(Tefillin illustration from Wikimedia Commons)
Thus says the LORD: In a time of favor I have answered you, on a day of salvation I have helped you; I have kept you and given you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages; saying to the prisoners, "Come out," to those who are in darkness, "Show yourselves." They shall feed along the ways, on all the bare heights shall be their pasture; they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them down, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. And I will turn all my mountains into a road, and my highways shall be raised up. Lo, these shall come from far away, and lo, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene. Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.
But Zion said, "The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me. " Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.
Sunday, I ended up being impromptu lector, as our scheduled lector was absent. The reading from Isaiah was the one that stuck in my mind after church, partially because my ears always perk up when hands are involved, and partially because of what I know about the Jewish practice of laying tefillin.
Tefillin, or phylacteries, consist of Torah inscribed on parchment and bound to a long leather strip, typically just under three feet long, and its accompanying leather box. It is common for observant Jews to lay tefillin on their head and arm because of the instructions in Deuteronomy 6:4-9:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
This commandment is also the primary prayer of Judaism, the Shema.
Our tendency, when we hear the Isaiah reading with the mind of a 21st century Christian, is to think about tattoos. However, at the time Isaiah was written, tattoos were a definite no-no, forbidden in Leviticus. More than likely, the passage was alluding to tefillin.
It's important to remember that the shape of the wrappings on the hand makes the Hebrew letter shin, which often represents Shaddai, one of the Hebrew names for God. The inscribed part of the tefillin touches the skin, so some of it would be touching the palm.
So, on humans who have laid tefillin, it is essentially a representation of God, with God's words touching our hand.
But our visual flips it over--we are treated to a glimpse of God's hand, with us lying against his palm, wrapped in a shape that represents humankind. In other words, God's "prayers," as it were, require us. It requires our presence.
Our passage at the top of the page opens up another realm of possibility; namely, that when we are in prayer, we are being laid upon God's hand and arm as a "holy thing.'
The other thing that stands out for me is when we are given human imagery for God in the Bible, we are treated to many images of God's head--ears, eyes, mouth--and hands--but when the word "heart" is mentioned, it is generally a statement about OUR heart. When devout Jews lay tefillin, it does not cover the heart--just the head and the shoulders and the arm. We are given glimpses of God's emotions--pleasure, joy, wrath, anger--but when it comes to statements about the heart in the Bible, it is about the hearts of humankind.
It gives me the impression that God's intention in this divine/human relational dynamic is for us to have free, unbound hearts in following God.
Our imagery in romance is to "steal someone's heart." Of course, we know, ultimately, hearts can't be stolen, they can only be given. It seems this is an innate aspect of our relational state with God. God's desire is for us to freely give our hearts--even to the point of leaving them unbound. It's interesting we call this "free will"--which implies the mind--but what we are really talking about is "free heart."
I like this image, as we speed towards Lent, that part of my preparation is to understand this relationship of each of us, inscribed on God's hand, as holy a thing as a strip of tefillin. All of us together, inscribed on it, yet with our own hearts free to turn.
Where will our hearts turn in this holy season, as we ponder how we are to be God's hands in this broken world? I certainly don't know, but the prospect is exciting!