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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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In June of 1996 I received a phone call from Joe. He lived in my community, and at one point I had helped his daughter-in-law and grandchildren, however I was not well acquainted with him and was surprised by his call. "Rabbi, I'm sick," he said. "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 indeed in better spirits.

The following week, while I was again at Joe's bedside, he received a call from a lifelong friend, David, who lived in New York. Joe told him that the rabbi was visiting with him, and then he handed the phone to me. "My friend wants to talk to you," he said.

He felt the tefillin giving him a stronger connection with G‑d, and the strength to face each day."Rabbi," David said, "I believe I know something that would give Joe additional strength. Why don't you suggest that he start putting on tefillin?"

"He doesn't own a pair of tefillin," I thought aloud.

"I'll buy him one!" replied David.

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 one's emotional and intellectual powers towards 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 experienced 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. He was excited and eager to learn how pray and recite the complete Shema. I witnessed firsthand the pleasure and spiritual strength he derived from this mitzvah. He felt the tefillin giving him a stronger connection with G‑d, and the strength to face each day.

His health seemed to improve during the next six months, but he was then admitted to University Hospitals of Cleveland. When I arrived at his bedside he looked pale and sounded weak, but he was grateful for my visit. He felt that it was the appropriate time to talk about funeral plans, and we discussed various technicalities in that regard.

Then with great effort he sat up in bed, took my hand, and said, "I have one very important last request to make of you." Tears flowed from his eyes. "My 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 Mitzvah'd.'"

Then with great effort he sat up and said, "I have one very important last request to make of you."Not long afterwards, Joe passed away.

Frank flew in from his hometown in Massachusetts to join his mother and siblings in their time of mourning. I took the first opportunity to inform him of his father's last wish. He was so touched, and immediately agreed to fulfill his father's wish. As I officiated at Joe's funeral, I shared the sequence of events with the large crowd that had gathered to pay their last respects. I then turned to the closed coffin and said, "Joe, your son Frank will soon celebrate his Bar Mitzvah 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 Mitzvah ceremony as was allowed in the confines of shiva. Joe's tefillin was an appropriate Bar Mitzvah gift and Frank then donned 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 Mishna states, "mitzvah goreret mitzvah," one mitzvah leads to another. Who would have imagined the positive chain reaction that one pair of tefillin could have? And who knows, 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.

Rabbi Zushe Greenberg is the spiritual leader of Chabad Center of Solon.
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