A year ago this week, Chanie and I flew to New York with our son Mendy, where he began putting on tefillin for the first time in preparation for his bar mitzvah. In keeping with Chabad custom, a 12-year-old boy begins practicing to put on tefillin about two months prior to turning 13, and we decided that it would be most appropriate for Mendy to mark this occasion in the synagogue near the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, of righteous memory.
Joined by family and friends, Mendy proudly began the transition from little kid to young man. And as you all recall, he did a fabulous job at his bar mitzvah as well.
About a week after that, I was in Israel with Yudi and Dovi and we visited a place in the northern city of Tzefat called “Otzar Hastam.” In addition to housing an interactive exhibit all about Jewish scribal art, it is also home to several actual scribes, working throughout the day on writing Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzahs. (It is a fascinating place and I encourage anyone visiting Tzefat—or anywhere nearby—to include Otzar Hastam in your itinerary.)
Fast forward a year, and I was once again communicating with the director of Otzar Hastam, but this time it was to place a custom order for Yudi’s tefillin. Although his bar mitzvah is not for another 15 months, it is never too early to start planning.
As with any mitzvah in the Torah, tefillin requires action. Meaning, it isn’t enough to meditate and be inspired about its significance—which is sublimating our hearts and minds to G-d—but it needs to actually be done. You can’t just think about tefillin, you need to put them on your arm and head for it to count.
Interestingly, in this week’s Torah portion we are reminded of this concept as well, when we read about the commandment to build a Temple for G-d. It started out with a temporary sanctuary in the desert, and eventually a permanent structure was built in Jerusalem, where it stood for more than 800 years. The construction of the physical building was the first time the Jewish people experienced a sense of permanence in their spirituality.
Up to that point, everything seemed to be esoteric and far removed from practicality. Even being exposed to great revelations at Mount Sinai, hearing G-d’s voice and receiving the Torah, was not enough to turn the spirituality into a lasting inspiration. It took manual labor, donations, and then the daily service in the Temple, to ensure that G-dliness remains part of our lives.
That’s why Mount Sinai today has no real significance in Judaism. In fact, we aren’t even sure which mountain it was. But everyone knows where the Temple stood, and although it is no longer standing today, the location—Temple Mount—is still a holy site in Judaism. Because once the inspiration became attached to actual deed, it can never be removed.
That’s why, before anything else, introducing our children to the life of Jewish adulthood begins with planning for the daily mitzvah of tefillin. The party, the service, and all the other one-time commemorations associated with a bar mitzvah, are of much lesser significance.
Wishing you all a Shabbat shalom!
Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov