Tick. Tock.

“Welcome to Starfish Inn. We hope you enjoy your stay.”

The words tumbled smoothly from my lips, an instinctive greeting delivered with ease. I smiled at our latest guest, cataloging his pertinent details—face, name, room number—in my mind with mechanical efficiency. It was one of those days when time seemed to inch sluggishly along, one tick-tock at a time, the very air laden with laziness. I was beginning to feel stifled, I smiled at our latest gueststanding behind the counter, the occasional new guest unable to alleviate the suffocating boredom.

Tick. Tock.

The door opened, and a couple stepped in. I turned to greet them, welcoming them to the hotel while simultaneously analyzing and classifying them. Formal clothing, austere and antiquated, an overreliance on drab colors (brown overcoat and shoes for him, mold green for her). He sported a leather watch, which he glanced at sternly, his glasses making his eyes look narrow and pinched. Professors, most likely, still clinging to yesterday’s fashions, in denial that time has passed them by. I smiled and helped them with their booking, ever the professional hotel manager.

The door opened. I turned to it, my ready smile slipping as the latest arrival entered.


The Orthodox Jew was young, gaze focused, thoughtful, almost analytical in the way he looked around the room, dressed all in black, too-formal attire that only worked to separate, to make him stand out, to look different than everyone else, hat and beard drenched with rain, looking for all intents and purposes like he stepped out from another age, another world, a place where time hadn’t progressed for centuries, a place where there was room for people like him


With a start, I realized that I was staring, that I’d let my mask of professionalism slip, and swiftly pasted a smile back on my face. The Jew stepped forward, small puddles forming from the rain dripping from his coat onto the floor. I waited patiently—outwardly, at least—until he reached the counter.

“Welcome. How may I help you?”

“Hi, hi. Sorry about the rain, by the way. I, um, don’t have a reservation—do you have any spare rooms?”

Warning bells began to ring in my head as countless possible scenarios of him irritating the guests with his archaic, obsolete ways flashed through my mind. I knew that I should tell him no, that it would be prudent to lie. No one would know; it would cost me nothing.

Only my integrity.

I sighed—inwardly. “Number 13 is free. Let me just get your details. What’s your name?”

Moshe Brown.”

I recorded his payment information and handed him his key. “Welcome to the Starfish Inn. We hope you enjoy your stay.”

The sound of my alarm jolted me out of my sleep, defiantly announcing that it was 6:00 AM. I groaned, then rose, washed and made my way downstairs. I had almost reached the front desk when movement in the dining room caught my eye.

The young Jew was standing by a table at the far wall, the sleeve of his left arm rolled up. As I watched, he slowly, ever so carefully, took out a pair of tefillin, and then, as if it was the most natural thing in the “This is a public place!”world, began wrapping one around his arm.

I turned to leave him in peace, but almost against my volition found myself walking to the Jew. “You have some nerve,” I hissed at him. “This is a public place. If you want to bury your head in the sand and cling to your ancient traditions, go do it somewhere else.”

Rather than answering, Moshe waited until he had finished placing the head-tefillin and tightening the one on his hand before turning to me. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t aware that this would be a problem.” His tone was courteous, respectful, but not apologetic. “As you said, this is a public space. Can I not pray where I wish? I was going to pray in my room, but I noticed that no one was up right now, and it seemed more peaceful down here.”

The Jew’s answer took some of the wind out of my sails, and I grew flustered. “Fine,” I snapped. “Do as you wish.”

I turned to leave, then swiveled back to him. “Do you think He cares? If there’s a G‑d up there, an All-Powerful, Almighty Creator of all, do you really think he cares what you do? That you get up in the morning and wrap some black boxes around your arm and head? Do you somehow convince yourself that you find meaning in your actions? You know what you’re like? You’re like a woodpecker, a dumb bird, knocking its beak against the door, over and over again, thinking that somebody, anybody, cares what it does. You do the same thing, the same actions, day in and day out, and you think that an elusive Creator cares, that you can build a connection to Him with your monotony. They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. G‑d was silent the first time you put on your black boxes, and He’s been silent since then.” I leaned forward, my voice low, angry. “He'll be silent today.”

