Tefillin is a distinctively Jewish way of worship; it is the central mitzvah with which boys are initiated into Jewish manhood. It represents an act rather than a sentiment or a word. But what, you may ask, is the message of tefillin for our own day?

The threat confronting civilization today is not rhetorical. Acts of violence are real and increasing in both frequency and intensity. Not too long ago, the university, that exemplar of rationality, turned out to be a hotbed of terror. Professors of philosophy, graduate students, some of the finest minds America has cultivated, engaged in indiscriminate violence, using guns and bombs. Violence as such is nothing new, but that people of learning should engage in it is something new — and deeply disturbing.

It is worthy of note that the first direct quotation from Moses in the Torah is his protest against a Jew who had raised his arm to strike another. "Why do you strike your fellow?" Moses is introduced to us as a protester against an act of violence.

What do the tefillin symbolize? The straps are wrapped around the arms. As a result, the arm loses its freedom of movement; it can only move as the straps permit. Man is not free to do as he wishes. He can move his arm — that is, he can use his ability to act — only in ways that are in consonance with the spirit of the tefillin, of the Sh'ma. Some acts, such as taking that which belongs to another, or harming a fellow man or an animal, or even willfully damaging inanimate objects, are evil. Arms and hands have the power to heal and help, to create and build, and they must be used only for these purposes. This is what the tefillin tell us each morning, and the Bar Mitzvah youth enters life, just as we ourselves enter it anew each day, with the reminder that all our actions must be in character with these principles.

One box of our tefillin is placed upon the left arm, near the heart, symbolically the seat of our emotions. There are certain emotions which the Torah prohibits. "Do not hate your brother in your heart," for hatred is a sin. "Do not harbor a grudge," even when you have been wronged. "You shall love the stranger" with all his alien-ness, and certainly, "you shall love your fellow as yourself." Our emotions are not beyond our control. We are responsible for our emotions. We are to be their master, not their pawn. This is another message that our tefillin hold for us today.

The tefillin give us a glimpse of the magnificent potential inherent in every one of us, not only to do what is right, but also to remain in control of our emotions. That common but feeble excuse, "I couldn't help myself," is not acceptable to anyone sensitive to the message of the tefillin. A heart touched by the tefillin and fired with the command to "love your G‑d with all your heart" will reject such pettiness.

The other box of the tefillin is placed upon the head, the seat of the mind. Man's mind is his finest gift and at the same time the most ominous threat to the world in which he lives. If he uses his mind properly, he can create a paradise; if he does not, he can bring utter destruction to the planet. He must use his mind in accordance with the teachings of the Torah, his thoughts must be pure, he must not plot and scheme against others, and he must not utilize his brain for self-aggrandizement at the expense of others.

Almost everyone in the Western world today is able to read and write, but when it comes to moral literacy we are still scarcely beyond the caveman stage. The educated but immoral are not governed by their intellect; their minds are enslaved by their base instincts. The tefillin declare to us that the mind must have direction; lacking such direction, it can lead man to his ruin.

The Torah tells us to place our tefillin "between the eyes." How we use our eyes shows what sort of people we are. When the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn (1880-1950), was still a little boy, he asked his father why G‑d gave man two eyes. Would not one eye have been quite sufficient? "G‑d gave us two eyes, a right eye and a left eye," his father replied. "The right eye is for seeing the good, and the left eye is for seeing faults. Use your right eye to look at others, and your left eye to look at yourself."

Tefillin are a bond and a "sign" binding the American Jew, the Russian Jew and the Israeli Jew together into one inseparable whole, and at the same time tying the hand, the mind and the heart of the Jew to G‑d and Torah, to ideal and principle. The tefillin strap spans oceans and continents, binding a scattered people into one strong unit.

An awesome picture: a barracks in Auschwitz, and inside it a line of Jews, hurriedly putting on a single secret pair of tefillin, then taking them off again at once without a chance to recite the Sh'ma, because the Germans could come in at any moment. While some of the inmates put on the tefillin, others stationed themselves at the barracks door to watch out for the Nazis. A member of my congregation was in that group.

And then another picture appears before my mind: a line of thousands of Jewish students stretching for blocks around a Hillel House at a large American university, waiting for an opportunity to put on tefillin, unhurried, and without fear . . . Is it fantasy? Is there a better way of demonstrating that the Jew who is free cares about his brothers — wherever they may be?

(This essay was originally delivered at a Bar Mitzvah celebration for Israel's war orphans in Kfar Chabad in summer of 1970, and then adapted for print for an English-speaking audience.)