This letter was addressed to Mr. Tzvi Palmer, a philanthropist from New Jersey.

B”H, Thursday, 14 Menachem Av, 5704

Greetings and blessings,

First, I would like to ask your forgiveness that due to reasons not dependent on me, I was not able to reply to your letter until now.1

a) I agree with you that every one of us has his “glasses” through which he contemplates everything. I do not understand, however, why you think that this applies only when considering the past. I think that a lot more depends on one’s [“glasses”] when considering the present. For the present has more bearing on one’s personal life and thus it is more difficult to see it objectively, without involving one’s personal interests and self-love.

b) How is it possible to avoid making an error because of one’s own “glasses” when evaluating a past event?

The most certain way is to think deeply about the words of the person relating the event who lived at that time. If that is not sufficient, one should use the statements of people who lived closest to the time of the event.

Therefore to correctly understand the meaning of the statement of Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar (Shabbos 130a) that the Jews did not sacrifice their lives for tefillin, I would like to focus on a portion of [the Talmudic passage] which is, at the outset, entirely not comprehensible. The Talmud quotes Rabbi Shimon as saying very clearly: a) [Jews] were not willing to give up their lives for tefillin, and b) Jews were “weak” in their observance of tefillin. Why is it necessary for [that Talmudic passage] to clarify the matter by quoting R. Yannai’s [teaching as support]? One could have merely gone out and seen the manner in which the Jews conduct themselves with regard to tefillin. They would have seen whether their observance is weak or not.

Moreover, Rabbi Shimon is telling us that the Jews did not sacrifice their lives. How does the story of Elisha of the dove wings strengthen his statement? (For when the Gemara brings a proof, its intent is to strengthen an understanding, an interpretation, or an explanation. It does not bring a support to teach that the statements of a Tanna or an Amora happened as related.)

Therefore clarification is necessary. For that purpose, I employed the explanations offered by Rashi and Tosafos who lived 500-600 years after the composition of the Talmud and who received the explanation of the meaning of the Talmud through R. Gershom, the light of the Diaspora. [He in turn received these explanations] from [the sages of] Babylonia where the Talmud was composed. On this basis, we can clarify why the Talmud quotes Rabbi Yannai to understand Rabbi Shimon’s statement. The true intent is not as explained above, but rather [to explain]: i) in what thelack of willingness for the Jews to sacrifice their lives was expressed, and ii) what is meant by “their observance was weak” as explained in my previous letter.

c) I cited Rabbi Shimon’s statement to illustrate i) the extent of the devotion the mitzvah of tefillin behooves, ii) that even when one would be put to death for its observance, Jews observed the mitzvah to the extent that some would wear tefillin in the street for the entire day (see the previous letter).

d) You write: “In America, everyone observes the mitzvah of circumcision, but there are many who do not observe the mitzvah of tefillin.” You maintain that this is Rabbi Shimon’s intent in saying that the observance of circumcision is not weak, while the observance of tefillin is weak.

As I mentioned, my understanding — based on the interpretations of people who were 900 years closer than ourselves to the time of Rabbi Shimon — is that with the word מרופה, Rabbi Shimon means “weak,” [i.e.,] not as strong as it should have been, as explained above.

In general, however, I can agree with you. [For,] as can be clarified by the following analogy, [the two concepts are interrelated. To explain:] People are traveling together on a path. Because of the darkness, one veers off the way and becomes lost to the extent that in a short time he realizes that he is in the middle of a forest and he can see neither a path, a house, a person, or the like.

How did this happen? A person does not immediately jump from the middle of a broad path to the depths of a thick forest. Instead, first he veers an inch off the path, and then, another inch, and as time passes, he finds himself in the depths of a thick forest.

Similar concepts apply with regard to the matter we are discussing. In the time of Rabbi Shimon, [the observance of tefillin was] weak: our people wore tefillin at home, but did not risk death by wearing them in the street for the entire day. Thus it is possible that inch by inch, Jews came to the present situation.

But I ask you: If one will look at the mixed marriages involving a certain percentage of people, the movement toward the mode of having a priest and a Rabbi officiate together on Shabbos and Sunday, the seminaries-yeshivos where rabbis and priests study together [are there not questions that arise]? There is a rabbi whom hundreds of thousands of American Jews consider a leader and he gives away a menorah which had been in a house of study for thousands of years to a church. And he boasts of what he did in all the newspapers and yet he remains a leader. [With such an approach, even] if you will gather together all the champions which America contains concerning this matter, [they will not be able to answer the question:] What will remain of the Jewish people in our children’s [generation]?

With best wishes and with the blessing, “Immediately to teshuvah; immediately to Redemption,”

Rabbi Menachem Schneerson
Executive Director

In your letter, you mention the French philosopher Voltaire. His life and the values he championed in his personal conduct and relationships with others is one of the best illustrations of how much it is necessary to develop harmony between one’s mind and heart (desires) as I mentioned in the previous letter and the consequences that result when such harmony is lacking.