Wednesday, Jul 10, 2024

My Father’s Tefillin



In Parshas Ki Sisa, we learn one of the most tragic occurrences in our history, from which we suffer until today: the sin of the Eigel. Every time we learn the parsha, we wonder how the people could have gone so wrong. The same people who experienced all of Hashem’s miracles in Mitzrayim and at the Yam Suf were now ready to trade it all in for a little golden calf made from their wives’ jewelry. How can it be?

The nation that stood at Har Sinai and heard the voice of the Creator as they received and accepted the Torah so quickly wandered away from the truth and danced around a silly idol. How are we to understand their mistakes? What led them to err so quickly?

Each generation is faced with new nisyonos, which are different than those faced by previous generations. Each generation sees its nisyonos as much more difficult than those faced in earlier eras, as if they could have survived the challenges that people living at a different time had difficulty with. But in essence, the tests and difficulties we face are no more difficult than what our forefathers had to contend with, and considering that the generations become progressively weaker, it is possible that what confounds us would not have confounded previous generations.

Far be it from us to judge those who succumbed to the pressures that faced people one hundred years ago. The people then were poor. Many were starving, driven from their homes, refugees in a new land and unable to speak the language. Many came to America and surrendered. For many of them, there were no yeshivos for their children, and even where there were, the vast majority of the youngsters went to public school, where they were led away from the ways of their parents. Terrible poverty led many to work on Shabbos to be able to pay rent and buy food. There were many justifications for why the conduct inconsistent with the Torah was permitted, but the effect was that those who found ways around halacha and mesorah gradually became lost to our people. Millions withered away and were swallowed up by the pot of assimilation.

Many of them meant well. They made cheshbonos that they could compromise and still be able to hold on to their children and prevent them from being swept away. Sadly, in most cases, it was false hope. Their intentions may have been good, but it didn’t work. In fact, the Chazon Ish prophesized the mass teshuvah movement of the past few decades. He said that he saw in Eretz Yisroel and in America how the second generation was rejecting the religious life of their parents.

“But the older generation sees their secular grandchildren and cries bitter tears to Hashem over what has become of them in the new country,” said the Chazon Ish. “There is no doubt that in the merit of those tears, their grandchildren will grow up and experience stirrings of teshuvah.”

Thankfully, his words have come to pass for many thousands, but for millions of others, their children are so far gone that they are almost impossible to reach.

We can’t attempt to understand the nisyonos faced by tired, hardworking immigrants who came to this land to escape starvation, pogroms and forced military conscription. The lasting lesson of that period is that people who thought they could compromise and still stay ahead of the game found out the hard way that they couldn’t. Those who embraced the zeitgeist were constricted and bound by it.

We learn from them that as we face the nisyonos of our time, we must explicitly follow the Torah and halacha without justifying various compromises. Those who compromised ended up with no Torah, no halacha, no Shabbos, no kashrus, nothing. It was only those diehards who refused to buckle to the realities of the era and held fast to the Torah they brought with them to the new country who remained conscripted to Hashem’s army, observing Shabbos and every other halacha, while being blessed with generations of offspring who haven’t forsaken their heritage.

Getting back to the Eigel, the Bais Halevi explains that the people at that time also had good intentions. He says that when the people saw that Moshe didn’t return, they feared that they had lost their intermediary who stood between them and Hashem, conveying the Creator’s wishes and commandments to the people. They were afraid that their connection to Hashem would be lost.

They figured that in his absence, they should fashion a place where the Shechinah could rest amongst them. They turned to Aharon Hakohein, whom they knew was familiar with the secrets of Torah and the briah, to create this place.

They approached this idea with the best intentions, but they made one fatal mistake. It is true that the Creator invested man with the ability for his actions to impact what happens in the higher worlds. But this is only when the action that is done is prescribed by the Torah. However, if a person performs an action that was not commanded in the Torah, but is something that he arrived at through his own intelligence and understanding, the action will not accomplish anything and certainly will not be able to bring the Shechinah to rest near him.

Only when a person fulfills the will of Hashem can his actions bring about the desired effects, but when acting on the thoughts and machinations of man, we cannot accomplish anything. Not only do we not accomplish anything when we do things based upon what people come up with, but by doing so we sin and cause destruction. This is the reason that the good intentions of the people at that time led to sin and devastation.

If you examine where the Jewish people went off throughout the ages, it was when they came up with new laws and compromises based upon their own understanding and not based on Torah. Every deviant group started out claiming that they were following the Torah. It was just that they “adapted” it to fit with their understating of what they felt was necessary for their period. They said that they were following the halacha, but it was undergoing a required “evolution.” That is how Conservative Judaism began. As ridiculous as it sounds, they claim to follow the “authentic and most appropriate continuation of halakhic discourse.” They have halachic decisors who study Talmud and Shulchan Aruch and claim to follow halacha. In fact, any relationship between halacha and what they claim to follow is illusory. Open Orthodoxy is heading down the same path.

Many of the Maskilim who caused much trouble for frum Jews in the 1800s were products of yeshivos who quickly veered from halacha.

Any time a person, or group, deviates from normative Yiddishkeit the way it has been practiced for centuries and begins to make changes according to their understand or that of others, defection is sure to follow. Anytime somebody thinks that he has a better idea or a better understanding of halacha than the mesorah and traditional methods of study and understanding, he is in great danger of eventually turning away from Torah altogether.

Today, as we are faced with different nisyonos, we have to learn from those who sinned with the Eigel and those who throughout the ages made compromises and rationalizations that they felt were necessary in order to function and overcome challenges. They all failed and were lost. The only way to remain loyal to Hashem and his Torah is by not saying that it’s impossible to do that today without shaving off some of the halachic requirements. It doesn’t work that way, not now and never before or in the future.