Before he could answer, I turned on my heel and walked out.

I slowly opened my eyes, turned to face my alarm clock. The panel blearily declared it was 4:30 AM. I’d been lying in bed for hours now, replaying my conversation—admittedly, more like my tirade—with Moshe yesterday morning. Thinking about it now, I felt shame, guilt, and more than a little puzzlement. I was a calm, good-mannered person. A little bored with my current job, true, but I wasn’t angry or vindictive. Yesterday’s outburst was not like me. Why had I been so angry? Sighing, I promised myself that I would apologize as soon as I next saw him.

And yet I still couldn’t sleep.

I felt an odd restlessness, a sort of fateful feeling, as if something important was going to happen—something I dared not miss. I felt nervous and yet oddly calm, eerily aware of the insistent pounding of my heart, the slow but steady tick-tock-ticking of my watch, the familiar creaks and groans of my hotel. The air was heavy, taut with anticipation, and I knew, knew without a shadow of a doubt, that I must not sleep.

Slowly, I sat up and walked into the living room. The night hung over the city like a shadowy veil, the sun’s farthest rays only beginning to play at the edges of the sky. I turned from the window to gaze at my bookshelf, at the corner of the third shelf, the place where I hadn’t looked in a long time.

I swallowed.

I felt like a character in a drama, walking towards an inescapable fate, knowing it was coming but powerless to stop it, held in the grip of a greater hand, a creator’s hand. Slowly, as if I had all the time in the world, as if time had stopped and the world taken a breath and then just held it in, paused in motion to watch this timeless moment, I walked towards the bookshelf, my heart pounding, so loud, so loud in my ears, my eyes fastened to that spot on the third shelf. As I neared it, a hand appeared before my eyes, wrinkled and aged—could that be my hand?—and gently moved aside the books to take down the package hidden behind it.

I stared mutely at the bag of tefillin in my hands, the cloth still soft after all these years. Then, in a sudden fit of rage, I placed the tefillin on the table and walked away. No! This wasn’t me. I was not some teary-eyed romantic, deciding his life by notions of fate and destiny. I was a grown man, almost 50 now, and I had made a choice, I had made a choice and I was not going to change my mind, not because some young pup who knew nothing about the world thought everything was in black and white. I had made my choice, and my choice was no!

Suddenly exhausted, spent from my tirade, as if I had shouted it at the top of my lungs instead of in my head, I walked wearily to the window and stared out of it. The city, so familiar to me after the many years living here, looked foreign to me now, my eyes seeing another city, a world away, a lifetime away. In my mind I allowed myself, for the first time in decades, to recall my past.

I remembered my youth, being raised in a traditional Jewish household. I remembered images of my mother, piously lighting the Shabbat candles, of my father, face so serious as he taught me Chumash. And I remembered monotony. I remembered praying, putting on tefillin, learning, praying again, countless actions repeated over and over again in some dull frenzy of tedium. I remembered growing to hate those moments, those tired, repetitious moments, and eventually deciding that I’d had enough.

That if there was a G‑d, a formula of monotony was not the way to serve Him.

Sighing, I turned to the table and sat down. In silence, I stared at the tefillin, willing it to answer my questions. What secrets do you hold? Why do they love you so? Why do they keep coming back, as if you hold the key to some ancient mystery?

The tefillin remained silent.

As I stared at it, a strip of heat inched along my cheek. Turning, I blinked in surprise as the sun slowly rose over the houses, painting the sky with its warm glow. I stared at it for a moment, silent tears dripping down my cheeks, before turning back to the tefillin.

It beckoned to me.

