on Mount Sinai when he asked to see God and was told that no one can see God’s face and survive. However, God placed him in a crevice in the mountainside and put His hand over it. As God passed by, God removed His hand and Moses was granted a vision of God from behind. God does not have a corporeal form. So, what did Moses see? As we sing at the end of each Shabbat service, “Kesher tefillin her’ah l’anav,” God showed Moses, the anav, the modest one, the knot of his tefillin on the back of His head.
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains this strange passage. “Moses wanted to understand the true purpose underlying God’s justice. He asked God ‘Why do the good suffer and the wicked prosper?’ God then showed Moses the knot of His head Tefillin. This is where Love and Strength are bound together, forming the bond of God’s justice. The straps of the head Tefillin then hang down the front of the body. This indicates God’s purpose guiding the forces of history, down to even the lowest level. But here again, God’s purpose requires that these forces of history be intimately linked with Israel’s destiny. God thus guides man to bring about His ultimate purpose in creation.”
I’ve wrote in an earlier piece in 2021, of how my tefillin connect me with my grandfather and provide a link to the traditions of an earlier generation and how they remind me of the shamas of my childhood shul who taught me about tefillin and how to put them on. Beyond the memories they evoke, the wearing of tefillin is such a concrete expression of our desire to connect with the Torah’s teachings and with God Himself. Containing words of Torah, these leather boxes have a special sanctity to them. However, as we put them on, we remind ourselves of our deep connection to God. Putting them on one’s arm, recalls God’s “outstretched arm” by which we were redeemed from slavery in Egypt. Wrapping them seven times around our arms, recalls the seven words from the Ashrei that some people use to count the windings, Poteiach et yadecha umasbia l’chol chai ratzon, You open Your hand and satisfy the desires of all the living. Everything we have comes from God’s open hand.
Placing the other box on our heads, it becomes a crown, raising us up as God’s Kingdom of Priests, to our mission to live lives of Torah and to spread that teaching to the world. The letters shin on each side of the box, one with three prongs and the other with four, have various symbolisms attached to them. Some link them to the three patriarchs and four matriarchs. Others connect them to the three repetitions of Kadosh, in Isaiah’s vision of the angels praising God and the four levels of creation as found in Kabbalistic writings. Kaplan says they represent the seven lower sefirot, the divine emanations in the teachings of the mystics. The straps coming down on either side stand for the outpouring of God’s mercy upon the world.
Finally, we also wrap the tefillin around our fingers and as we do, we repeat the three statements of betrothal from the book of Hosea, in which God takes Israel as His bride. We too are betrothed to the Almighty as we repeat each day, “I will betroth you unto Me forever. I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness and justice, lovingkindness and compassion. I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord.”
In his booklet on Tefillin, Rabbi Kaplan also mentions a part of the Tefillin that we frequently overlook. If you take a look at the tefillin for the head, you will see four hairs sticking up, coming out from the box. These are supposed to be hairs from a calf and in so using them, we are reminded of the sin of the Golden Calf. Kaplan tells us that the world was not complete without a bit of evil in it. “Originally, God gave evil just enough power to exist. Its existence barely hung by a hair. It was only man’s evil deeds which strengthened it and allowed it to grow. This is the hair in God’s tefillin…Evil is only given a hairsbreadth of God’s life force. This hair ultimately connects all evil to the Holy. Therefore, it is also a channel through which all evil can be brought back to the Holy and redeemed.
There are numerous other midrashim and commentaries on the tefillin, but clearly they can be a very meaningful element of our prayer life when we reflect on their teachings. I urge you to join us on Sunday for the World Wide Wrap. We’ll meet in the sanctuary for instruction on tefillin and the morning prayer service. Of course, it would not be a Jewish event without refreshments and socializing afterwards. Come, wrap yourself in a tradition of the Torah and don’t worry about being “religious” enough.
[For more information about Tefillin, the prayers we recite, and how to put them on, please check out my earlier piece from 2021 on the Temple B’nai Israel webpage.]