My husband Zev and I arrived at the airport gate for our morning flight to California. He typically goes to shul to pray, but our flight was too early. He decided he had enough time before boarding to “daven Shachris,” pray the morning prayers while we waited to board. It’s times like these that I admire his commitment to praying three times a day–morning, afternoon and evening– no matter what he’s doing or where he is.
He was standing with his huge prayer shawl, his tallis, draped over his head, with his tefillin strapped to his head and arm when a sweet-faced little girl skipped up to him and asked plainly, “What are you doing?”
“That’s a good question,” he answered in a teacher voice I’ve never heard him use before. “We’re Jewish, and this is how we pray.” He told her how the tefillin are special boxes he wears every day. (“Except on our Sabbath,” I chimed in.) She seemed to be satisfied with that answer, and after we both praised her for her curiosity and boldness, she skipped back to her father to share her lesson.
Tefillin are known in English as “phylacteries,” but few people know what that word means either, and certainly not a six-year-old. But they make a strong visual statement, especially when worn with the prayer shawl, and especially to the uninitiated.
Like every mitzva in Judaism, tefillin are packed with spiritual energy, purpose, and meaning. Inside the boxes are written parchments with passages from the Torah; a Jewish man wears tefillin daily to remind him that, in everything he does, his head, his heart, and his actions should work harmoniously and with proper intent. (In a nod to the power of Jewish women, G-d knows we don’t need to be reminded of this.)
The little girl wasn’t the only person who noticed my husband praying. Traveling home, Zev stood up on the plane to “daven Mincha,” say the afternoon prayer. When we landed in Pittsburgh, a stranger from across the aisle smiled and said, “thank you for your work.” (If I didn’t know better, I would have thought he knew I was sharing this.) Zev and I both laughed demurely as I answered, “we try.” We laughed even more demurely when he called us “G-d’s messengers.” The stranger was just reminding me of what I should already know, that G-d wants me, as a Jew, to be a light unto the nations–in everything I do.
Some days this work is harder than others, but I try.