By Yochanan Gordon
With hearts overflowing with joy and gladness, this week we celebrated the hanachas tefillin of our second son, Yehuda. Oftentimes, when the Torah enumerates the children of a biblical figure, in a case where there are more than one it states: “shem ha’echad, v’shem ha’echad,” designating each of the children as number one. Similarly, when I say “our second son” I mean only chronologically and not, G-d forbid, as a rating system, as each of our children is truly number one in his or her unique way.
We decided to observe this momentous occasion in shul at Khal Mevakshei Hashem, joined by friends, family, and some of Yehuda’s seventh-grade classmates from Yeshiva Darchei Torah. We also merited the participation of our esteemed rav who greeted our family and our son very warmly, offering encouragement and a proper perspective on transitioning to this next stage in his life as he heads towards his bar mitzvah in just two months. The truth is, we hadn’t lent much thought to how we were going to mark this celebration until it was literally upon us. In most instances it is an occasion marked at yeshiva, in the company of rebbeim and classmates, with the boy handing out doughnuts, and perhaps some mashkeh to those over the drinking age, in celebration of his step toward manhood and obligation in mitzvos. In this instance, however, with Yehuda having prepared a ma’amar, which is traditionally recited by boys putting on tefillin for the first time as well as by the bar mitzvah, I wanted the family to be present at the event and so we decided to do it in shul with a breakfast rather than the customary doughnuts.
The ma’amar is a chassidic discourse attributed to the Tzemach Tzedek that was recited first by the Rebbe Maharash on the occasion of his hanachas tefillin and bar mitzvah and subsequently by Chabad bar mitzvah bachurim through the ages. The minhag for many generations has been for the bachur to recite the discourse by heart, and while I am sure that is still done in certain circles, it seems that it has become more prevalent, or at least accepted, to read from the text, due to the weakening memories of these times prior to the coming of Mashiach.
I must admit that I didn’t recite a ma’amar for my hanachas tefillin. In all honesty, at my hanachas tefillin and bar mitzvah, despite a keen awareness of my family pedigree, I did not know what a ma’amar was. It wasn’t too far down the road before I would be exposed to chassidus and the light of the Ba’al Shem Tov, a light that was revealed in the 16th century but feels as if it was unveiled with specifically our generation in mind.
This particular ma’amar begins by citing a midrash on Sefer Tehillim on the verse: “He tells his words to Jacob; His statutes and His laws to Israel, which He hadn’t done for any other nation and His laws He had not made known to them, Hallelukah.” The ma’amar opens with a plea from the Jewish people before Hashem: “We want to learn Torah day and night but we do not have the time. The Eibershter answers: “Fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin and I will consider you as having learned Torah day and night.” The rest of the ma’amar, which is a rather difficult one considering that it is the bar mitzvah bachur’s first official foray into the world of chassidus, launches into an analysis of the unity that is experienced through one’s study of Torah and how the fulfillment of the mitzvah of tefillin accomplishes the same thing as Torah, to the point where it can take its place. At the end, while tefillin does in fact accomplish what Torah accomplishes, there still seems to be an advantage of Torah over tefillin, but with no other recourse it does the job.
Having mentioned the difficulty in this first ma’amar, I want to contrast it with the pshet’l that is customarily recited by Litvishe bar mitzvah bachurim. The clear distinction, it seems, between the recitation of the ma’amar and the pshet’l is in the desired outcome. In the pshet’l the objective is for the bar mitzvah bachur to understand, albeit on his limited level, the exposition that was laid out in honor of his ascendancy into the world of mitzvah observance. The objective of a Chabad bar mitzvah bachur in reciting the ma’amar is to invoke the merit of all the rebbeim who recited this ma’amar before him and to further connect his soul with theirs by carrying the tradition forward.
Chassidus is also known as divrei Elokim chayim, the words of the living G-d, because the Torah being conveyed is not seen as being generated by someone who sees himself as autonomous to G-d, but rather a Divine chariot who is completely nullified to the messages that run through him as a conduit between Hashem and the people. The more a person can nullify himself in the process of transmitting Torah, the more accurate the message will be and the impact that it will have.
A chassid once lamented to the Tzemach Tzedek that he had no desire to learn Torah, making it very difficult for him to do so. The Tzemach Tzedek famously answered: “What should I do, that I do have a desire to learn?”
The Rebbe was saying that if you could bring yourself to learn without having a desire you would have achieved the optimal level in Torah study. I, however, who learn with a desire could arguably be doing so in fulfillment of the desire and not altruistically. Traditionally, the first parashah that a child learning Chumash is meant to learn is Vayikra. Nowadays, it seems we know better and therefore the rebbeim will teach the first verse of Vayikra and move on with Bereishis. The rationale in teaching a five-year-old Vayikra is that we are conveying to them that whatever you understand, you really don’t understand. Said differently, the message we are conveying is that the important thing isn’t how much you understand, but how deeply you can connect.
Because we have shifted the focus, for so long, on comprehension and intellect, very little credence is given to connecting through recitation of the words alone. There is a famous aphorism that seems to have its origins in the African Methodist Church, which I recall hearing in my youth, and that is, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me.”
The Sefer Yetzirah, which is the first recorded sefer of Kabbalah, attributed to Avraham Avinu, writes: “Two stones build two houses, three stones build six,” and so on. Stones, in this context, are referring to letters of the aleph-bet and the ability of each letter to construct full edifices. Clearly, this delivers a vastly different message in the ability of words of Torah to construct full houses.
In putting the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash into larger perspective Chazal state, “G-d took out his wrath on wood and stones.” It seems that stones can build, and they can also be destroyed.
The only entity that will continue to live on for eternity is the Jewish people—not on account of any individual achievement but in our ability to connect ourselves to the tzaddikim throughout all the generations by simply reciting their words, which come directly from G-d. Words that nobody can say they truly understand. Those are words that build.
Yochanan Gordon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more of Yochanan’s articles at 5TJT.com.