Thursday, February 25, 2010

Fifteen Minutes

Over the last few days, I attended a good friend's wedding in Denver, Colorado. Congratulations to the choson and kallah (groom and bride), that they should know only joy, and may their home be filled words of Torah and Chassidus, and children, at the right time.

A friend dropped me off at the Denver airport around 6am, for an 8am flight back to Milwaukee. Having cleared security, I found my way to the as yet empty terminal and turned to a Jew's morning obligations - t'filah (prayer) and teffillin.

Tefillin are specially hollowed out leather boxes, which contain scrolls of parchment on which are written several important passages from the Torah. The boxes are then connected to the arm and forehead through a proper arrangement of leather straps - thus unifying our heart, mind and actions in the service of G-d. Morning prayers are usually conducted while wearing tefillin. In ancient times, tefillin were sometimes worn throughout the day - at times, even into battle.

Unlike many commandments with a practical, rational purpose, such us ensuring social stability through basic expectations of civil behavior - don't kill, don't cheat in business, pay damages if you cause someone injury, etc. - wrapping tefillin defies the limited boundaries of reason and human intellect. Jewish mysticism explains precisely what wrapping tefillin accomplishes, healing rifts between the physical and spiritual, but these are intangibles that leave our rational selves asking, "why should we do so?" Most fundamentally, we wrap tefillin because a G-d that brought us out of slavery in Egypt "with a strong hand and an outstretched arm" and with miracles told us to.

So, it's been a while since I put on teffillin in an airport - seven or eight months to be imprecise - and in that time, there was an incident of a US Airways flight being diverted as a result of a Jewish teenager wrapping tefilling on the plane. Naturally, strapping black cords around your arms and head on a passenger jet flying 20,000 feet above the earth tends to draw a certain response, though it appears most of the passengers were unperturbed, and it was a vigilant flight attendant that informed the pilot, who brought the plane down out of an excess of caution.

It's the kind of story I follow closely, having myself experienced a guns-drawn takedown by overeager sheriff's deputies behind a Cracker Barrel restaurant at some middle-of-nowhere rest stop in Maryland, while driving back home to Milwaukee a couple of years back. More on that some other time.

So, here I am again, whipping out my tefillin (they're in the black velvet bag, above) in a highly secured area, in open defiance of history itself, almost taunting the pregnant mother of two boisterous little rugrats that parked herself in the isle across from mine to flag down the nearest security officer and...
Attention: If you notice unattended luggage or suspicious persons, please report this to the nearest airport security officer immediately.
Thank you, airport speaker system. I didn't feel uncomfortable enough, but now I'm almost there. There's nothing left to do, at this point, but keep praying, quickly, and hope you don't get shot. Focus.

The tension elevates my heart rate and body temperature. Oh, please no, don't sweat now! The last thing I need is a security guard to see is a sweaty bearded guy with a black strap wrapped around one arm leading to his hand, swaying and flapping around a book with the other. Maybe I can do with less swaying. Where was I? Oh yes. Focus.

On a good day, without a minyan (an assembly of ten men, which requires extra communal blessings) I can complete my morning prayers within half an hour. Of that half hour, around fifteen minutes are devoted to especially important prayers, the heart of the morning service, which cannot be interrupted under penalty of death - the Shema and Amidah. That's fifteen minutes of pure terror at the thought of someone walking up and asking you to explain what it is you're doing, which you can't do. Meanwhile, what don't you understand about "especially important prayers"? Shut up and focus!

I finished my prayers without interruption. The pregnant lady with children seemed undisturbed at what transpired. She didn't seem Jewish; one can usually tell such things, though not always. What was she thinking, watching me pray? If she was at all concerned, I couldn't detect it. Would I be so calm were the situation reversed, having to balance the lives of my children with my ignorance as the loudspeaker pleaded vigilance? It just so happens I really like children, and ended up playing with hers, later. Still, thank G-d that Americans are an incredibly tolerant people.

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