pronouns: they, them, their

The Sanctuary Within – A Tefillin Reflection


Rev. Chani Getter

February 5, 2022

“Tell me more about your journey with Tefillin? I want to understand it.” Yael Kanarek asks me in a conversation a few weeks ago as she prepares the Toratah (her Torah) Tefillin for Jericho Vincent.

Tefillin (phylacteries) are a pair of small, square leather boxes with scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. They are worn by adult Jews during weekday morning prayers. In some Orthodox and traditional communities, men are required to wear them; women are not permitted to wear them.

I pause… It is the end of 2006, my child had just been in  a horrible accident, they are still in so much pain, it is before I can leave them with a neighbor to go to work.  Joel, a new friend, comes by faithfully every day. He gently lifts my child out of bed and brings them to the main floor, as it is too difficult for me to do so. Each night he comes by again, carrying them from the main floor a flight up the stairs back to their bedroom.

He and I are having a cup of tea in the kitchen we are talking about how fast kids grow up, that before we know it my 11-year-old son will soon be 13. The conversation turns to Bar Mitzvah’s and since we are both XO (x-orthodox as we were known then) the conversation moves to Tefillin. My desire to try it on, to wear it, to experience it. And his ultimate disgust in being forced to wear it day in and day out from the day he was 13 until he finally walked away in his early 20’s.

“I can give you my Tefillin”, he says as a joke. I say, “Yes, please. Can you please bring it?”

It takes a few months for him to bring me his Tefillin. It is difficult to part with stuff, even items that bring us pain… especially objects that hurt, perhaps even more so because they are the things that have shaped us.

As I hold his Tefillin in my hand, I can sense the absolute repulsion he felt towards them. There is a feeling of loathing coming out of the Tefillin as I hold these sacred objects. I can perceive the many years of aversion that he had with these items. I go out and buy a velvet burgundy bag for the Tefillin and for my burgundy-and-white tallit (prayer shawl). Still the abhorrence is there. I embroider my name in rainbow colors on the burgundy it doesn’t seem to help at all. I hold the Tefillin in my hand, place it back into its original black velvet bag and put it away.

Flash forward, it is now November 2007, I am attending One Spirit Interfaith Seminary. We are studying Judaism in preparation for our in-person class. I call my dean. I tell her about these Tefillin that have been sitting on my shelf for months, how much I desire wearing them, and the hatred that emanates from them every time I go near them.

“You are studying to be an interfaith minister, aren’t you?” she asks, “Why don’t you smudge them?” Duh!!!

I light a candle, from the candle I light a packet of sage, and as the smoke rises I take the Tefillin out of their original bag, slowly and deliberately I allow the smoke to envelope the leather straps over and over until the energy changes, and then I do the same for the batim (boxes that hold the Tefillin parchment).

The Tefillin are transformed before my very eyes, I can feel them calling to me to engage with them. I put them into the burgundy bag that has my name in rainbow colors, now they are mine. They are wanted! 

I have a friend teach me how to wrap them, slowly it becomes a daily practice, me in my room, wrapping the leather around my arm, my palm, my fingers… placing the Tefillin on my third eye… chanting these words from Hosea (2:19-21). “I will betroth myself to you forever, I will betroth myself to you with righteousness, with kindness, with justice and with mercy, and I will betroth myself to you with fidelity so you will know God / Goddess.”  I finish the chant and repeat the word V’yadat (Genesis 4:1) over and over. V’yadat – to know… the way Adam knew Eve –  intimately. 

Tefillin becomes my almost daily practice.  

Years later, my partner will propose to me using these words with a ring at the end of a black ribbon that looks like Tefillin. I, in turn will recite these words to her under our Chupah (marriage canopy) in our backyard.  

I betroth myself to you… so that I will know me, so that I will know you, so that I will know.. know.. know… all of the many genders I inhabit… all the various ways I am in the world… all the countless ways I break and become whole again, so that I will know… intimately. 

Today, we read in our weekly Torah portion (Exodus 25:8) The Divine asks of us to create a Sanctuary. The Hebrew grammar is a bit messy – “You (singular) make for me a sanctuary so that I can dwell in them.” Our sages teach us that each and every one of us are commanded to create a sanctuary within us, so that Spirit can dwell in us. When I put on my Tefillin, something becomes quiet as the sanctuary within me opens up and I remember the Soul that I am. It allows me to connect to that which is greater than myself. 

When I remember, this creation of sanctuary within allows me to walk around as one with the world… gifting others permission to create their own sanctuaries. 

That dear Yael, is how I feel wearing my Tefillin. I conclude my lengthy answer to her question. 

How do you create sacred space? What are the things that help you remember that you already are a sanctuary?

Yael asks that I invite those of you who are interested to attend the first Tefillin to Toratah, (Her Torah) to join us on Sunday at 1pm EST.

Shavua Tov – May you have a blessed week


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