It is customary in every partnership venture to make a contract and establish certain ground rules. With the clock striking tzeit hakochavim — nightfall — you, our Bar Mitzvah, entered into an obligatory agreement to join with all of Klal Yisrael in the acceptance of Torah and mitzvot. From tonight on you are committed to the fulfillment of the 248 positive and taking care not to violate the 365 negative Torah commandments.

Parshat Va’etchanan, contains one of the most basic and cardinal ground rules regarding our approach to Torah and mitzvot.

In one of his parting messages to Klal Yisrael Moshe says, “Ve’atah Yisrael” — “Now, O’ Israel — listen to the decrees and ordinances that I teach you to perform.” He exhorts his people to obey the entire Torah. He reviews some of the commandments, and teaches others that had not been set down in the Torah previously. The first thing he does, is to set the ground rule, “Lo tosifu al hadvar asher anochi metzaveh etchem v’lo tigre’u mimenu” — “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor shall you subtract from it” (4:1,2).

The obvious question is; not subtracting is easily understood, but what is wrong with adding?

The Dubno Maggid, (Rabbi Jacob Kranz 1741-1804), famous for his eloquent way of explaining Torah passages with a parable, offers the following insight:

There was a person who would borrow dishes and silverware from his neighbor whenever he had guests, and then return double the amount he borrowed. If he took a dish, he would return two. If he took two spoons, he would return four. The first time this happened his neighbor asked in amazement, “Why are you giving me back more dishes than I gave you?” The borrower responded, “When I brought your dishes to my house, they became pregnant and gave birth.”

Once, he came to his neighbor and told him, “Tonight, I will have very prominent people at my house. Please be kind enough to lend me your beautiful silver candelabra and I will return it to you tomorrow.” The neighbor quickly agreed, thinking that tomorrow he would get back two.

“Tomorrow” passed and the neighbor did not come back with even the one candelabra. He called to ask when he could expect the candelabra returned. The lender sighed and said, “I feel terrible to tell you this, but when I came home with your candelabra, it suddenly had a heart-attack and died.”

Angrily, the lender said, “Whoever heard of such a foolish thing? You’re a thief! I demand the immediate return of my property!”

Calmly the borrower said, “If you were able to believe that your spoon or dish could give birth, then you must also believe me that your candelabra died.”

My dear Bar Mitzvah, the Torah consists of six hundred and thirteen mitzvot. Hashem chose this number because He knew exactly how much man could handle (see Avodah Zarah 3a, Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 12:3). If people are permitted to add mitzvot of their own and attach holiness to them, ultimately they will also rationalize not doing mitzvot.

May you merit from this day on and throughout your entire life to fulfill Torah and mitzvot in its entirety.

Incidentally, the popular Hebrew term to describe such a person is “shomer Torah u’Mitzvot. The word “shomer” can mean a “watchman.” Just as the watchman makes sure the item in his care is intact, likewise, the Jews watch out that their Torah study and mitzvah observance Hashem entrusted them with will be in proper order. Additionally, the word “shomer” can also mean “awaiting and anticipating” (See Rashi to “v’aviv shamar et hadavar” [Bereishit 37:11]: “His father [Yaakov] waited (looked forward) for the matter [to come true].”)

May you merit being a shomer Torah u’Mitzvot in accordance with all its meanings and implications.


Cognizant that he will not be entering the Land of Israel together with the Jewish people, and thus, not destined to guide them in the future, Moshe chastised the Jewish people just as they were about to cross over to the land and prepared them for life without him. He warned them about not subjecting themselves to various forms of idolatry.

In conclusion he says “Beware for yourselves lest you forget the covenant of your G‑d, v’asitem lachem pesel temunat kol asher tzivecha Hashem Elokecha— and you make yourselves a carved image, a likeness of anything, as G‑d your G‑d has commanded you” (4:23).