When Moshe returned and saw Jews dancing around the Eigel, he was overcome. He broke the luchos that Hashem had given him and proclaimed, “Mi laShem eilay – All who are with Hashem should line up with me.” The posuk relates that the shevet of Levi rallied to Moshe’s side.

My grandfather, Rav Leizer Levin, learned in the Yeshiva of Radin for seven years and slept in the home of the Chofetz Chaim for a year and a half. He told me that it was his rebbi’s custom to refer to this posuk when welcoming new talmidim to the yeshiva. He would ask them if they were a kohein or a levi. My grandfather was asked the question upon his arrival and responded that he was a levi.

The Chofetz Chaim, who was a kohein, said to the young bochur, “Let me tell you why you are a levi. It is because when Moshe Rabbeinu called out after the chet ha’Eigel, ‘Mi laShem eilay,’ your grandfather [and mine] responded positively and lined up with Moshe.

“I am telling you this so that when the call of ‘Mi laShem eilay’ rings out in our day, make sure to give the answer your zaide gave.”

The Chofetz Chaim’s message left an unforgettable impression upon him, and when he repeated it to me seventy years after it happened, it was with much emotion that he charged me with that same lesson.

Shevet Levi did not make cheshbonos. They didn’t try to figure out which side would win and if Moshe stood a chance of winning the showdown. Moshe Rabbeinu was Torah and they followed him implicitly. If Moshe calls upon us to stand with him, we respond to the call. The people of Hashem don’t make calculations or call for realism and practicality.

And the same goes for us in our day. If the halacha is one way, we don’t search for pragmatic avenues around it. We act as our grandparents did throughout the ages and follow the word of Hashem as expressed in the Torah.

V’al tis’chakam yoseir,” says the wisest of all men (Koheles 7:16). Don’t try to outsmart the world. Don’t think that you know better than everyone. Don’t try to reinvent halacha and mesorah and turn the mitzvah observance of our children and grandchildren into something our grandparents wouldn’t recognize.

Yechezkel Hanovi (chapter 37) describes Hashem’s prophecy to him regarding the atzamos yeveishos, the dry human bones that Yechezkel returned to life. Hashem told Yechezkel that the bones were symbolic of the Jewish people. Just as the bones were brought back to life and returned to their original lives, so too, the remnants of Am Yisroel should never give up hope. They will be returned to their original state in Eretz Yisroel.

The Gemara in Maseches Sanhedrin (92b) records a machlokes about whether that prophecy took place or if it is merely an analogy to depict the concept of Moshiach and techiyas hameisim.

Rabi Eliezer ben Rabi Yosi Haglili states, “The dead who Yechezkel brought back to life went up to Eretz Yisroel, married and gave birth to sons and daughters.” Rabi Yehuda ben Beseira rose and declared, “They really did come back to life. It was not simply an allegorical account. In fact, I am a descendent of a man who was brought back to life that day. I wear his tefillin. The tefillin given to me by my grandfather were handed down to him from his ancestor, who was brought back to life in the incident described by the novi Yechezkel. Ani m’bnei beneihem vehalalu tefillin shehiniach li avi abba meihem. These tefillin were left to me by my father’s father.”

This is the song of our generation of American Jewry.

Our ancestors docked at Ellis Island and settled in one of the then-burgeoning Jewish communities across the fruited plain. With their resolve, their drive, and lots of tefillah, they merited that we can point to our heads and hearts and say the words: “Halalu tefillin shehiniach li avi abba meihem.”

I wear the same tefillin my father does, and his father did, and his grandfather did, all the way back to Sinai. Through all the exiles, the halacha l’Moshe miSinai relating to tefillin – what they look like and who wears them – has remained constant.

They look exactly like the tefillin worn in Lithuania and Hungary, Syria and Morocco, the Warsaw Ghetto, and in Auschwitz under the threat of death. The tefillin we wear in America today are the same as those worn during the golden period of Spain, the Inquisition, and the periods of the Botei Mikdosh.

All throughout history, as others have mocked us and sought our destruction, those who answered the call of “Mi laShem eilay” remained loyal to the traditions passed on through the generations and guaranteed that authentic Yiddishkeit endures. Because our grandparents did not compromise and didn’t follow the pragmatic trends, we are here today, living proudly as Torah Jews.

In our day, too, there is a kolah delo posik, a silent call emanating from Sinai, the Har Habayis, and every bais medrash around the world. It proclaims, “Mi laShem eilay.”

We have to realize that today, the yeitzer hora comes every year in a new costume and with a new pitch. He no longer attempts to convince us that we have to desecrate Shabbos in order to earn a livelihood. His pitch evolves with the times, but our response must remain the same.

We don’t deviate from the mesorah that has been handed down to us through the ages. “Chodosh ossur min haTorah.” There is no compromising with new ideas and concepts that are anti-Torah. When we are confronted by modern-day temptations, we don’t compromise on the Torah’s principles. We don’t veer from the path trodden by those who came before us. We don’t defile our inner kedusha or provide the yeitzer hora with even a small victory. We do what Hashem wants us to do, and the way we know what He wants is by studying Torah and halacha.

The Jews in Shushan were punished and threatened with annihilation because they relied on their own judgment and rationalized that they were permitted to partake in the feast of Achashveirosh. As we lain this week’s parsha and prepare for Purim, let us remember the lesson learned from their failures so that we merit the final geulah very soon.




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