Ezzy and Milt were neighbors in an apartment building. One day, Milt asked Ezzy to tell him why he has a small “case” hanging on his doorpost. Ezzy explained the mezuzah represents God watching over the people who live in the home. Milt was taken aback. “Where can I buy one? Do they sell them in a Judaica store?” It was a strange encounter.
When Milt rang Ezzy’s bell a few days later, Ezzy saw Milt holding a mezuzah case in his hand. “I bought this from the Judaica store downtown. Can you tell me how to hang this up?” Ezzy took a closer look. “Where is the paper that was inside the case?” he asked. “Oh, you mean the instructions? They were all in Hebrew and I can’t read Hebrew. I left it on my kitchen table!” Milt did not realize the special parchment inside the casing, with a paragraph of Shema from the Torah on it, is the real mezuzah. The case is just a holder for the parchment and not even necessary!
Parshas Va’eschanan contains the first paragraph of Shema and we’re told to affix a mezuzah on our doorposts. We’re also instructed to wear tefillin on our arm and head. The Sfas Emes teaches us something remarkable. The tefillin shel rosh (for the head) contains four individual parchments with four different portions of the Torah written on them. The tefillin shel yad (worn on the arm) contains one parchment with the same four portions of Torah written on it. The four parchments of the shel rosh represent the first four books of the Torah. The single parchment in the shel yad represents the fifth book of the Torah—Sefer Devarim. Taken together, the five parchments represent the whole Torah. Just as a Jewish king is commanded to have his own personal sefer Torah to carry with him at all times, each Jew beginning at the time of his bar mitzvah has his own tefillin—a “mini sefer Torah”—that he “carries” with him each day (except for Shabbos and Yom Tov), to remind him of his commitment to Hashem.
The tefillin is different from the mezuzah. The parchment of the mezuzah is essential, while the casing is just a recommended protective cover. However, the boxes of the tefillin that contain the parchment are required and have many laws about the specific material, the construction of the boxes and their straps. Having suitable casing and parchment are essential, as the casing of the tefillin and its straps, although perfectly made, are not kosher without the proper parchment inserted inside them. If the words on the parchments are missing a letter, or if a letter is misspelled, they are disqualified. While the structure of the boxes and the straps are required, the words of Torah inside the boxes are what truly empowers them.
The boxes and the parchments have a parallel to people. The Gemara (Makkos 22) relates that the people in Bavel used to stand when a sefer Torah was carried in shul, but would not rise when a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) walked by. The Gemara points out the foolishness in this behavior, as the talmid chacham is greater than a sefer Torah since he contains and lives his life according to the full direction of the Torah. The talmid chacham is in effect a living sefer Torah!
Every bit of Torah we learn helps create within us a living sefer Torah. We become like the tefillin with the parchments inside. However, in addition to the Torah knowledge we acquire, we must ensure that our behavior is refined and positively reflects one who learns Torah and is a Torah-observant Jew.
Parshas Va’eschanan also contains the giving of the second set of the Aseres Hadibros (“Ten Commandments”). While Hashem fabricated the first luchos (tablet), Moshe was commanded to carve out from stone the second luchos on two separate tablets. With Moshe’s luchos in mind, we must not only instill the Torah within us, but also develop ourselves and our behavior to be a proper “casing” for the words of Torah we have learned. By developing our middos (positive qualities) Hashem will help etch the Torah’s words into us so they are part of our essence. We can then aspire to be a true living sefer Torah.
Last year, a phenomenal organization called Chesed 24/7 asked my wife to help them. In most major hospitals in the New York City area, it provides rooms fully stocked with delicious kosher food for patients, their families and visitors. (Indeed, they helped my family so much when my mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Singer a”h, was in the hospital.) They wanted my wife to host a Shabbos box packing event, where neighbors and friends would come pack boxes filled with all the necessary items for Shabbos – challahs, grape juice, kiddush cups, candles and tablecloths – that sick patients and families would need. My wife was excited to help! What a great zechus (merit) to host this as a merit for her mother’s neshama!
Only one problem – the 9:00 pm start time coincided with the nightly women’s phone conference that learns the sefer Ahavas Chesed written by the Chofetz Chaim. The conflict was quickly resolved. Someone suggested starting the Chesed 24/7 event by a reading from the sefer on chesed and jumping right in to dochesed!
At 9:00 pm, my wife welcomed the ladies and started to read the lesson. The opening words sent shivers down her spine. “When parents pass into the next world, the child’s ability to honor and serve them does not disappear. In the months following their passing, the parents’ souls undergo intense scrutiny and the child’s help is much needed. The help needed then and forever after, can only be provided through the child’s acts of kindness.”
“Wow. What a message from Hashem,” my wife thought. “This event is giving such a benefit to my mother by all of us getting together to pack Shabbos packages for hospitalized patients.”
That same night, I attended a siyum by my neighbor’s son, Yaakov Shimon Spira. While there, Rabbi Spira showed me a Vilna Gaon (Shir Hashirim 6:4) on the relationship of chesed to the loss of the Beis HaMikdash. In Pirkei Avos it says there are three pillars the world stands on: Torah, avodah [service/prayer] and gemilus chasadim [acts of kindness]. With the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash, two of the pillars were destroyed. We lost the pillar ofavodah, as the Beis HaMikdash clearly was the pillar of avodah. In a sense, we also lost the pillar of Torah, as the verse in Eicha (2:9) says “… there is no Torah.” Although we do currently pray and learn Torah, and we have shuls and yeshivos, the nature of prayer and Torah when the Beis HaMikdash stood was at an extraordinarily higher level. The pillar of kindness, however, remains.
