He continued, adding that in Auschwitz there were no tefillin, until in 1943 a certain group of Hungarian Jews arrived. When he heard that they had a pair of tefillin, he began crossing the fence that separated him from them very early each morning to put on tefillin for a moment and say “Shema.”
“Let this deed not seem trivial to you,” he wrote in Diasporic Hebrew. “It was a very difficult thing to do, it was cold, and I stood the risk of missing the distribution of rations—and someone who missed receiving food for one day was in danger. Nevertheless, this was [serving God] ‘with all your means.’”
When I came home I wanted to hear more of the story. Was the fence electrified? It wasn’t every day that he opened up, and I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity.
“What was, was,” he said definitively. “That is all.”
“But wasn’t your life at risk?!” I said deviously. “Is it really permitted to risk your life in order to perform a mitzva?”
That already was a halakhic discussion. He responded.
“True. As soon as I saw that other Jews were copying me and waiting on line, I stopped.”
I took this story with me to every war. Before beginning a day of forced labor, a Jew goes and finds other Jews like him waiting at dawn on a long line to put on tefillin. Just so they would not have “a head without tefillin,” as the Talmud puts it. How then could I not be sure to put on tefillin every day?
Still, the Lebanon War came and, as luck would have it, my tefillin remained in the APC behind the lines with the rest of my equipment, while I was in the alleys of Baabda at the entrance to Beirut, part of the first battalion to arrive there. A few inquiries later a pair of tefillin was found for me, and I went to the side, dressed in tefillin and talit.
Suddenly an Arab couple appeared, a man and woman dressed in their finest. They drew closer, heading straight for me.
I pulled my gun out of the folds of the talit.
“Rifa ayadikum!” I ordered in Arabic. “Put your hands up!”
As they stood there opposite me, their hands aloft, the man made a gesture to his wife with his raised hand.
“Marati!” he exclaimed. “Yahudi.” “She is a Jew.”
“Prove it,” I countered. “What does it say inside this box?” as I pointed in the direction of my forehead.
“Shema Yisrael,” she answered, lowering one hand from above her head, covering her eyes, “Hashem elokeinu, Hashem echad.”
“Uchtei anta,” I said. “You are my sister.” Her eyes were moist. I think mine were, too.
I could feel my father standing there with me, and his fathers as well.
“How great tefillin are,” I thought. “They connect different worlds and different generations. If I hadn’t been wearing them, the lost daughter who married a Christian man might not have dared approach the enemy invaders. She might never have reconnected with her family in Bat Yam.” Now, as she told the story of her family members with whom she had lost contact when they departed for Israel, the connection was renewed.
One good deed leads to another. I don’t know what happened to that woman, but maybe, just maybe, her earth-shattering “Shema Yisrael,” together with the prayers for the safety of our soldiers, gave us the boost we needed in the ensuing battles.
I have a strange occupation: I attend funerals and memorial services. After a recent funeral, I had a dream in which my father appeared, waking me with his numbered hand.