I rose, then slowly rolled up the sleeve of my left arm. Why do they love you so?I removed the tefillin from the bag, the straps old and wrinkled yet still strong, and slipped my arm through the loop.

The motions came back to me, falteringly at first but increasingly confident, as my hands moved instinctively to tighten the knots. Finally done, I hesitated no longer, reaching into the tefillin bag to remove the small prayerbook I’d put there.

And, for the first time in over three decades, I prayed.

I don’t really know what I prayed for. I prayed for health, I guess. It was traditional, I remembered, to pray for your needs. I prayed for happiness, for fulfillment. Mostly, I prayed for answers. If there’s a G‑d out there, I prayed, then answer me: Are You really so petty as to find this meaningful?

I woke up before my alarm clock, glancing at the dial to see it proudly proclaiming 5:15. It had been a week, an odd week, during which I’d put on tefillin every day. I’d apologized to Moshe, which he’d accepted, but I hadn’t told him about the turmoil I’d been going through. I’d rejected his offer of answers, too. Perhaps it was my ego talking, but I felt that if I was going to work this out, I’d do it alone.

Yet this morning felt different. Though I'd put on tefillin every day with something akin to resignation, still questioning the purpose in my actions, I didn’t feel the same discontent today. I felt, instead, a sort of eagerness, a yearning so deep I could barely fathom it. Frowning, I got up, washed, then walked into my living room and took down the tefillin.

And, as I held them in my hands, I realized what I was feeling.

My soul was singing.

It was a song of longing, of yearning, a song of frantic desire for connection, a song of passion and hope and all-consuming love. It was the song of a child seeking its father, the song of a wife crying for her husband, a song of devotion that recognized no boundaries. It was a song that transcended and elevated and lifted beyond, so far beyond, to a place where there was only the song, singing of need, of desperate, desperate need, to return, to come back and be welcomed back.

It was a music unlike any I had ever heard. Haunting yet defiant, proud yet insistent, it took me over, made me forget everything, until all I heard was the song.

It was a music that, like all great music, demanded a dance.

And I realized that, deep inside, I knew the steps of this dance. Like an amateur dancer, caught up in the throes of such powerful music that he moves instinctively, no rehearsals guiding his I knew the steps to this dancemotions, I too began my dance, knowing without needing to be told that this was the dance of my soul.

I rolled up my sleeve and began putting on tefillin.

I prayed—prayed for health, prayed for happiness, prayed prayers of thanks for G‑d’s answer—my prayers changing with the tune of the song. Here I exultantly raised my voice in sync with the song, praising G‑d for all His creations; there I stood still in humility, as my soul played music of reverence, in awe of His Infinite Oneness. For a moment, time opened before me, letting me catch a glimpse of the future, as I danced to the ever-changing music of my soul. I saw myself in deep learning, the music a thoughtful hum, insistently prodding to know more of its Beloved. Later it would turn mournful, deeply haunting, as I wept for my lost home, for my lost family, for the lost millions . . . I saw it grow joyful, the dance turning to one of happiness as I sang and clapped in a wooden hut, and later still grateful as I sat down to recount the miracles G‑d had done for me.

I saw moments when I did not hear the song, when I was too calloused to hear its piercing tune. Yet I kept dancing, defiantly displaying my commitment to the yearning of my soul.

Then the moment slipped away from me, and I allowed those thoughts to fade, allowed myself to focus completely on the rhythm of the music, as I danced to the song of my soul.

Tick. Tock.

I stood by the counter again, welcoming new guests to the hotel and saying goodbye to old ones. I glanced again at the clock, noting the late hour. It would be sunset soon. After I entered our latest guest’s information into the system, I stepped out from behind the counter.

“Howard, I’m taking a break for a few moments,” I called to one of our interns. “Man the counter, will you?”

“Sure, boss. Where are you going?”

I was already heading upstairs, and my reply, murmured almost to myself, probably did not reach him. “The music’s playing again.

“I’m feeling the urge to dance.”