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The Bar Mitzvah Maamar, Short and Sweet Version

The Bar Mitzvah Maamar, Short and Sweet Version

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The fifth rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, the “Rebbe Rashab,” photographed in Rostov-on-the-Don
The fifth rebbe of the Chabad-Lubavitch dynasty, Rabbi Sholom Dovber, the “Rebbe Rashab,” photographed in Rostov-on-the-Don

A maamar is a meditation on chassidic mystical thought, originally spoken by a rebbe from within a deep, contemplative state. Here is a condensation of the maamar that was first recited by the fifth rebbe of Lubavitch when he became bar mitzvah, then by his son, and since then by countless bar mitzvah boys.

Tefillin and Torah

The Jewish people complained to G‑d, saying, “Master of the Universe! We would like to study Torah day and night, but we are preoccupied with the necessities of life.”

The Holy One, blessed be He, answered, “Wrap on the tefillin once a day, and I will consider this as though you were studying Torah day and night.”

Rabbi Eliezer in Midrash Tehillim

How are tefillin able to fill the place of Torah study? How are the two related?

Simply, they are related because they have the same effect.

How do we know that our mitzvahs have an effect? We know this from the words of King David in the Psalms:

מַגִּיד דְבָרָיו לְיַעֲקֹב, חֻקָּיו וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו לְיִשְׂרָאֵל.

Which translates as: “He tells His own words to Jacob, His own rules and judgments to Israel.”

This is how the Midrash explains King David’s words:

G‑d is not like a flesh-and-blood king. While a human king commands others what to do, he doesn’t do any of it himself. G‑d, however, commands others to do that which He Himself does.

The Midrash is saying that when we do a mitzvah, it is more than an action in our world. What we do brings G‑d to do something somehow similar. Something that somehow resembles putting on tefillin—except on a much grander, G‑dly scale. Now that’s a major effect. We have to understand, though, what is that effect.

G‑d’s Tefillin

Inside our tefillin are scrolls from the Torah, including the Shema, the part of the Torah that says “Hear O Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One.”

שְמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה' אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה' אֶחָד.

So, the question is, what’s inside G‑d’s tefillin? Forget for the moment that G‑d is not a physical being. He’s infinite and has no body or form.

But aside from that, the parchment inside G‑d’s tefillin couldn’t have Shema Yisrael written on them, like ours have. That wouldn’t make any sense: Why would G‑d need to remind Himself that He is One?

So the rabbis say that inside G‑d’s tefillin is written a different verse:

“Who is like your people, Israel? One nation upon the earth!”

Now we’re getting somewhere. The Jewish people have tefillin that say G‑d is one, and G‑d has tefillin that say we are one.

Obviously, having the Master of the Universe wearing tefillin that talk about your nation being “one nation on the earth” puts you in a rather special position. So G‑d wearing tefillin must mean that He is somehow making us very special.

However, there are still many questions left. For example, how does G‑d put on tefillin? He is not a person with a body—what does it mean that He wears tefillin? Obviously His tefillin are not leather boxes. Furthermore, we still haven’t explained the relationship between tefillin and sweating over Torah day and night.

Getting G‑d’s Attention

So the maamar goes much deeper and explains:

רָם עַל כָּל גּוֹיִם ה'.

Which translates as, “G‑d is way beyond all the nations.” In fact, to the Creator of this universe, the whole thing might as well be a speck of dust—and even less.

Just as a speck of dust is worthless to a human being, so the entire universe holds no interest on its own to an Infinite Creator. Actually, the human being and the speck of dust are more closely related than an Infinite Creator and His finite creation. The speck of dust may be worthless to a human being, but it’s not nothing. To the Infinite Creator, a finite creation is like nothing.

On the other hand, the dust is there whether we like it or not. It doesn’t need us to exist. The universe, however, cannot exist without its Creator.

So the universe is to G‑d much like a daydream—as long as He continues thinking about it, it exists. Or like a moving image that you project on a screen—as soon as the projector is turned off, the image is gone. So, too, G‑d projects energy to sustain the world’s existence at every moment.

Now, He could sustain the world without any real interest, but what kind of a world would that be? Something like the body of a person sleepwalking—the body is alive, but the mind is not really there. So that’s the whole idea of Torah and mitzvahs: to get the Master of the Universe deeply involved with us and with His world. To wake up the world.

That’s why the Torah says:

הַשְׁקִיפָה מִמְּעוֹן קָדְשְׁךָ מִן הַשָּׁמַיִם וּבָרֵךְ אֶת עַמְּךְ אֶת יִשְׂרָאֵל.

“Look down from Your holy residence up in heaven, and bless Your people Israel.”

Why, when we want G‑d to bless us, should we ask Him to look down from the heavens? Isn’t G‑d everywhere?

But what we mean is that He should look at us through the lens of the Torah, which acts as a sort of magnifying lens, making us look important and worth blessing.

Torah as a Microscope

What is it about the Torah that makes us important?

The Zohar tells us that Torah is G‑d’s own personal way of thinking, so to speak. It’s about things in our world, but it’s His way of thinking about them.

So when people learn Torah, they’re tuned into G‑d’s mind. G‑d is learning along with them.

Besides that, Torah is also the original source of the energy that powers all His creation.

Therefore, when we are occupied in His Torah, He becomes occupied with us. There’s a deep connection made between us and Him and His world. He finds something interesting in His world—His own personal thoughts—and becomes intimately involved in it.

The Answer

But what about when we are unable to invest that sort of energy into learning Torah all day? What happens to the world then?

That where tefillin comes in: We take these scrolls of His Torah, roll them up and place them inside leather boxes, just as He prescribed. When we do that, He sees to it that those words will have their effect on our minds, our hearts—and even down to our hands.

Just like when we learn Torah, tefillin brings us into a connection with G‑d, and G‑d into a connection with us.

That’s what we mean when we say that the Master of the Universe also puts on tefillin: We mean that He makes a connection with us, and in that way He makes a connection with everything that’s happening with us and our world.

Of course, if we were sweating over Torah day and night, it would be even more effective. The words of Torah would connect directly with our everyday world.

But nevertheless, if we are too busy making a living, the Holy One, blessed be He, has compassion upon us and says that as long as we are learning as much as we can and wrapping tefillin every day, He will make the rest of the connection for us—just as though we were sweating over Torah day and night.

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Fred November 14, 2012

OK But What about the time aspect? Tefillin are on for a fraction of the day and somehow is equal to Torah learned the whole day? Reply

Elchonon Philadelphia September 5, 2017
in response to Fred:

That was already answered in the above condensation of the discourse. Tzvi Freeman explained that of course the connection made by sweating away many hours a day at Torah study is preferred. However, for those who are not in a position to and try their best to study Torah with their limited time and resources, God considers their Tefillin wearing as sufficient reason to make the rest of the connection for them. Reply

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