Going through a box of old papers and photographs in my parents' garage, I unearthed an embroidered velvet bag. Inside it was a set of tefillin -- old and worn, with straps that are thin both in diameter and in heft. One of the batim (the little houses that hold the scrolls) was partially crushed, and one of the retzuot (the straps) had broken into two pieces.
I was amazed. I went upstairs to find my father. The initials on the bag could be his: were these his tefillin?
"I don't think so," he said. "I don't recognize them. I don't think I've ever seen that bag before. Besides, mine are in my bedside drawer."
We went to his bedside table and sure enough his own tefillin were there, in their velvet bag, just as he thought... along with yet another set of tefillin!
"These are mine," he said, taking his own set briefly out of their case, "and I don't think I've put them on since my bar mitzvah! But I have no idea where this third set" -- the other ones in the back of his drawer -- "came from either."
This third set of tefillin has no bag or carrying case. Unlike the ones in the embroidered bag, which are clearly damaged, these seem to be intact. They show some signs of age, but the retzuot feel firm and the batim feel solid.
After some reflection, he decided that the third set -- the one in better shape -- probably belonged to his father Israel Barenblat z"l, and the ones in the velvet bag might have belonged to his grandfather Benjamin Barenblat z"l. But we can't be certain. We don't know the origins or original owner of either set.
I didn't bring my tefillin on this trip. Holding these -- especially the seemingly-intact third set -- made me yearn to put them on. So I said the blessings and wrapped myself in them.
Was it my imagination, or did I feel a pulse of energy coming through them, a zetz of connection with whichever ancestor once owned them?
They definitely felt unfamiliar. My own tefillin were brand-new when they were given to me thirteen years ago. They are a different size than these, and their straps feel different beneath my fingers and on my arm. But even though these were clearly not my tefillin, they felt good on my body. As tefillin always do, they activated my awareness of connection with God -- always thrumming beneath the surface. I sat in them for a moment, and said the shema silently, and marveled, and then took them off.
Both sets are coming home with me, and I'm already making inquiries with my friend Rabbi / Sofer Kevin Hale to see if he will check them and make repairs as necessary. Maybe one of these sets will pass to my son when he becomes bar mitzvah.
For now, I'm traveling home with the family tefillin safely tucked into my carry-on. I'm thinking about my family and its generations. I hope my ancestors to whom these once belonged would be happy to know that their tefillin have found a new home with their descendant the rabbi, even if my rabbinate would have been unimaginable to them.
Whenever I visit my birthplace and my parents I expect to come away with a renewed sense of connection to where I come from. But these tefillin crystallize that connection in a beautiful and unexpected way. I am grateful.
An early Shabbat shalom to all who celebrate.