“Rational Love and Emotional Love: A Lesson from T’fillin

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, Parashat Bo, we read of the concluding three plagues: locusts, darkness, and the Death of the First Born. The story of the Exodus comes to a dramatic conclusion as Pharaoh personally dashes through the streets of Egypt to seek out Moshe and Aaron and urge them to take the Hebrew slaves and leave the land of Egypt as soon as possible.

Parashat Bo is also the parasha in which the Jewish people receive their first commandment, the commandment of observing Rosh Chodesh, of setting up a Jewish calender. The Jewish people are also instructed to prepare for the Pascal Sacrifice and the first Seder which will take place in Egypt.

Parashat Bo concludes with chapter 13 of Exodus, in which G-d proclaims the holiness of the first born, and the need to redeem them at a Pidyon Haben ceremony 30 days after birth. This final chapter also features two portions which speak of the obligation to teach future generations about the miracle of the Exodus. Both these portions (Exodus 13:2), “Kadesh lee kol B’chor“, sanctify for me every first born, and (Exodus 13:11) “V’haya kee y’vee’acha“, when the L-rd G-d brings you into the land of Israel, speak of the mitzvah of T’fillin. T’fillin, of course, are the phylacteries that are to be worn daily by Jewish men as a sign on the hand and as frontlets between the eyes, so that all should know that G-d took the People of Israel out from Egypt with a mighty hand.

The mitzvah of T’fillin is indeed a strange mitzvah. Jewish men are instructed to place a leather box containing sacred parchment scrolls with texts of the Torah, on their weak arm, encircling the arm seven times with a leather strap, and to place on one’s head a second little leather box, also containing sacred scrolls, and leather straps. What could possibly be the meaning of this ritual?

Conventional wisdom has it that T’fillin represent the bonding of the human being with G-d. The winding the straps around one’s arms seven times, are reminiscent of the bride who marches around the groom seven times, as an act of betrothal. The winding of the straps around the hand itself represents the wedding ring. Placing T’fillin on the head symbolizes that one gives over one’s mind, one’s consciousness, and one’s intelligence to the service of G-d. The binding of the leather box on the arm, next to the heart, represents giving over one’s strength to G-d, and devoting one’s heart to G-d. So in effect, it is an act which represents total sublimation of one’s self to G-d, giving over strength, intelligence, and heart to G-d.

Rabbi Aaron Soloveitchik, in a seminal essay entitled “Jew and Jew, Jew and Non-Jew” develops some of the ides of the T’fillin in a most profound way. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that the T’fillin of the head are worn exposed on the head, where everyone can see them. The T’fillin of the head contain four separate boxes in which parchments concerning the Torah writings regarding T’fillin are placed On the other hand, the T’fillin of the hand are worn covered. A sleeve is usually placed over the T’fillin, or a cover is worn over the actual T’fillin box. They’re hidden. They represent emotion–not like T’fillin of the head which are open, rational, given to scientific and empirical investigation for all to analyze. The parchment contained in the T’fillin of the hand, just like the T’fillin of the head, contain the four sections of the Torah which speak of T’fillin; however, they’re written on one long parchment, and are seemingly melded together, not separate, but uniform and unified. While the T’fillin of the head sit on the brain, the source of rational, empirical understanding, the T’fillin of the arm sit next to the heart, the seat of the emotions.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Judaism recognizes two forms of “love.” There is a rational love, where someone or something is preferred because they are rationally superior and deserving. Worthy, because they are good. It is possible to assess the goodness empirically and to make a decision to love something. However, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, there is also a love of the heart. It is not based on rational empirical proofs. It is an emotional favoring that only a person in love can comprehend and appreciate. In fact, it can often be shown that rationally it makes no sense, and deserves to be abandoned. That is why it is always next to the heart, covered and hidden. No amount of convincing or cajoling can affect the feeling.

So, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, there is a love that a Jew has for a non-Jew, as the Torah instructs (Leviticus 19:18), “V’ahavta l’ray’cha ka’mocha”, Love your neighbor as thyself. Jews are bidden to love and respect all people. However, the objects of our love must be worthy, they must be good, decent, principled and moral people. When, however, it comes to love of our brother, love of our family members, it is irrational. Goodness, or worthiness, is not a factor , after all — it’s my brother.

How can I explain it? Two people are drowning, a famous scientist and my child!! The scientist can accomplish so much good for humanity, but I’ll save my child anyway. Can it be explained, it’s irrational. It’s based on emotional love. Yet there is a rationality to the heart that the mind cannot comprehend or fathom. And so, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, is the love that a Jew has for another Jew. They may not be the best, they may not be the kindest, they may not be the most moral, but after all, it’s my brother, it’s my sister, I love them with all their deficiencies.

People make irrational decisions all the time. We buy a new suit of clothes, even though they are of inferior quality because they are in style. It’s irrational. I am not going to buy an out-of-style suit even though the quality of manufacture is so much finer. I am not going to buy an old-time rotary dial telephone, even though it is far more durable than the fragile new push button models. When did we ever throw out a rotary dial telephone? They lasted forever.

And so it is when expressing love for our fellow Jews. It makes no sense to the mind, but it makes perfect sense to the heart. So go argue with the heart! That’s why, says Rav Soloveitchik, the primary blessing that we make on T’fillin, is made on the T’fillin of the arm. If a blessing is made on the T’fillin of the head, it is a questionable blessing, so we immediately say Baruch Shem k’vod mal’chuto l’olam va’ed (Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever), in order to make sure that it is not a wasted blessing.

There are certain things that cannot be explained, they can only be felt. Love of the mind, love of the heart, another revolutionary concept from Judaism.

May you be blessed.