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A Tale of Two Tefillin Bags
A microcosm of greater religious differences
At 18 years old, I was trying to justify why the charedi approach to Judaism was correct and the dati-leumi approach was wrong. One of my justifications involved tefillin bags.
Charedi tefillin bags are velvet with gold embroidery. They are designed to be a thing of beauty, honoring their contents. Meanwhile, in the dati-leumi community, they had come up with a new type of tefillin bag. It was a hard plastic container covered in canvas and featuring a shoulder strap. It was rugged, waterproof, thermally insulated, and practical, but it was “gear.” To my mind, this clearly showed that the dati-leumi community just didn’t have the proper respect for Judaism.
Fast forward thirty years, and considerable evolution on my part. Today I took my son to start his first year in Yeshivat Hesder, and looking at how his tefillin bag differed from mine, I remembered how I used to feel about such things. And I realized that tefillin bags are a microcosm of the difference between the yeshivos that I went to, and the yeshivah he is attending.
Sure, the charedi yeshivos I attended had a more “sanctified” approach to Torah and Judaism. And it wasn’t just the tefillin bags. We dressed respectably in button-down shirts and wore jackets and hats, not the t-shirts that are worn in my son’s yeshiva (and which I must confess I dislike intensely). The goal above all others was achieving excellence in learning Gemara; in fact nothing else was at all important.
The eighty or so Hesder yeshivot, on the other hand, are not about learning Torah as a permanent end unto itself, as per recent innovations. They are about learning Torah and applying its ideology and laws to living a full Jewish life, as part of an entire sovereign nation of Jews, with all the responsibilities that this involves. The students spend a year and a half in yeshivah, then they enlist for a year and a half of army service, and then they return to yeshivah for another two years. After this (though some choose to extend their yeshivah studies or military service), they proceed to college and professional careers, supporting their families and enhancing the country’s economic health. (While their army service is shorter than standard, the nature and quality of their service means that the overall contribution of hesder yeshivos to the IDF is greater than the national average; they also produce some of the country’s most devoted and productive families.) Often they also include outreach/chessed programs; for example, my son’s yeshivah has an amazing program in which they help Bnei Menashe integrate into Israel.
The entrance to my son’s yeshivah has a mission statement about its vision and goals, and it states as follows (unfortunately my English translation is slightly awkward and does not properly capture the original):
…The yeshiva will instill in the student body and those who come through its gates the essential need to engage in the work of refining one’s character, in building a religious worldview and in creating a permanent and powerful connection to the Torah and its commandments. All these will be done in the yeshiva, with the building of desire, responsibility and tools for living in this way, for a lifetime of blessing….
The yeshiva will share responsibility for the entire nation, and plant this in the hearts of its students. This responsibility includes sharing the burden with the public in all ways of life, in Torah study and military service, and revealing the values of love for the nation, its country and its Torah, which reside in the public's heart.
The charedi yeshivos that I learned in were exclusively about personal spiritual growth and personal intellectual growth in Torah study, preferably for one’s entire lifetime. They were all about detachment from wider society and essentially taught selfishness. When the financial support of others enables you to spend your entire life in the comfort and security of the Beis HaMidrash and you don’t need to think or care about national responsibilities, the only requirement for your tefillin bag is to be beautiful.
Contrast that to the hesder yeshivot. These are spiritually training young men to be part of the wider world - and to give to the nation at the highest levels. The tefillin bags are designed to be used under all kinds of conditions, because that’s where the young men will find themselves. Holding on to this tiny precious homeland of ours takes a lot of work, commitment and sacrifice, and it’s the young men in hesder who take on that responsibility.
I must confess that while the benefits of the hesder program are immense in terms of personal growth and development, I’m extremely nervous about my son’s future enlistment; serving in the IDF includes both spiritual and physical risks. But I couldn’t be prouder of the path that he is on.
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