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Torah Attitude: Parashas Eikev: Shema and tefillin
Throughout the generations Jews have accepted upon themselves the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom with the first portion of the Shema. At the same time that G'd instructed Moses to write the commandment of tefillin in the Written Torah, He explained to him verbally what should be written in them and how the tefillin should be constructed. "Whoever recites Shema without putting on tefillin is like someone giving false evidence." There is a beautiful prayer one says prior to putting on the tefillin that describes the various thoughts a person should have in mind when he fulfills this commandment. It is possible that the reason why the Written Law requires the tefillin to be placed on the "hand" and "between the eyes" is to remind us that it is not sufficient to be good Jews in our hearts and brains. There were times when some preachers taught that unless people were scrupulous in their observance of all the commandments, they could not allow themselves to put on tefillin. The Rabbi smiled and said, "With these hands that you just blessed the congregation, how can you go and desecrate the laws of Yom Tov?" "The one who fulfills the mitzvah of tefillin will eventually fulfill the whole Torah."
Yoke of Heavenly Kingdom
In last week's Parasha, we read the first paragraph of Shema, and in this week's Parasha we are going to read the second paragraph. Throughout the generations, Jews have accepted upon themselves the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom when they said the first paragraph. And when they were pushed to the brink they would sanctify G'd's name and give up their life with the Shema on their lips. The Mishnah (Berachot 13a) explains that this is why this paragraph is recited before the second one in which we accept the yoke of the commandments.
Oral Torah & Tefillin
A number of laws are mentioned in both paragraphs. Last week we discussed the obligation to serve G'd out of love. This week we will talk about the commandment of putting on tefillin. It says (Devarim 6:8): "And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be ornaments between your eyes." This is a classic example of how it is impossible to understand the exact meaning of the words of the Written Torah without having the explanations of the Oral Torah as contained in the Talmud. At the same time that G'd instructed Moses to write this commandment in the Written Torah, He explained to him verbally what should be written in the tefillin and how the tefillin should be constructed. The Talmud further explains that the place mentioned in the Torah where to put the tefillin is not to be understood literally. The tefillin of the hand must be put on the upper part of the arm. And the tefillin of the head must be put on top of the hair line, in the middle of the head above "between the eyes". We do not require proof of the authenticity of the Oral Law. Nevertheless, it is fascinating that the famous finding of the Dead Sea Scrolls included the discovery of ancient pairs of tefillin written thousands of years ago, conforming to the exact specifications described in the Talmud.
Shema & Tefillin
There is a strong connection between the recital of Shema and fulfilling the obligation of putting on tefillin. As the Talmud (Berachot 14b) says: "Whoever recites Shema without putting on tefillin is like someone giving false testimony." The Talmud is obviously referring to the fact that the commandment of tefillin is mentioned in the first two paragraphs of the Shema. To recite the Shema without putting on tefillin is as if one is accepting the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom in theory but in practice his conduct contradicts the truth of what he is saying.
Subjugate our hearts and minds
There is a beautiful prayer one says prior to putting on the tefillin that describes the various thoughts a person should have in mind when he fulfills this commandment. In this prayer, we mention how the four paragraphs that are contained in the tefillin describe the oneness of G'd and mention the exodus from Egypt. This is turn brings to our mind the sovereign power and ability of G'd in every part of the universe. The fact that we put tefillin on our arms reminds us of G'd's outstretched arm at the time of the exodus from Egypt. Additionally, we express in this prayer that the reason that we are required to place it close to the heart is to subjugate the desires and thoughts of our hearts to the service of G'd. And the tefillin on our heads is close to the brain to subjugate our senses and abilities to G'd's service. The Kabbalists explain that the four scrolls of parchment in the tefillin on the arm correspond to the four senses of the body. The Talmud (Berachos 61a) teaches that there are three intellectual senses that are connected to the heart, the kidneys and the spleen, and one physical sense of touch of the hands. Although there are four senses, outwardly we do not see them as separate. Therefore, these four scrolls are all put inside one box. In the tefillin on the head, they are each separate in their own box, as they correspond to the four senses of the head, the senses of the eyes, ears, nose and mouth, that are clearly separate (see Ruach Chaim 2:1 note 3).
Not sufficient hearts & brains
It is possible that the reason why the Written Law says that the tefillin should be placed on the "hand" and "between the eyes" is to remind us that it is not sufficient to be good Jews in our hearts and brains. Accepting the yoke of the Heavenly Kingdom must affect every part of our being. We need to take special care to guard what our eyes see and watch, as we are strongly influenced by our vision. We must also take care that the act of our hands are subjugated and conform to the laws of the Torah in the practical fulfillment of the laws of the Torah both in our private life and business transactions.
The Jerusalem Talmud (Berachot 2:3) relates about a person who deposited a valuable cup with a guardian. After some time, when the owner came to collect his cup, the guardian denied ever having received it. The owner exclaimed, "But I trusted you because I saw you put on tefillin." Based on this story there were times when some preachers taught that unless people were scrupulous in their observance of all the commandments, they could not allow themselves to put on tefillin. Many people today feel in a similar way in regard to wearing tzitzis or a kippah. The Sefer HaChinuch (paragraph 421) writes that this attitude is totally wrong. These people are well-meaning, trying to make sure that people shall not be hypocrites, or even worse causing a desecration of G'd's name, by not being consistent in their observance. However, says the Chinuch, King Solomon already taught (Koheles 7:20): "There is no righteous person on earth who only does good and does not sin". Therefore, one should do whatever one is able to do to fulfill the commandments, and keep in mind what our sages promised us (Pirkei Avos 4:2) that the fulfillment of one commandment brings the next. Rabbeinu Bachayei (Kad Hakemach) adds to this that just like a person would not refrain from being called up to the Torah, one should not refrain from putting on tefillin or performing any other commandment, even if he is not yet on the level of performing all of the commandments.
The Rabbi & the Kohein
A certain gentleman once came to a synagogue and although he was a kohein and it was one of the Festivals, he did not want to join the other kohanim in blessing the congregation. The Rabbi quietly called him over and asked him why he did not want to participate. The kohein answered, "Rabbi, with these hands that I have desecrated the laws of Yom Tov, how can I bless the congregation?" The Rabbi replied, "My dear friend. Go and join the other Kohanim and come and speak to me after the service." When they met after the service, the Rabbi smiled and said, "With these hands that you just blessed the congregation, how can you go and desecrate the laws of Yom Tov?" This is how it is with every mitzvah in general. Rather than refraining from fulfilling a mitzvah because one is not yet ready to fulfill other mitzvoth, a person should start with what he can handle and then slowly add other mitzvoth, step by step, as one mitzvah leads to the next. And it is especially true regarding tefillin, as Rabbeinu Yonah writes in the beginning of his famous Letter of Teshuva: "The one who fulfills the mitzvah of tefillin will eventually fulfill the whole Torah."
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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