“Bind them as a sign upon your arm”
We recite this verse daily as part of the Shema. We generally assume that this means that men wearing tefillin on their arms serves as a sign of committing one’s actions to serving God. Now it might also mean that wearing tefillin is a sign of improved cardiac health.
A pilot study by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine found that regular users of tefillin, or phylacteries, may receive cardiovascular health benefits though remote ischemic preconditioning — that is, briefly restricting blood flow and oxygen to the heart and then restoring it. The results of the study were published last month online in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology.
The study involved 20 Jewish men from the Greater Cincinnati area including nine who wore tefillin daily and 11 who did not. A leather strap is wrapped tightly around either the right or left arm for about half an hour during morning prayers six days a week, often tight enough to leave grooves in the skin for a few minutes after they are removed. They are not worn on Shabbat.
The researchers measured participants’ vital signs, drew blood for analysis of circulating cytokines and monocyte function and also measured blood flow in the dominant arm which is not wrapped with the tefillin. Blood flow was higher for men who wore tefillin daily and improved in all participants after wearing it just once as part of the study.
Here again we have evidence that religion can be good for the body, as well as the soul. But what do we do with statements in our tradition that there is no reward for mitzvot in this world (Kiddushin 39b)?
“Feel good religion” is a term used disparagingly to refer to religion that emphasizes its benefits to adherents, over the commitments and responsibilities contained therein. If there are observable physical, emotional, social and psychological benefits to Judaism, does that make us a “feel good religion”? I believe that “feel good religion” is a problem if the focus is exclusively on the ego, and feeling good is viewed as the ultimate goal of the religion. It’s a problem when religion is used to validate one’s lifestyle, regardless of one’s contributions and efforts at personal improvement and bettering the world. When the message one takes from religion is “everything you’re doing is fine” or “you don’t need to change a thing” – then that person is practicing a dangerous form of “feel good religion”; one that will not lead to goodness, let alone greatness.
However we are allowed- even encouraged- to feel good when we are pushing ourselves to do mitzvot. We are allowed to feel proud when we have extended ourselves beyond our comfort zone to learn and to grow. It makes sense that a man who is motivated to put on tefillin daily could glean heart healthy benefits from this effort. This is especially true when it comes to Torah study. Rabbi Yosef Rosen (The Rogatchover Gaon) points out that the mitzvah of Talmud Torah is only fully realized when the one who studies benefits from the experience- not just intellectually but on a social-emotional level as well. This is reflected in Tehillim Chapter 19 (Artscroll Siddur pg 374) “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul……The orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart.”
This is how I understand Rashi’s first comment on Parshat Lech Lecha (12:1):
Go forth: לֶךְ לְךָ, go to you, for your benefit and for your good, and there I will make you into a great nation”
Avram would have answered God’s call to leave his homeland purely out of obedience. The Torah here is telling Avram, and us, that we are allowed to derive benefit and pleasure as a result of the effort expended on Mitzvot. In the World to Come we will benefit from reward/ pleasure that is absent any feelings of motivation and concern for what else needs to be done. But this world is for work, and through the effort we can, should, and will derive both spiritual and material benefits.