You did not ask for this burden, but in time you will understand that it is primarily a privilege
On the surface it was just an ordinary morning Shacharis, but this time it was quite extraordinary because you, our great-grandson, joined me in the minyan. This was the first time in your life you were donning tefillin, in preparation for your forthcoming bar mitzvah.
In cosmic terms, you are continuing the chain that began with Moshe Rabbeinu 3,500 years ago: “l’os al yadcha ul’totafos bein einecha — a sign on your hand, and totafos [frontlets] between your eyes.” Jews have worn tefillin since then, the tefillin containing the Shema Yisrael and other key sections of the Torah. Moshe Rabbeinu wore tefillin, and now you, my great-grandson in the year 5780, are wearing them.
Is there any other people on earth that has maintained its major religious practices intact for 3,000 unbroken years, despite vicious pogroms and murder? And here standing before me is this shy but proud young fellow, the latest in that unbroken, majestic line.
In personal terms, as one who still remembers his own first day with tefillin, it is beyond rational belief. To witness a son donning tefillin is stirring enough. To have a grandson do the same, approaches a feeling of awe. But a great-grandson, the son of the son of my son, and to be able to stand with him and to witness it? It is beyond awe and wondrous. As Yaakov said, “katonti mikol hachasadim… ki b’makli…” (Bereishis 32:11).
I gaze at you: fresh, smooth-skinned, newly minted. Soon, of course, in a flash of time, you will grow up, marry, have your own children, celebrate your own son’s tefillin, and if G-d so desires, do the same with your own grandson and perhaps, in the fullness of time, with your own great-grandson. Inexorably, you will grow older as you move through your sixties, seventies, and hopefully your eighties. Your skin, in the ineluctable way of the world, will wrinkle, your muscles weaken, your energy slacken, and you will grow ancient and wizened and, who knows, perhaps even wiser.
But you will continue to don your tefillin with same spiritual energy, for both you and they will stay ever young and fresh religiously. The same black squares containing the four sections of the Torah: Shema; V’hayah im shamoa; Kadesh; V’hayah ki yeviacha. The same leather straps binding you to your people and to your Creator. These, the oldest mitzvos of Judaism, will remain still intact, still pristine, just as the way of life which these tefillin represent remains intact and pristine. What hells and burning furnaces did these tefillin and their Shema Yisrael have to endure in order to survive and flourish for almost four thousand years? And what venom and malevolence did your forebears have to overcome in order to be able now to say to you, their offspring: Here, they are yours now; wear them proudly, in good health and in long life.
But my great joy is tempered by a profound sadness. For there are hundreds of thousands of Jewish boys your age who never heard of or even saw a pair of tefillin, even though they might have had a “bar mitzvah” party. For these unfortunate youngsters, bar mitzvah, as they say, is more bar than mitzvah.
They will go through life unaware of the magical qualities of tefillin. They will never know, for example, that when you bind those leather straps around your hand, you are forming the letter shin, and that the shin is the first letter of that powerful three-letter name of G-d that is spelled with a shin and daled and yud, and that on the head tefillin are engraved two different letters shin, one with four spokes, representing the four Matriarchs, and one with the normative three spokes, representing the three Patriarchs. Nor will they know that this same mysterious shin is found on the outside of every mezuzah.
With so many Jewish young men falling by the wayside through intermarriage and assimilation — it is doubtful that their children will even have a pseudo-bar mitzvah — it falls on you to preserve our sacred heritage. This is a call to deeper Torah study and dedication, because on your shoulders now rests the future of our holy people. You did not ask for this burden, but in time you will understand that it is primarily a privilege.
My blessing: When you are in your nineties, may your tefillin be as fresh to you as they are this day. Welcome, my great-grandson, into the proud ranks of the keepers of the Jewish flame.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 784)