Monday, March 12, 2012

Teaching a nuanced love for Israel or a simple trip to buy Tefilin ain't so simple

Tonight, Rivital, Shmuel, Abaye and I drove to Chispin in the Golan Heights to purchase Shmuel’s Tefilin.  He’ll start putting them on next week – one month before his Bar Mitzvah.  Friends of ours recommended the Sofer (scribe) we met with because he has a two-hour presentation about the meaning of Tefillin and a demonstration of how they are made.  He has samples of cow hides in their various stages going from simple pieces of leather to becoming the boxes in which the parshiot (Torah passages) of parchment eventually make their home.  It was really cool to see how they are made and sewn up.  We even got to place the parshiot of Shmuel’s Tefilin in the Batim (boxes) – well actually I did. Since Shmuel is not yet Bar Mitzvah, the sofer insisted that I put them in place – לשם קדושת תפילין. There is no doubt that being present as the scrolls were placed inside the Batim gave Shmuel and the rest of us a special connection to this Mitzvah and his particular set of Tefilin.

Besides this physical connection, the Sofer had an extended derash/shiur on the meaning of Tefilin.  His take on Tefilin is that there are essentially three themes in the portions of the Torah included in the Tefilin – The land of Israel, the People Israel and the Torah of Israel.  The first parashah (Exodus 13:1-10) which describes the exodus of Egypt into the promised land = Eretz Yisrael.  The second parashah (Exodus 13:11-16) which focuses on the first born = The People Israel (who are called God’s first born in Exodus 4:22).  The last two parshiot (Deut. 6:4-9 and Deut. 11:13-21) = the Torah of Israel.  So, in this Sofer’s understanding, laying Tefilin is an act of identification with trio of the land, people, and Torah of Israel.  (Here is a link to get a more elaborate explanation in Hebrew:

While perhaps a little to far from peshat (the straightforward meaning), I certainly appreciated the sentiment of searching out a deep significance for this new Mitzvah that Shmuel is on the cusp of taking on.  All in all it was worth the long drive + the extended presentation.

All that said, there was a piece of the presentation that I found disturbing.  Building on the explanation above, the sofer added another level to his drash on Tefilin.  There is a halakhah that the Parshiot of the Tefilin must written in the order they appear in the Torah (at least according to Rashi).  That means that in this Sofer’s scheme, first comes the parashah of the land of Israel, then the people Israel, and finally the Torah of Israel.  He suggested that this order indicates a hierarchy of values.  On the top is the land of Israel, followed by the people of Israel, and finally least important of the three is the Torah of Israel.  As he was sharing this approach, I immediately recalled Rabbi Yehuda Amital’s insistence that of these three pillars of Judaism, the people Israel is at the top followed by the Torah of Israel in the middle with the land of Israel being the least in significance of the three. It is R. Amital’s approach that I hold dear and try to live by (Here is a link to one of the articles where R. Amital lays out this position:

I was a bit ambivalent about this presentation of values that Shmuel had just been presented.  On the one hand, the placing the land of Israel on a pedestal above all else is a perversion of what I understand Judaism to teach. On the other hand, one of the struggles of our Aliya has been the kids' disappointment over leaving the states.  Of course they should be disappointed about leaving their friends and I need to accept that and to allow them that disappointment.  Yet, on the other hand I am not sure that they have a full appreciation for how significant Aliya is.  I don’t think they realize and share how important Emily and I feel the land and the state of Israel is.  On some level, I was pleased that Shmuel heard someone preaching the importance of the land of Israel, even if I had concerns that it was being overblown.

Related to this subject, Shmuel and I had an interesting interchange last week.  In school, Shmuel’s class had a presentation from one of the Gush Katif evacuees who told the story from his perspective.  Shmuel came home and shared with me what he had heard.  He told me that he couldn’t understand why we had left Gaza.  While I certainly appreciate those who opposed the hitnatkut (disengagement), I feel that the demographic problem of remaining in Gaza created at least as big a problem as the withdrawal did. I did my best to explain what the advantages were to the pull out, but he stood his ground.  I asked him how he would address the demographics and he said something like we should have moved a lot of Jews there to balance the population.  When I pointed out that that would mean Jews like us moving from the diaspora to Israel, he was caught a bit off guard.  Inadvertently, he had made an argument for the importance of his own Aliya.  I ended that conversation telling Shmuel that I was glad and proud that he had an opinion of his own different from mine and that he should continue to think for himself. I told myself, that I was glad that Shmuel had come to a realization of the importance of Jews living in Israel, even if I disagreed with him about exactly where in Israel they should live…

When one’s religious Zionism emphasizes the quality of the society built in the land of Israel (Am Yisrael) over the land itself – inculcating a love for the land can be complex.  I decided not to address what the Sofer had said at all tonight and just let Shmuel chew on it (after two hours of listening to the meaning of Tefilin he deserved a break no matter what he heard), however, I imagine at some point we’ll revisit this and I’ll share R. Amital’s position.  Maybe I’ll even recommend he read this post…

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