In memory of Rabbi David Hartman
During what turned out to be Rabbi David Hartman’s final lesson in his beloved summer Rabbinic Torah Seminar, he shared a personal prayer that he would offer while putting on his tefillin:
Ribbono shel olam [Master of the World], stay with me while I put on my tefillin. Don’t let my mind get distracted. I need You, and above all, I want You.
Herein, a greathearted and passionate teacher offered to his students a prayer that rose from the deepest part of his aging self to the highest expression of his commitment to the living covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Ribbono shel olam [Master of the World], stay with me while I put on my tefillin. Don’t let my mind get distracted—
Here was a model for aging and engaging: In the presence of frailty, seek each day to enlist coherence of mind and body in the service of the living covenant. Tie the covenant to your arm; crown your thoughts with it. Make the leather ring of engagement around the finger and say: I betroth you to me forever…with righteousness and justice… with faithfulness and with deep knowing of the Lord.
I need You, and above all, I want You—
David Hartman taught with passion that the covenant flourishes in the presence of love for the Partner—a love that must be realized in deeds. Tefillin—bound to betrothal and deep knowing—constitute a sign of love that insists upon a life beyond beautiful abstraction. For a covenant that must live in the world of deeds, Bind these teachings upon your hand and let them be a reminder between your eyes is an idea transformed through loving imagination into straps, scrolls, and boxes. Tefillin make an impression on the arm and on the mind.
Ancient sages imagined that God also expressed covenant partnership by putting on tefillin. Rabbi Yitzhak said:
From what verse do we learn that the Holy One puts on tefillin? From the verse: The Lord has sworn by his right hand, by his mighty arm (Isaiah 62:8). By his right hand, means Torah… By his mighty arm, means tefillin…
One sage asked another:
What is written in God’s tefillin? The other answered: In God’s tefillin is the verse: Who is like you, O Israel, a people unique/ehad in the world?! God says: You have made me your only one/ehad in the world by saying, Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai alone/ehad (Deuteronomy 6:4). So do I declare you to be my only one/ehad…
Bound together by the tefillin, God and Israel strengthen one another in their covenantal bond. God makes it possible for Israel to bind itself to godly ways. Israel’s covenantal deeds make God manifest in the world.
The great Hebrew poet, Saul Tchernikovsky offered a dramatically different understanding of tefillin. The poet lamented that Israel’s mighty God had been bound by a lifeless ritual:
The God of astounding wildernesses,
the God of those who conquered Canaan in a whirlwind,
was then bound by that people with the straps of their tefillin.
For David Hartman, a champion of the living covenant, tefillin do not bind divine power but rather secure it; not smaller, but finer. Not only God is strengthened by tefillin, but Israel is dignified and strengthened as well. Tefillin secure boundless vision to finite carriers.
David Hartman taught that even when the body is failing, the covenant is unfailing. To put on tefillin is to give God a hand in the world.
When I put on tefillin (phylacteries) and pray in the morning, it is not human grandeur that is being acknowledged but rather human vulnerability and imperfection. I can love God and sense God’s acceptance of me as a weak, finite human being. I am a “commanded one” within the context of human limitations.
The covenant thus signifies the restored dignity of the concrete and the finite. It expresses the ability to love in spite of human limitations, to build meaning in the face of death, to act today without certainty about tomorrow. (David Hartman, A Heart of Many Rooms)