The words “Asher tzivecha Hashem — as G‑d has commanded you” — sound strange. Didn’t Hashem in the Ten Commandments forbid any form of idolatry? In fact, it is one of the two commandments that Hashem uttered personally on Sinai. Should not the passuk have said “As G‑d had commanded you not to do? “ (Rashi obviously took note of this difficulty and in fact in his commentary added the word “shelo” — [which G‑d has commanded you] not to make. However, this is only a clarification — the literal text seems to say otherwise.)

A pesel — carved image — is a three dimensional, accurate representation of something, while a temunah — likeness — is a symbolic image, which may be either sculpted, drawn, or produced in any other way to picture anything in the heavens.

In the olden days (and perhaps today, too, in some remote underdeveloped countries), misguided people worshipped idols. Dependant on the worshipper’s financial status the idols were made of gold, silver, other metals, or even wood. The common denominator among all idols was that they were lifeless and cold.

We Jews worship Hashem. For instance, when one prays, we are required to do so with warmth and vigor, enthusiasm and excitement. One’s prayer should not be merely lip service, or praying by rote. Our davening should not be a fixed repetition of phrases without attention to meaning, rather, it should be with meditation, contemplation, and emotion. The same applies also to the performance of mitzvot and Torah learning. The phrase “Ivdu et Hashem besimchah — “Serve Hashem with joy and happiness” (Psalms 100:2) is a basic principle in chassidic life.

I recall that mashpi’imchassidic mentors — who would expound chassidut at length and the contribution of chassidut to service of Hashem, often repeated the following parable: There once lived a king who had a bird that he loved dearly. He would play with it and enjoy its moves and reactions. Once the bird was in an accident and it lost a leg. A year later the bird took ill and died. The king was terribly distraught over the loss of his beloved bird and all efforts to comfort him were to no avail. Seeking means to comfort the king, a talented artist drew a picture of the bird with its original legs and presented it to the king. To the surprise of all, the king was deeply saddened upon seeing the beautiful rendition.

In amazement one of the kings men asked “Your majesty, why are you so sad? The picture is an exact replica of your beloved bird, and in addition your bird in the end had only one leg and this has two?”

The king responded, everything you say is true, but there is, however, one problem — “Es lebt nit” — “It isn’t alive “!

Chassidut demands that our prayer service, performance of mitzvot, and study of Torah should be with chayut and lebidikeit — with vitality and animation.

The famous Chassidic master, Rabbi Menachem Mendel (Morgenstern) of Kotzk (1787-1859) would interpret our pasuk in light of the above. Moshe was telling the people “Beware for yourselves lest you forget the covenant of Hashem and make a carved image as your G‑d has commanded you.” That is, do not make what Hashem has commanded you to do a carved image — a lifeless and meaningless activity. Rather do “asher tzivecha Hashem” — “that what Hashem commanded you to do” — with vitality, vigor and excitement.

At a Bar Mitzvah I once attended an elderly Chassid read the Rebbe’s letter and then proceeded to say that when the Rebbe wishes one to be a Chassid, yirei Shamayim and a lamdan — a Chassid, a G‑d fearing Jew and a Torah scholar — he is not referring to three separate things, rather he means that you be a chassidish yirei Shamayim and a chassidish lamdan. That is, that one’s fear and service of Heaven, and one’s study of Torah should be with the chayut and lebidikeit — the way chassidut demands — with devotion, dedication, vitality, excitement and joy. May you merit to reach such a sublime lifestyle.


This week’s parshah of Va’etchanan contains the Shema Yisrael — “Hear O’ Israel” — which is one of the preeminent passages of the Torah. In fact RambanNachmanides — in his commentary on Torah writes that it is a root of our faith and whoever does not accept it is a heretic. Its importance is indicated by the fact that the Torah places it in the next perek — chapter — immediately after the Ten Commandments.

The Shema contains the commandments to acknowledge the Oneness of Hashem and to love Him with all our heart, all our soul, and all our resources. This is at the very essence of Judaism. We are also required to teach this faith and love to our children. In addition to the requirement of reciting it twice daily we are commanded “Ukeshartem l’ot al yadecha v’hayu l’totafot bein ai’necha” — “Bind them as a sign on your arm and let them be ornaments between your eyes” (6:8).

