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The Tefillin that helped cope with Life and with Death

The Tefillin that helped cope with Life and with Death

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The Tefillin that helped cope with Life and with Death 
By Rabbi Zushe Greenberg


In June 1996, I received a phone call from a man, Joe, who lived in my community. I was surprised by his call. I was ‚not well acquainted with him, but at one point I had helped‚ his daughter-in-law and grandchildren. He said, "Rabbi, I'm sick. If it's not too hard for you, could you please stop by and visit me?" 

Of course I went to his home. Upon my arrival, I learned that he was receiving chemotherapy treatments for cancer, and that his prognosis was not favorable. He lay in bed as we talked about his illness, and I told him that Judaism teaches us never to give up on life. I tried to cheer him up and when I left he was already in better spirits. 

The following week, when I was at Joe's bedside, he received ‚a call from a lifelong friend, David who lives in New York. When Joe told him, "The Rabbi is here" he handed the phone to me and said, "My friend wants to talk to you." 

David, a fellow Jew, had only one question for me, " Rabbi, I believe I know something that would give Joe additional‚strength. Why don't you suggest that he should start putting on Tefillin?" "He doesn't own a pair of Tefillin" I thought aloud. "I'll buy him one!" replied David, who wraps Tefillin each day. I turned to Joe, "David wants to buy you Tefillin, will you use them?" To my pleasant surprise, Joe immediately agreed. 

Tefillin signifies the directing of ones emotional and intellectual powers to the service of G‑d in all that we think, feel and do. It is a mitzvah that has been observed and treasured for thousands of years. Now it would reach another Jew, a man in his 60's, who had never done it before. 
After the Tefillin arrived, I returned to Joe's home each morning, and taught him how to wrap the leather straps and place the Tefillin boxes on his head and arm (facing his heart). He was excited and eager to learn how pray and recite the complete Shma. I saw firsthand the pleasure and spiritual strength he derived from this Mitzvah. He felt that the Tefillin gave him a strong connection with G‑d, and the strength to face each day. His health seemed to improve during the next six months, but then he was admitted to University Hospitals. When I arrived, he looked pale, and sounded weak, but he was grateful for my visit. He felt it was the appropriate time to talk about funeral plans and we talked of various technicalities. 

Then with great effort, he sat up in bed, took my hand and said, "I have one last very important request to make of you. "Tears flowed from his eyes. "My (adult) son Frankie, has never had a Bar Mitzvah." He paused with emotion and then continued. "When he comes for my funeral, please tell him that I want him to be `Bar Mitzvahd'. Not long after, Joe passed away. 

Frank flew in from his home in Massachusetts to join his mother and siblings in this time of mourning. I took the first opportunity to inform him of his father's last wish. He was so touched that his father thought of him before he died, that he immediately agreed to fulfill the wish for him. As I officiated at Joe's funeral, I shared these incidents with the large crowd that gathered to pay their last respects to him. At the end I turned to the closed coffin, and said, "Joe, your son Frank will soon celebrate his Bar Mitzva and you are hereby invited to attend." 

Frank remained in Cleveland for the week of the Shiva. On one of the Shiva days, in the presence of family and friends, we conducted a Bar Mitzva ceremony as was allowed in the confines of Shiva. Joe's Tefillin was his appropriate Bar Mitzva gift and Frank donned the Tefillin for the first time in his life. The bittersweet emotion that filled the room at that time is indescribable. We all had the strong feeling that Joe was there with us, celebrating this milestone in Frank's life. 

The Talmud states, Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah, one Mitzvah leads to another. Who would have imagined the positive chain reaction that one pair of Tefillin could have ? Joe's first Yahrtzeit is now approaching, and maybe this story will inspire one reader to don Tefillin even one time, and there will be yet another link in the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition. And, I'm sure, it won't stop there. 
He was there with us, celebrating this milestone in Frank's life.

 

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