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Parashat Bo 5774 — 01/01/2014

Parashat Bo 5774 — 01/01/2014

So that Hashem’s Torah will be in your mouth… (Shemos 13:9)

There is a well-known teaching of our Sages that men who do not fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin are called “Jews who transgress with their [entire] body.” Indeed, tefillin testify that Hashem created the world and freed our nation from Egypt. In this mitzvah is included all of the basic tenets of the Jewish faith [so to refrain from wearing them is a very grave sin]. Yet, the Torah reveals that the main intent of this mitzvah is actually something else: so that Hashem’s Torah will be in your mouth. That is, tefillin are the prerequisite for Torah, and without them, there is no Torah. Unless a man wears tefillin, he cannot possess Torah. This shows us that Torah stands at the highest level of all, for even the mitzvah that includes all of the basic tenets of the Jewish faith is only preparation for Torah.  (Chafetz Chaim)

[…when the Kohen looks at any part of his body [and sees his special vestments] he will be immediately reminded and his heart will be awakened to the One before Whom he serves…] and this is similar to t’fillin, which every [man] is commanded to place on part of his body to be a reminder that his thoughts should only be appropriate thoughts. (Sefer haChinuch, Mitzvah 99 [vol. 2, p.255 in the Artscroll edition]

Clothes make the man.  Naked people have little or no influence in society.  (Mark Twain)

Both the arm- and the head-t’fillin have four passages; the first two paragraphs of the Sh’ma and the two paragraphs from our Parashah beginning with Sanctify every bechor to Me… (13:1-10 and 13:11-16).  The first two passages are of course recited at least twice a day with the recitation of the Sh’ma.  The second two are recited in the morning when the t’fillin are put on prior to the Shacharit service.  The third paragraph of the Sh’ma contains a commandment relating to another piece of clothing – the ritual fringes (tzitzit) that one places on any four-cornered garment – and the reason for it is similar to that highlighted by the Chafetz Chaim: you will see them and remember all My commandments and do them… .

Torah uses all kind of cues and clues to keep a few fundmental truths in our awareness at all times.  Articles of clothing are of course an obvious choice, since we all wear clothes the whole time we are awake.  Our awareness is easily drawn to our clothes, especially if the item is unusual, or does not fulfill the usual purpose of clothing (covering of nakedness and protection from the elements).  Why am I wearing this?  Oh, that’s right…

What is it that all these reminders are reminding us of?  The verse that the Chafetz Chaim highlights says that we wear t’fillin so that Hashem’s Torah will be in your mouth.  What does this mean?  On the surface, the traditional way Torah is taught and learned is orally.  And we are especially enjoined to keep our speech pure when we are wearing t’fillin.  This, in fact, is one of the reasons that nowadays we wear t’fillin only during the morning prayer service, where we are supposed to be using our mouth only for prayer.  In Talmudic times t’fillin were worn all day, and could therefore actually serve as a reminder at times when a reminder was presumably much more necessary than during prayer times.But deeper than speech is thought.  If we want to control our speech, we first have to be masters of our thoughts.  If our thoughts are running in every direction constantly, it will be hard for us to focus on what we want to do or say, and the results we want are not likely to be there.  We have all had days like that, when we’re under stress or just overtired.  At such times, sometimes a gentle reminder is enough for us to gather our thoughts and continue moving forward.  This is one of the purposes of t’fillin, tzitzit and the like.  In the case of t’fillin specifically, when we are wearing them, it is a requirement that we keep our attention on them at all times.  While this does not seem so terribly difficult for the hour or so that we are davvenning Shacharit, when our awareness is in any event focused on the dimension of spirituality, it is a bit harder to imagine that one could be functioning in the mundane world, buying, selling, driving, negotiating, while at the same time having the awareness on the t’fillin and all their connotations.  I’d like to return to this point in a just a bit.

Just as physical objects are based on subtler levels of existence – molecular, atomic, subatomic, etc., each of which is more powerful (energetic) than the previous one, so our thoughts have subtler and subtler layers, layers that are more and more powerful, beneath them.  And just as many physicists believe that underlying all physical phenomena there is a single unified field from which all physical phenomena arise, so there is a unified level of pure existence that underlies all the mental phenomena we experience.  Since this “unified field” is the basis of thought, by tracing our thoughts back through their subtle layers we can eventually go beyond any specific thought and experience this infinite level of existence directly.  I believe that this is another level of Hashem’s Torah will be in your mouth.  Torah is described as the blueprint of creation (Hashem looked into the Torah and created the world – Zohar); having Torah “in one’s mouth” would mean having direct, experiential contact with the basic level of creation, in which all matter, energy and the laws of nature themselves are structured.

However, the verse does not say that Hashem’s Torah should be in our heart, or our mind, or our awareness or our thoughts.  The verse specifies that Hashem’s Torah is supposed to be in our mouth – i.e. associated with speech, the most expressed aspect of thought.  In other words, the goal of t’fillin, indeed of all Jewish practice, is to train the mind to maintain awareness of both its infinite basis and its manifold expressions at the same time.  Thus we have the halachah that we must maintain our awareness on the t’fillin constantly.  The t’fillin represent the infinite, and everything else we are doing is finite.  The halachah challenges us to meld the infinite into the finite, to use the finite to reflect the perfection of the infinite, to bring Gd out of His hiding place so that we can all enjoy His glorious radiance.  The fact that we no longer wear t’fillin all day is indicative of how far we have to go to meet this ideal.  Nevertheless, we have plenty of tools to help us in our growth – there are 613 mitzvot in Torah and they all play a role in training us to become ideal people.  We just have to use the tools we have been given!

Shemoneh Esrei

On the righteous and on the pious, and on the Elders of Your people the House of Israel,

And on the remnants of the scholars and on the righteous converts,

And on us, may Your mercies be aroused Hashem our Gd,

And grant a goodly recompense to all who truly trust in Your Name,

And grant our portion with them forever,

And may we never be humiliated for we trust in You.

Blessed are You Hashem, the staff and the trust of the righteous.

Yaaros D’vash comments on this b’rachah that we should pray for the welfare of the tzaddikim (righteous) because it is through them that Gd’s blessings can flow into creation and sustain it.  We have a famous idea that there are always 36 righteous men in the world and it is in their merit that the world is sustained and continues to function.  What is a tzaddik?  Righteousness means that everything is in order; every action a tzaddik performs increases both the level of complexisty/sophistication and the level of order in the Universe.  The tzaddik is able to maintain the perfect order of the transcendental level of his own existence in his awareness, all the while participating in the mundane activities of the world.  When we pray for the welfare of the tzaddikim, we are essentially asking Gd to help us join their ranks!  I find it a refreshing contrast with the previous b’rachah against the slanderers.  May Gd help us rise from the level where our actions are destructive to order and diminish Gd’s radiance in the world, to one where everything we do creates harmony on all levels of creation.