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Coming of Age: Parashat Ki Tetzei

Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow’s Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah


Parashat Ki Tetzei

By: Rabbi Moshe Krupka


Ahavat Hashem is a foundation of Yiddishkeit and especially meaningful for boys reaching the pivotal age of bar mitzvah, when a young man becomes responsible for everything he does.

Parashat Ki Tetzei begins, “When you go out to war against your enemies….”

The Midrash describes how Moshe Rabbenu drafted the most righteous Jewish citizens into the Jewish army as they prepared to do battle with Midyan.

“Twelve thousand went to war with Midyan, none of whom placed their tefillin shel rosh before their tefillin shel yad” (Shir Ha-Shirim Rabbah 4:3).

This explanation seems perplexing. Could tefillin be the litmus test utilized in choosing the most appropriate warriors? Why is knowing that the shel yad is put on prior to the shel rosh significant? Why would this determine whether or not a soldier was fit to serve in the Jewish army?

To answer this question, we must understand the deeper meanings of tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh. The tefillin shel rosh sit on a person’s head. They represent the brain, the human mind, the power to think and understand intellectually. Tefillin shel yad, on the other hand, sit on the forearm, facing the heart. They represent human emotion, the ability to feel and love. The tefillin shel yad are symbolic of the love and closeness we should feel for Hashem.

Thinking, learning, and understanding are all very important. But even more essential is the heart. Even more essential is Ahavat Hashem. Loving, fearing, and feeling close to Hashem are what lead a person to righteousness.

Similarly, consider the yom tov of Sukkot. There is the mitzvah of sitting in the sukkah. However, what is the central theme of Sukkot? The Torah states, “ve-samachta be-chagecha—You shall rejoice on your festival.” Sukkot is not just about physically sitting in the sukkah. It is about how we feel when we fulfill the mitzvah. Are we simultaneously fulfilling “ve-samachta bechagecha”? Do we enjoy serving Hashem?

This is what the tefillin shel yad represent year-round. It is one thing to simply do the mitzvot. But there is another, significant level: feeling affection and devotion to Hashem.

As a bar mitzvah boy who has just begun to put on tefillin, this is a very valuable lesson for you. While it is vitally important for you to learn Hashem’s Torah and to develop your mind to its fullest potential, it is even more important that you remember the lesson of the midrash in Shir Ha-Shirim, the message of the tefillin shel yad. In order to genuinely serve Hashem, it is insufficient to only learn about His laws and commandments. You must also develop a love for Hashem, a love for His Torah, a love for His mitzvot. This is the key to righteousness.

If you want to enlist in the army of Hashem and be an honorable Jew who is fit for God’s Legion, you should always study Hashem’s Torah and observe His mitzvot. But in order to truly excel and grow, to serve Hashem in a meaningful way, you need Ahavat Hashem, feeling love and spiritual closeness to Ha-Kadosh Baruch Hu.