Tisha B’Ab and Tefillin
In the second chapter of Echah, the Book of Lamentations which we read on Tisha B’Ab, we read that at the time of the Temple’s destruction, "Heshib Ahor Yemino" – G-d "withdrew His right arm" (verse 3). How are we to understand this metaphoric image of G-d withdrawing His "right arm"?
Rav Pinchas Friedman (contemporary) explains based on Rashi’s comments in Sefer Shemot (15:6) regarding Beneh Yisrael’s proclamation at the time of the miracle of the sea, "Your right arm, Hashem, is glorious in might; Your right arm, Hashem, crushes the enemy." Rashi writes that Beneh Yisrael mention G-d’s "right arm" twice because when we fulfill Hashem’s will, His "left arm" becomes a second "right arm." The right side is associated with Hesed – the divine attribute of kindness and mercy, whereas the left is associated with Din – the divine attribute of strict justice. When we are faithful to G-d and fulfill His commands, we transform His attribute of justice into kindness. Rather than being treated with both Hesed and Din, we are treated with only Hesed, and thus under such conditions, G-d is anthropomorphically described as having two "right arms."
Rav Friedman noted that the converse is true when the Jewish People are unfaithful and disobey G-d’s commands. When this happens, G-d "withdraws," as it were, His attribute of kindness, such that we are left with only His attribute of strict justice. The verse in Echah speaks of the tragic spiritual effects of our nation’s sins, which caused us to lose access to G-d’s "right arm," His attribute of Hesed, and left us solely under the control of the divine attribute of Din. This, unfortunately, has been our condition for some 1900 years, which has resulted in the countless calamities that we have endured over the course of this period of bitter exile.
On this basis, Rav Friedman explains the symbolic spiritual significance of the Misva of Tefillin. Unlike most other Misvot, which we perform with our right arm, The Misva of Tefillin is fulfilled on the left arm. Rav Friedman suggests that tying the strap of the Tefillin has the effect of subjugating the left arm of the Almighty, as it were, restraining the divine attribute of strict justice. The way we avoid the harmful effects of Din is through the great Misva of Tefillin, whereby we bind ourselves to G-d’s Torah. By wrapping the Tefillin around our arms, we suppress the attribute of Din that is otherwise in full force during our period of exile. This is how we can bring back the attribute of Hesed and earn our long-awaited redemption from this exile.
There are many things we can and should be thinking about during this period, when we focus our attention on the Temple’s destruction, on our nation’s exile, and on our desire for redemption. One Misva which is not commonly spoken about in this context is the Misva of Tefillin – despite the fact that, as we have seen, it is vitally important for ending our exile. Among the many ways we should be trying to improve ourselves is increasing our vigilance in fulfilling this special Misva, a Torah obligation which applies each and every weekday.
First, it is important to check our Tefillin from time to time, to ensure that they are valid. Many people are not aware of the harmful effects of heat exposure and moisture on Tefillin, that they can make the Tefillin invalid for use. It is therefore advisable to periodically have one’s Tefillin checked, as wearing invalid Tefillin is no different from not wearing any Tefillin.
Moreover, the Halachic texts mention the various Kavanot (intentions) that one should have when putting on Tefillin. These are not esoteric Kabbalistic concepts found in Kabbalistic texts; these are basic concepts that all of us should be aware of. This, too, is something for us to concern ourselves with during this period of mourning for the Bet Ha’mikdash.
Finally, we must pay special attention to ensure that our teenage boys are wearing Tefillin each day, including Sundays. Hacham Baruch Ben-Haim once told me that it was so important for Yeshivot to have classes on Sunday because the boys generally leave their Tefillin in school, and so if Yeshiva were closed on Sunday, the boys would neglect this precious Misva each week. Especially for students who do not have school on Sunday, we must see to it that this Misva is observed each day.
Tefillin is one of those Misvot which we often take for granted and to which we often fail to pay proper attention. This period of mourning, when we contemplate the tragedies of Jewish exile, is an opportune time to enhance our awareness of the importance of this Misva and to redirect some of our attention to ensuring it is properly observed, as part of our collective efforts to raise our standards, individually and collectively, so we can be worthy of the arrival of Mashiah and the rebuilding of the Mikdash, speedily and in our days, Amen.