Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Taking the Tefillin Test
"Hear, O Israel, Hashem is our G-d; Hashem,
the One and Only... And these words, that I
command you today, shall be upon your
heart... Bind them as a sign upon your arm,
and let them be a 'totafos' between your eyes."
One of the Jew's most basic expressions of faith is reading the
Shema twice daily, once when we rise, and once before we lay down.
The Shema, then, is apparently not the place for "fringe" mitzvos or
time-specific messages. Rather, one would rightly assume that each
word of the Shema contains some timeless lesson and fundamental
aspect of Judaism. Why, then, does the verse stress that, "these
words, that I command you today, shall be upon your heart?" And
in what way is the donning of tefillin such a basic tenet of Judaism -
to the extent that it merits appearing twice in the Shema, once here,
and once in the second parsha (section)? [Devarim 11:18]
Rashi comments on the words, "that I command you today,":
"They [the mitzvos] should not be in your eyes
like an old statute, which has ceased to have
meaning and importance. Rather, they should
be like a new law - which everyone is anxious
to study and perform."
"Today" in the verse does not refer to the day on which the parsha
(section) of the Shema was given. After all, the process of giving the
Torah had been an ongoing project over the past forty years. Rather,
it implies that whenever we approach a mitzvah, we should do so
with the same interest and enthusiasm we would have if it had been
given that very day.
Even without foreknowledge, it's not difficult to pick out a just-turned
bar mitzvah bachur putting on tefillin for one of his first times. Just
look at the reverence with which he removes the tefillin from their
sack, and the time he takes to slowly and lovingly unravel the straps.
Observe the look of anticipation and trepidation on his face, as he
places the tefillin shel-yad carefully on his arm, making sure to find
just the right place. Notice the way he gazes into his siddur and
locates the berachos [blessings], which he then recites slowly and
with great concentration. Watch how long he lingers over his shel-
rosh, making sure it sits in just the right place. And when he's
finished davening, see how carefully and painstakingly he packs his
tefillin away, taking care that when he takes them out tomorrow, he
will find them just as he left them.
Contrast this to how most of us look when we put on our tefillin.
How quickly do we murmur the "Hineni mechaven..." [declaration of
intent] prayer? How briskly do we wind the retzuos (straps) around
our arms? Oh, and are you sure you made the berachah, "Al mitzvas
tefillin?" [I speak here from experience...]
Tefillin, by nature of its being a day-in-day-out mitzvah, is likely to fall
prey to the apathetic, ho-hum type of performance that the Torah is
warning against in its admonition, "And these words, that I command
you today, shall be upon your heart." Unlike lulav and esrog, which
come only once a year, or even Shabbos which comes only once a
week, tefillin is a true litmus-test with which to judge the extent that
our service of Hashem and mitzvah performance has become
"mitzvas anashim mi-lumada [performance by rote]."
Perhaps this is one reason (of which there are many) that tefillin
belongs in the Shema. If "freshness" and vigour are a fundamental
aspect of our avodah (service of Hashem), then there is no better
way to judge ourselves than by examining the forethought and
excitement with which we put on our tefillin daily.
The Bobover Rebbe zt"l once met up with a
certain doctor to whom the Rebbe often referred
petitioners who came to seek his advice and
blessings. The Rebbe questioned him as to his
success rate with a certain procedure. "Rebbe,"
the doctor said, "I've done that procedure so
many times - I could do it with my eyes closed!"
The Rebbe smiled.
After they parted ways, the Rebbe turned to his
son and said, "Believe me; I've donned my
tefillin far more times than the doctor has
performed his procedure, yet I can say, Baruch
Hashem, that I could not do it with my eyes
closed! To the contrary - every day when I take
out my tefillin, I try to don them with the same
excitement and anticipation I had the very first
time I put them on."
Anyone who ever had the occasion to observe the Rebbe zt"l lay
tefillin would attest that this was no exaggeration. Each and every
morning, at exactly 7:50, the Rebbe would enter the Beis HaMidrash
and begin putting on tallis and tefillin. The Rebbe zt"l donned tefillin
over 20,000 times in his life. Yet every day, he did so with the
freshness and pure anticipation of one who was doing so for the very
first time. Seeing this was greater than any mussar sefer.
While the calendar-based mitzvos each carry with them their own
excitement and anticipation, it is the enthusiasm with which we
perform our daily mitzvos - tzitzis, tefillin, birkas hamazon, tefilah,
etc. - which truly indicate how close we are to reaching the ideal of
"that I command you today."
Have a good Shabbos.
****** This week's publication has been sponsored by
Mrs. Pauline Rubinstein, in memory of her mother Elka
bas R' Pinchas HaLevi, and in memory of her father
Binyamin Ze'ev ben R' Hirsch Tzvi HaLevi. ******
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.