Our world needs the three pillars, but it seems the pillar of chesedcan support the world in the interim. This is reflected in the verse in Tehillim, “Hashem built the world based on kindness.” For almost 2,500 years, Hashem supported the world with his infinite kindness, before he gave us the Torah in 2,448. With the destruction of our Temple almost 2,000 years ago, the world went back to being supported by Hashem’s chesed, and the morechesed we do, the more chesed we merit to receive from Hashem.
Kindness precedes all. We see that from the key attributes of the three Avos. Avraham – chesed, Yitzchak – avodah, Yaakov – Torah. Avraham was first, perfecting the quality of chesed by providing food and shelter to those in need, plus attempting to create peace and harmony and teaching the world about Hashem and His kindness.
Chesed is built into our very lives! A child is born totally helpless. Parents selflessly perform chesed all day for their baby. It’s the chesed parents perform that helps the child to be successful. From this presentation by the Vilna Gaon, we see clearly that one key pillar of the world, kindness, remained intact since the loss of our Beis HaMikdash.
When someone is having a difficult day or his world seems to be crumbling, the helping hand we provide that person may be the key support he needs to overcome his difficulties. Chesed is not just a nice thing to do – it’s essential to our mutual existence. Everyone is entitled to chesed, whether they deserve it or not. We emulate Hashem by going above and beyond in our kindness to all of our fellowmen.
That special day last year brought it all together: First, my wife agreeing to host the box-packing event for the chesed organization in the merit for her mother’s neshama. Then the message of the Chofetz Chaim that acts of kindness are the crucial merits that parents need in the next world from their children. And finally, the teaching of the Vilna Gaon that the pillar of kindness is the only pillar remaining after the loss of the Beis HaMikdash.
Tisha B’Av commemorates the loss of both Temples, the second of which was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Through our present acts of kindness, the opposite of baseless hatred, we can merit to have the Temple rebuilt and the pillars of Torah and avodah restored in their full strength.
This coming Sunday will be Tisha b’Av (the ninth of Av), the saddest day in the Jewish calendar. Jews around the world will sit on the floor in mourning, crying over the Beis HaMikdash which was destroyed many years ago on this day.
We find something somewhat alarming in the texts describing the essence of Tisha b’Av. On the one hand, we have an obligation to mourn. As our Sages have explained, the mourning isn’t merely over the physical building of the Beis HaMikdash which was destroyed, rather we mourn the disconnect which resulted between us and HaShem. We cry because we realize how far away we are from HaShem and how far we’ve strayed from His presence. On the other hand, the Medrash tells us that Tisha b’Av is called a “mo’ed”, a holiday. Yet in Jewish consciousness, holidays were given to represent a connection to HaShem! Their sole purpose is to celebrate the closeness of our eternal relationship with our Creator! This is seemingly a contradiction. How can Tisha b’Av be a day whose essence is the expression of the great distance we feel between us and HaShem while also being a day where we celebrate our closeness with Him?
The previous Slonimer Rebbe of Yerushalayim answered this question with a parable. A father has two children. One child grew up, went to medical school and became a successful doctor. He was able to pay back all of his student debts and was able to build himself a nice house with his newfound income. Being the loyal son that he was, every Friday, before Shabbos, he would call his father to see how the week had went and to wish him a gut Shabbos. The other son wasn’t as fortunate. After getting into some trouble in high school, he found himself in one difficult situation after the other. He grew up, scrimping and saving to pay off his debts, but it never seemed to be enough. He would also call his father every week before Shabbos, but his conversation would look vastly different then his brother’s. Instead of calling and saying, “Hey, Dad, how are you?… How was your week?… Have a gut Shabbos..”, this brother would call his dad and say “Dad, I’m sorry to ask you again. But I need help. I can’t do it by myself. I feel like I’m drowning… please, dad, please help….”
Who do you think the father feels more love towards? Sure, he’s probably much prouder of the first son. But to which son does he think and worry about? Which son occupies his thoughts, and gives him a longing to just be with that son, and make everything all right? To which does he feel closer? To me, it seems obvious that the answer is the second son.
Our relationship with HaShem is oft-times likened to the relationship between a father and a son. On Tisha b’Av, we sit and we cry because we’re so far from HaShem. But that itself brings us closer to Him. At the times where we feel like we just can’t do it anymore, like we can’t function by ourselves without Him – those are the times where HaShem feels closest to us. Just like a father, when the son calls out for help, the father is always there.
That’s the reason why the day is considered both a day of mourning, but also a holiday. Because within our mourning and sadness we come closer to HaShem.
I think the lesson here goes even a step further. When are the times that HaShem is close to us? When we mourn and cry because we’re so far away from Him. The lesson here isn’t just in a theoretical sense. It’s practical as well. How many of us fail to mourn? How many of us come to a day like Tisha b’Av without being able to cry? HaShem wants to be close to us. But how can it be if we’re not even the son who calls up the father to say, “Dad, I need help”. How can it be if we’re the son who neglects to call his father at all? The lesson here isn’t just that HaShem is closest to us in our times of despair, it’s that we need to look to Him within that sadness and use it to draw closer to Him. It means being the son who calls his father and says “please, dad, please help me…”
The first step is to know the father. That’s really what it’s all about. To not be the estranged son who neglects his father’s. Only after that can we use the tools at our disposal to draw closer and closer to Him.