I went this morning to an incredibly sweet service led by my friend Simcha. The service was designed to highlight the mitzvah of tefillin, which I first took on when I turned thirty.
We entered the little chapel on the third floor of the student center (big windows painted with stained-glass patterns) to the sound of Simcha and her husband Reb Shawn singing "Kamti ani liftoach l'dodi / I will open to You, my Beloved / Will you open, open to me?" in a beautiful two-part round. Then Simcha spoke briefly about tefillin. She talked about how the line we recite while wrapping around the hand (from Hosea: "I betroth you to me forever, I betroth you to me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy...") is sometimes written in English with a capital-Y You (so: it's us speaking to God) and sometimes written in English with a capital-M Me (so: it's God speaking to us.) The Hebrew, of course, connotes both at once. There's a reciprocity, Simcha said; tefillin call us to awareness of the reciprocal relationship of love between us and the universe.
We looked at some of the traditional texts related to donning tefillin (which you can find in the Artscroll siddur on pp 6-7.) Simcha talked about the texts in the box of the arm-tefillin and the head-tefillin, which remind us of God's unity, of the relationship of love between us, and also of how God brought us out from slavery in order to be in relationship with God. The arm-tefillin are next to the heart to remind us of the centrality of our loving relationship with God. We bind them on the hand to sanctify the work of our hands, and we bind them on our foreheads, near the seat of our consciousness, in order that the soul which is within our consciousness might be aligned with divine will. And after telling a few stories about her own relationship with the practice (and acknowledging that this, like every spiritual practice, ebbs and flows in our lives -- but, Simcha said, tefillin is a practice which calls us back to relationship) we returned to song.
I helped two women put on tefillin for the first time, showing them how I learned to wrap the binding around my arm and hand. Together we recited the blessing. All over the room were little clusters of people like us, gesturing and wrapping amid the buzz of low conversation. And then we davened a short morning service. After modah ani (the blessing for gratitude) we sang a line from psalm 42: "K'ayal ta'arog al afikay mayim, ken nafshi ta'arog elecha elohim (As the deer longs for water, so my soul longs for You)," which is a beautiful expression of longing for the relationship which the tefillin represent. The service itself was lovely; I was especially moved by the chanting of the ahavah rabbah blessing, which speaks of God's love for us. Most of the room chanted one line over and over in impromptu harmony while Simcha chanted the English translation over the top.
After the service I had the chance to chat briefly with a few people, and then came to class, where I spent 15 minutes or so doing "spirit buddy" time (one-on-one connection, talking about where we are and how we're doing) with a friend, and then it was time to begin Eco-Judaism class! From one gem in the setting of the morning to the next.