The mitzvah of Tefilin is mentioned in this week's parsha, Parshat V'etchanan. In Perek ו, pasuk ח, the Torah says:
וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ
And you should bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they should be for frontlets between your eyes.
Clearly, this is a mitzvah from the Torah. However, there were times when people did not necessarily consistently wear tefilin.
In Masekhet Shabbat, daf 49a, Tosfot quote a Midrash that raises the question - how could people not fulfill this Mitzvah from the Torah?
“Tefilin – mipenei ma lo hecheziku ba-hen,” literally: “Tefilin – why did people not hold on to them?”
Tosfot seem to indicate that the Midrash is questioning how people were negligent in this mitzvah. There is a Gemara in Shabbat, daf 130a, where Chazal indicate that people were not fulfilling their obligation to wear tefilin regularly. Perhaps this Midrash is going to explain this question. However, the answer of the Midrash seems to suggest a different question being asked:
The Midrash's answer (cited by Tosfot) to the question why people did not hold on to them, is: “Because of the deceivers.”
This would be a cryptic and unclear explanation. Why would being a deceiver prevent people from donning their tefilin?
Tosfot offers a different understanding of the Midrash's question based on the Ri. The Ri understands the question to be:
“Why do we not presume the trustworthiness of people who wear tefilin?” People who faithfully observe this mitzva should, in principle, be presumed to conduct their affairs honestly and speak the truth.
The Midrash's answer in this context is clear: "Because of the deceivers." We cannot assume that someone is pious simply because they wear tefilin. Some people wear tefilin, giving an appearance of piety and earn the trust of others. The Ri supports this from a story in the Yerushalmi (Brachot, 2:4). There was a person who asked another to guard his expensive object. The person watching it claimed that it was never entrusted to him to watch. The owner said, "It was not you whom I trusted, but, instead what you had on your head (tefilin)." The owner felt he could trust this person because there was clearly a strict observance of the mitzva of tefilin. In some way, wearing tefilin apparently serves as a measure of one's trustworthiness and honesty.
Rav Avraham Pam, z"l, meantions that the presence of tefilin on the body presumably was taken to serve to raise a person to a higher standard. This p'eir, this glory or crown of tefilin, somehow demonstrated that person who is so committed to this mitzvah, with the fundamentals of mitzvot within, would be committed at least to the fundamental standards of honesty, integrity and trustworthiness..
However, the Midrash is explaining that there are deceivers. There are those who abuse the privilege of wearing tefilin to mask themselves as people who externally, live a Torah life. These presumptions, says the Midrash, cannot be made.
Yet, the question as to why people were refraining from wearing tefilin, has yet to be answered:
Rav Pam answers that the Sefer HaChinukh (mitzva 220), observed that many people did not wear tefilin during his time because they felt unworthy. Because they felt they did not feel they had a guf naki (a clean body). But, people made the mistake of thinking that guf naki was a spiritual uncleanliness. People therefore did not feel up to the religious standard where they were worthy of wearing tefilin.
The Sefer HaChinukh in fact encouraged others to be mindful of this mitzvah, to wear tefilin and allow it to inspire them to higher service of Hashem and mitzvah observance. The Chinuch cites the Yerushalmi and mentions that this Gemara was not intended to discourage people from wearing tefilin. Rather, to express that people should not be religiously hypocritical. People should specifically wear tefilin to strive for a life of values and honesty - to be on the inside what is seemingly there on the outside.
Today, many are involved in wearing tefilin during the weekdays - daily. Be it tefilin or any mitzvah where there is an external performance associated with the mitzvah, we must remember the purpose of these mitzvot: It is not merely the act itself. Instead, it is to allow these mitzvot to inspire us to become our best selves instead of masking or covering up for immoral behavior.
As we begin the shiva d'n'chemta (the 7 weeks between Tisha b'Av and Rosh Hashana), where Hashem comforts us for the loss of the Beit haMikdash, let us remind ourselves that the nechama comes when we accept that the loss of the Temple was not due to the way we offered our sacrifices or the external daily practices. It was the way we behaved to each other. How there was a failure in engagment or connection with Hashem and a pursuit of God with genuine faithfulness. The challenge of religious observance is not merely the observance of the act of the mitzvah. Rather, it is to consider what these mitzvot are in place for. HaKadosh Baruch Hu teaches us that Hashem is One and that there is a funadmental value of Kavod haBriyot long before the mitzvot are put into place. Mitzvot, such as tefillin, serve its role by reminding us that we should live an existence infused with Torah values not merely in the specific act, but to conduct ourselves with moral and respectful behavior: To speak and act in an ethical and respectful way. The importance of the guf naki for donning tefilin, is to allow a person to place oneself in a respectful state in order to perform a mitzvah, which in turn, raises one's ethical standards of respect, dignity, honesty and ceasing from denigrating or diminishing another. Remember: The beauty of the tefilin is what is inside. The beauty of the person is not necessarily all they do to appear religious on the outside. It is one's internal state of being which, when done properly, will bring out the best representation of Hashem's glory.