For the week ending 31 October 2009 / 12 Heshvan 5770

Who is Like Unto Your People Israel, One Nation on Earth

by David Siegel
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This is a true story. I am the narrator.

It was the custom of our Gemara shiur at Ohr Somayach in Jerusalem to take the train up north to the sleepy seaside town of Zikaron Yaakov every couple of months for a long weekend retreat.

This was the old Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line, now abandoned. Twice a day, the train chugged indolently through the Judean mountains, winding its way along wadis filled with wildflowers overseen by hawks circling far above. The Jerusalem train station was an ornate arcade designed by the Turks in their waning years of empire.

The ride to Tel Aviv took about and hour and a half. By bus the ride was 45 minutes, by car, half an hour. An old joke said you could step off the first carriage, pick a bouquet of flowers, and step back on the train with time to spare. Although preposterously cheap, the timeworn train always made its leisurely run near-empty.

Almost always, that is.

The Thursday we had scheduled for our Zikaron Yaakov excursion turned out to be "Jerusalem Day," when the country celebrates the capture and reunification of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War.

The normally tranquil and placid train was filled to overflowing with raucous Israeli teenagers enjoying the day off from high school. Each three-seater couch was occupied by one prone teenager. Cigarette haze filled the cars. Transistor radios cackled and screeched. The chatter was like an awesome aviary. Bubble gum popped and snapped.

After some informal negotiation, the guys in our shiur managed to carve out a niche in the corner of the last car. We said the brief travel-prayer, cracked open our Gemaras, and settled down to learn.

Suddenly we looked up to see a disheveled teenage kid standing over us. "Do you guys learn in Yeshivah?" he inquired. "Yes," we nodded. "Do you put on Tefillin?" he continued. "Yes, we put on Tefillin," we replied. Do you have Tefillin here with you?" he pressed on. Wondering where this was leading, we said yes, we did — we put them on once a day and needed them for tomorrow. "I'd like to put on Tefillin. Would you lend me a pair?" he concluded.

This unusual request provoked a heated argument among us. Their high degree of sanctity requires Tefillin to be treated with extreme respect. They cannot be worn when one's body is soiled or even while thinking unclean thoughts. Most of the shiur thought that lending Tefillin to this secular high school kid risked debasing them and making a laughing-stock of this precious Mitzvah.

Rachamim, an Iranian immigrant who lived in New York and joined the Yeshiva for the summers, thought differently. "I'll lend you my Tefillin," he told the kid, "on condition that you respect their sanctity and follow all the Halachic guidelines." The kid agreed. The Halachic guidelines meant he had to wash his hands in running water, wear a kippa, say the beracha, lay both the head and hand Tefillin properly, and recite divrei keddusha while wearing them. The kid disappeared, and returned in a flash holding his hands aloft, dripping with water. (The facilities in the train did not include hand towels!) Rachamim lent him a kippa, showed him how to put on the Tefillin, and taught him the beracha.

From the moment the kid returned with his dripping hands in the air, the party-atmosphere in the train transmuted into total silence. Dozens of pairs of teenage eyes followed his every move. The word went out and the entire trainload of kids migrated to our car. All you could hear over the clickety-click of the rails was our kid's soft sobs as he recited the Shema.

Then an even more remarkable thing happened. All of the boys in the train formed a line behind our kid. Each asked to put on Tefillin! Rachamim had his hands full. For the next two hours the cacophony of music, chatter and bubblegum ceased. One after another the boys washed their hands, put on the kippa, said the beracha, put on the Tefillin, and recited the Shema.

Afterwards the kids asked us to explain the meaning of the Mitzvah of Tefillin. I volunteered and gave them a brief lesson. I explained that Tefillin contain the four sacred parchments from the Torah in which the Mitzvah of Tefillin is mentioned. We wear them on our weaker arm to show that His is the power. They are jewelry given to us by HaKadosh Baruch Hu to show His love for us.

Rav Nachman bar Yitshak said to Rav Hiya bar Avin, “What is written in the Tefillin of the Master of the World?” He replied (Shmuel 1, 7:23) “And who is like unto your People Israel, one nation on earth.” (Berachot 6a).

  • David Siegel is an alumnus of Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in Jerusalem, 1985. He is currently attached to a Kollel in Jerusalem’s OldCity. He has edited and published from manuscripts original works by Rabbi Elazar ben Yehuda of Worms, known as the “Rokeah” after his Halachic classic of that title.

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