Regarding tefillin the Gemara (Menachot 34b) says we may make arm tefillin into head tefillin (if one makes four compartments and inserts a parchment into each compartment), but we may not make head tefillin into arm tefillin because we may not lower a mitzvah object from a stringent (i.e. higher) kedushah — sanctity — to a lenient (i.e. lesser) sanctity. Rashi explains that the head tefillin possesses greater kedushah since the three letters of Divine Name Sha‑dai (ש-ד-י) appear on a pair of tefillin. The letter shin (ש) is embossed on the box of the head tefillin; the letter dalet (ד) is formed by the knot in the retzuot — straps — of the head tefillin, and the letter yud (י) is formed by the knot in the straps of the arm tefillin. Since a majority of the letters of this Holy Name are represented in the head tefillin, it possesses a greater kedushah than the arm tefillin (see also Shulchan Aruch 42:1).

If so, why are the hand tefillin put on first, and why are they removed last?

There are, unfortunately, Jews who claim that they do not fulfill mitzvot because they do not comprehend their significance. If they had a keen insight and understanding of the purpose and meaning of the mitzvot, what is achieved by performing them, they would observe and do them.

The order practiced in putting on and taking off the tefillin conveys a message of importance and dispels the erroneous justification of these individuals.

The hand typifies deed and action. The head signifies intellect, wisdom, and understanding.

The praise of the Jewish people is that when they were offered the Torah they immediately declared “na’aseh” — “we will do” — perform — and followed up by saying “venishma” — “we will listen” — study and understand. Their responding in this order indicated their giving preeminence to doing over understanding.

The procedure followed when putting on tefillin emphasizes that fulfillment of Torah and mitzvot has priority over understanding their profundity. Putting on the hand tefillin first and afterward the head tefillin stresses that action — deed — is our main obligation and that it is not contingent on our understanding.

Taking off the head tefillin and remaining with the hand tefillin as is done when one takes them off, teaches that even if one has performed a mitzvah because he thought he found the rationale and later sees that his theory was erroneous, he should, nevertheless, continue on with the hand tefillin — do mitzvot to the best of his ability.

My dear Bar Mitzvah, the message to derive from the way we don the tefillin and remove them is that obedience to the commandments should never be conditional on understanding them. It is, in fact, a contradiction in terms to say that one who does not understand or agree with a law is free to break it. Anyone who thinks this has not understood what a law is. This does not exempt us from studying and endeavoring to try to understand the significance and rational of a mitzvah, but the primary foundation of our faith is kabbalat ol — absolute subjugation — to Hashem.

May this lofty approach in service of Hashem be the path you will follow throughout your entire life.


The mitzvah of donning tefillin is mentioned twice in the Torah. In Parshat Bo, following the exodus from Egypt, Hashem commanded “Vehayah l’ot al yadechah uletotafot bein einecha ki bechozek yad hotzianu Hashem miMitzrayim” — “And it shall be a sign upon your arm, and totafot — ornament/frontlets — between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem brought you out of Egypt” (13:16).

Our Parshah contains the Shema, which speaks of the concept of the Oneness of Hashem, and commands us to love Him. In it is the command “U’keshartem l’ot al yadecha v’hayu l’totafot bein einecha” — “Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be totafot — ornaments/frontlets — between your eyes” (6:5).

Much has been said about the holiness, significance, and accomplishment of tefillin for the individual Jew and the Jewish people at large. However, I would like to share with our dear Bar Mitzvah and those in attendance a phenomenal chidush — novel thought — that the Rebbe expressed, analyzing the actual tefillin and how the Jews performed the mitzvah during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness.

