“Rational Love and Emotional Love: A Lesson from Tefillin”
(revised and updated from Bo 5760-2000)


by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Bo, we read about the last three plagues of the Ten Plagues: locusts, darkness, and the Death of the Firstborn. It is after the final plague strikes that the story of the Exodus comes to a dramatic conclusion as Pharaoh personally dashes through the streets of Egypt to seek out Moses 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 as a nation–the commandment of observing Rosh Chodesh, of setting up a Jewish calendar. 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 firstborn male children, and the need to redeem the firstborn at a פִּדְיוֹן הַבֵּןPidyon Haben ceremony, 30 days after birth. This final chapter of parashat Bo also features two portions, which speak of the obligation to teach future generations of the miracle of the Exodus. Both these portions, Exodus 13:2, קַדֶּשׁ לִי כָל בְּכוֹר , sanctify for Me every first born, and Exodus 13:11, וְהָיָה כִּי יְבִאֲךָ , when the L-rd G-d brings you into the land of Israel, speak of the mitzvah of Tefillin. Tefillin, of course, are the phylacteries (the leather boxes and straps) 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 the Al-mighty took the People of Israel out from Egypt with a mighty hand.

The mitzvah of Tefillin 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, encircle the arm seven times with a leather strap, and to place a second little leather box on the head, also containing sacred scrolls, and leather straps. What could possibly be the meaning of this ritual?

Conventional wisdom has it that Tefillin represent the bonding of the human being with G-d. Winding the straps around one’s arm seven times is reminiscent of the bride who marches around the groom seven times in the traditional Jewish wedding ceremony, as an act of betrothal. The winding of the straps around the fingers represents the wedding ring. Placing Tefillin on the head represents giving 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 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 the Divine Creator, 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 the idea of the Tefillin in a most profound way. Rabbi Soloveitchik notes that the Tefillin of the head are worn exposed on the head, where they may be seen by everyone. The Tefillin of the head contain four separate compartments in which parchments concerning the Torah writings regarding Tefillin are placed. On the other hand, the Tefillin of the hand are always worn covered. A sleeve is usually pulled over the Tefillin, or a cover is worn over the actual Tefillin box, to hide them. The Tefillin of the hand represent emotion–not like Tefillin of the head which are open, rational, given to scientific and empirical investigation for all to analyze.

The parchment contained in the Tefillin of the hand, just like the Tefillin of the head, contain the four sections of the Torah, which mention the Mitzvah of Tefillin. However, they are written on one long parchment, and are seemingly melded together, not separate, but uniform and unified. While the Tefillin of the head sit on the brain, the source of rational, empirical understanding, the Tefillin of the arm sit next to the heart, the source of the esoteric emotions.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Judaism recognizes two forms of “love”–“rational love” and “emotional love.” When a person evokes “rational love,” someone or something is preferred because they are rationally superior and empirically deserving. They are worthy, because they are good. It is possible to rationally, and, in many cases, scientifically assess the goodness empirically and to make a decision to like or dislike something. However, says Rabbi Soloveitchik, there is also a love of the heart, that is not based on rational or empirical evidence. It is an emotional favoring that only a person in love can comprehend and appreciate. In fact, it can, at times, be shown that it makes no sense rationally, 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 these emotional feelings.

Rabbi Soloveitchik insists that there is a difference between a Jew’s love for a fellow Jew and a Jew’s love for a non-Jew. The Torah instructs everyone, (Leviticus 19:18) וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ , Love your neighbor as thyself. That is the love that a Jew should have for all of humankind. Jews are bidden to love and respect all people. However, the objects of this love must be worthy of our love, they must be good, decent, principled and moral people. When, however, it comes to the love of our brother, love for our family members becomes irrational. Goodness, or worthiness, is not a factor, after all–it’s my brother.

Can it be explained? Two people are drowning, one, a world-famous scientist, the other, my child!! Despite the fact that the scientist can probably accomplish so much good for humanity, I’ll choose to save my child anyway. Can it be explained? It’s irrational, because it’s based on emotional love! There is a rationality to the heart, that the mind cannot comprehend or fathom. And, so says Rabbi Soloveitchik, is the emotional love that a Jew has for another Jew. They may not be the most worthy of people, they may not be the kindest, they may not be the most moral, but they are, after all, my brother, my sister and I love them, despite their deficiencies.

People make irrational decisions all the time. People often buy a new suit of clothes, even though they may be of inferior quality, because they are in style. It’s irrational. Few people will buy an out-of-style suit even though the quality of the material and sewing is far superior. No one is going to buy an old flip model phone, even though the flip phones were far more durable and cheaper than the current smartphones.

And, so it is when expressing love for our fellow Jews. While it often makes no sense to the mind, it makes perfect sense to the heart. So go argue with the heart! That is why, says Rav Soloveitchik, the primary blessing that we make on Tefillin, is made on the Tefillin of the arm. In fact, if a blessing is made on the Tefillin of the head, it is a questionable blessing, and the phrase בָּרוּךְ שֵׁם כְּבוֹד מַלְכוּתוֹ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד , Blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and ever, is immediately recited in order to make certain that it is not a “wasted blessing.”

There are many things in life that cannot be explained rationally, they can only be felt. Such are the concepts of love of the mind and love of the heart–another revolutionary idea that stems from Judaism.

May you be blessed.