Pinchas: Rav Yaakov Yitzchak Ruderman: The Power of the Individual Part Two
It was taught, R. Simeon b. Gamaliel said: Every precept which they accepted with joy, e.g., circumcision, as it is written, “I rejoice at Your word, as one that find great spoil (Psalms 119:162),” they still observe with joy. While every precept which they accepted with displeasure, e.g., the forbidden degrees of consanguinity, as it is written, And Moses heard the people weeping throughout their families, [i.e.,] on account of the affairs of their families, they still perform them with strife, for there is no marriage settlement which does not contain a quarrel.
It was taught, R. Simeon b. Eleazar said: Every precept for which Israel submitted to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g.,idolatry and circumcision, is still held firmly in their minds. Whereas every precept for which Israel did not submit to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g., tefillin, is still weak in their hands. For R. Yannai said: Tefillin demand a pure body, like Elisha-the-man-of-the-wings. What does this mean?
Abaye said: That one must not pass wind while wearing them; Raba said: That one must not sleep in them. And why is he called ‘the man-of-the-wings’? Because the wicked State once proclaimed a decree against Israel that whoever donned tefillin should have his brains pierced through; yet Elisha put them on and went out into the streets. A quaestor saw him: he fled before him, and the latter gave pursuit. As he overtook him, he [Elisha] removed them from his head and held them in his hand, ‘What is that in your hand?’ he demanded, ‘The wings of a dove,’ was his reply. He stretched out his hand and the wings of a dove were found therein. Hence he is called ‘Elisha-the-man-of-the-wings.’ And why did he tell him the wings of a dove rather than that of other birds? Because the Congregation of Israel is likened to a dove, as it is said, as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her pinions with yellow gold: just as a dove is protected by its wings, so with the Israelites, their precepts protect them. (Shabbat 130a)
Tosafot comments that Elisha did not risk his life to wear Tefillin. Yet, even so, the merit of Elisha’s act lives on forever for all of Israel! This is the power of an individual.