On the pasuk “Vehayu letotafot bein einecha” — “They shall be for totafot — ornaments/frontlets — between your eyes” (6:8) — Rashi explains, “Because of the number of ‘parshiyoteihem’ — ‘their [Torah] portions’ — they are termed ‘totafot,’ and the word ‘totafot’ indicates four, since ‘tat’ (טט) in Coptic is ‘two,’ and ‘fot’ (פת) means ‘two’ in African.” The identical word “totafot” appears also in Shemot (13:16), and Rashi offers the identical explanation, but with a slight variation. “The word ‘totafot’ was chosen because it alludes to the four ‘batim’ — ‘compartments’ — of the head — tefillin.”

Why does Rashi change from “batim” — “compartments” — in Shemot, to “parshiyot” — “portions” — in Devarim?

Both the hand tefillin and the head tefillin contain four parshiyot of the Torah. The first two are from Shemot, “Kadeish Li kol bechor” — “Sanctify to Me every firstborn...” (Shemot 13:1-10), and “Vehayah ki yevi’acha...” — “It shall come to pass when G‑d will bring [you to the land of the Canaanites]” (ibid. 13:11-16). The second two are from Devarim, “Shema Yisrael” — “Hear O Israel” (6:4-9), and “Vehayah im shamo’a” — “It will be that if you hearken” (11:13-21). The difference is that the hand-tefillin consists of one compartment and all four portions are written together on one piece of parchment, while in the head-tefillin they are written on separate pieces of parchment and placed in individual compartments.

The Torah, which Hashem conveyed to the Jewish people through Moshe, was compiled over the forty-year sojourn of the Jewish people in the wilderness. The first two parshiyot of the tefillin, which are in Shemot, were given at the beginning of the forty-year period, and Devarim was compiled at the end of the forty years, immediately prior to Moshe’s passing. Thus, when they were told in Shemot, “It shall be a sign upon your arm and totafot between your eyes,” the tefillin only contained two portions, and these were the tefillin that the Jewish people wore throughout the forty years of the wilderness. If so, to explain why they were called “totafot,” which alludes to the number four, Rashi says, “Because of the four ‘batim’ — ‘the compartments.’ ” Two compartments contained a portion of the Torah, and the other two were empty.

Once the Jews reached the end of the forty years and learned of the other two parshiyot, the Torah again instructed that, “They shall be for totafot between your eyes,” and Rashi now explains that the word “totafot,” which alludes to the number four, refers to the four separate parshiyot contained in the tefillin.

In the two parshiyot of the tefillin taken from Shemot, “Kadeish” and “Vehayah ki yeviacha,” it says “Vehayah le’ot al yadecha u’letotafot bein einecha,” and the word “vehayah — “it shall be” — is in the singular (13:9,16). In the other two parshiyot of the tefillin, “Shema” and “Vehayah im shamo’a,” it says “vehayu letotafot” — “and they shall be for frontlets” in plural (Devarim 6:8, 11:18). Why the inconsistency?

The reason for this change is the following: Only the parshiyot in Shemot mention Yetziat Mitzraim — the exodus from Egypt — but not the two parshiyot of Shema. The word “vehayah — “it shall be” — in the singular refers to Yetziat Mitzraim, and is instructingthat it — the remembrance of the exodus of Egypt — shall be placed in the tefillin upon your arm and head. However, the words “vehayu letotafot” — “they shall be for totafot” — are a reference to the four parshiyot which were in the tefillin from the fortieth year of the sojourn in the wilderness and thereafter, “vehayu is in the plural.

Today we wear tefillin with Torah portions in each of the four compartments. The Gemara (Berachot 6a) says that Hashem does likewise. His tefillin, so to speak, have four compartments and each contain pesukim that emphasize the greatness of the Jewish people, how He redeemed us, that He will make us supreme over all the nations, and that we will be a holy people to Hashem.

My dear Bar Mitzvah, now that we have you, an additional Jew donning tefillin, let us hope that we merit that Hakadosh Baruch Hu will put on His tefillin and fulfill speedily His lofty plans for Klal Yisrael.