Excerpted from Dr. Mandell Ganchow Coming of Age: An Anthology of Divrei Torah for Bar and Bat Mitzvah
by Jack Prince, Ph.D.
You will forever associate this portion of the Torah with your bar mitzvah.
This parashah, which is always read on the Shabbat after Tishah be-Av, Shabbat Nachamu, contains material which speaks directly to the foundations of our faith. We find here the review of the Ten Commandments, originally
recorded in Parashat Yitro, as well as the first of the three paragraphs of the
Keri’at Shema, which we are commanded to recite twice daily, once in the
morning and again in the evening.
Within the Shema we find two references to the mitzvah of tefillin which you, as a new bar mitzvah, are now required to observe. In both the first portion of the Shema, which was read today, and the second portion, which we will read next week, Hashem commands Bnei Yisrael to “bind them as a sign upon your arm, and let them be ‘totafot’ between your eyes.” That Hashem saw fit to mention this mitzvah twice in the Shema suggests that this mitzvah carries with it a special message, a message which bears upon all the other mitzvoth that you are now required to observe.
Rashi may be guiding us to an understanding of this point when he comments on the phrase introducing the mitzvah of tefillin: “…that I command you today.” He explains, “The mitzvoth should not be in your eyes like an old statute which has ceased to have meaning and relevance. Rather, they should be like a new law which everyone is eager to learn and perform.”
The word “today” is not to be taken literally. It is unlikely that it refers to the day this parashah was given, since the giving of the Torah was an ongoing process for the 40 years our ancestors traveled through the desert. “Today” refers to any day that we approach the performance of a mitzvah. We should show the same interest and enthusiasm that we would display if, in fact, the mitzvah were first given to us on that day.
Anyone who has watched a young man put on his tefillin for the first time recognizes the care and enthusiasm with which he approaches the mitzvah. How he carefully removes the shel yad from the carrying case, reverently unwraps the strap, slips the shel yad on his arm, locating the correct spot on his muscle and, just before tightening it on his arm, recites the blessing with love and fervor. He then repeats the process while donning the shel rosh— carefully finding the right position above the forehead, making the berachah, tightening the straps around his head, and perhaps even checking the position with a mirror.
That level of care, devotion and love is the way we should approach the performance of every mitzvah, every day—just as we certainly would do if the Revelation at Sinai were repeated for us by Hashem every day. This is one of the lessons we can learn from the inclusion of the commandment to wear tefillin in the first two sections of Keri’at Shema.
There is, however, a second mitzvah that is repeated in these first two sections: the command to place a mezuzah on the right side of the doorway leading into one’s house and courtyard. The mezuzah contains the two sections of the Shema written on a piece of parchment. The combination of the mitzvoth of tefillin and mezuzah has a special message for you, and for all new bnei mitzvah.
How does a young man learn to fulfill the themes of the Shema—to love Hashem and accept His absolute sovereignty (the first paragraph), and to accept the obligation to perform all the other commandments (the second paragraph)?
The mitzvoth of tefillin and mezuzah suggest a two-part plan.
The mezuzah, which is affixed to the doorpost of your house, represents your environment: the influence of your family, your school, your friends. Your parents and grandparents provide the nurturing and the examples of how an observant ben Torah conducts himself. Your parents have raised you to understand and appreciate the responsibility that you must now accept and begin to fulfill.
But those lessons are just the beginning. You now include the influence of the tefillin, which represent your personal contribution to your own growth. The tefillin, which you bind to your arm near your heart, and which you place on your head, atop your brain, reflect your commitment of heart and mind to avodat Hashem.
We are confident that you will use the years of education that you have had and those that lie ahead to develop your talents and become a ben Torah, to maintain your link in the everlasting chain that connects us to our past and to our future, and to be a source of nachat to your family, friends and all of Israel.
Dr. Prince is a retired professor of physics (BCC, CUNY) residing in Boca Raton, Florida.