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WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF LIFE?

Friday, 27 January, 2023 - 7:00 am

Becky says, "My husband David is just impossible. Absolutely nothing pleases him. Tell me, Hannah, is your Marvin hard to please?"

Hannah shrugs and replies, "I wouldn't know. I've never tried."

At a bar mitzvah, most Jewish boys don Tefilin. Yet many of them, don’t use them often enough.

I want to share with you some of the profound messages contained in these Tefilin, with the hope that this can inspire each of us to appreciate this mitzvah with more depth.

The mitzvah of Tefilin is mentioned four times in the Torah—and the first two are in the weekly Torah portion, Bo.

Tefilin is a pair of leather boxes, Inside the boxes, are parchment scrolls inscribed with four sections of the Hebrew Bible containing the fundamentals of the Jewish faith.

Tefilin is the quintessential Jewish “uniform,” donned by every Jewish male from the age of bar mitzvah.

A few obvious questions come to mind.

1) Why the need for the two boxes, one on the arm and one on the head? Why not just one of them?

2) According to the explicit order stated in the Torah, we first wrap the tefillin on the arm, and only afterward don the tefillin on the head.

3) When it comes to removing the tefillin, the order is reversed.

The Rebbe offered a beautiful explanation.

Jewish life consists of two aspects—the head and the arm.
The “head” of Judaism represents our love for learning and the workings of the mind. Over millennia we developed a culture of studying, debating, reflecting, analyzing, and achieving extraordinary intellectual heights. The mitzvah of Torah study is considered one of the greatest mitzvot of the Torah, if not the greatest.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks tells the story of when he fell deathly ill. “Many years ago, I was rushed into the hospital with a life-threatening condition. I was rushed straight from my doctor to the hospital, had an operation, and it saved my life. I was just waking up from Anesthesia when there was a knock on my hospital door. There an 80-year-old Jew with a volume of Gemara (Talmud) under his arm. saying, “Oh, I heard you were here Rabbi Sacks. I thought we could learn Gemara together!”

“I’m trying to die, and he wants to learn Gemara!”

What a Jewish story! Yes, we live in our brains, sometimes to a fault.

But Judaism has another side to it—its “arm,” representing action and implementation. To be a Jew is not only to exercise the brain, but to be an educated, knowledgeable Jew, a proud member of the “people of the book.” That is important but it’s not all. Judaism’s greatness is that it takes the highest ideals and most exalted visions and turns them into patterns of daily behavior and activities, which we call Mitzvot.

That is why we don daily a pair of tefillin, one for the head and the arm. You may read many books on wellness. But if you don’t implement the ideas and visions in real actions, in real-time, day after day, hour after hour, it is futile. The Book of Books is not only about ideas; it is G-d’s instructions on how to live our daily lives, as a member of His people, and as His ambassador in this world.  

It is not a coincidence this mitzvah is communicated to us by Moses, on the day we left Egypt, under his leadership.
If there was anyone who understood the power of the “arm” over the “head” it was Moses, and if there was ever a day it was appreciated—it was on the day of the Egyptian Exodus when the long drama between Moses and Pharaoh came to an end.
This coming Wednesday, February 1, 2023, the 10th of Shevat, marks the 73rd yartzeit of the sixth Rebbe, and the anniversary of the leadership of our Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson.

The late Mr. Gordon Zacks was the general chairman designate of the National UJA and was a founding member and chairman of the Young Leadership Cabinet of the UJA. In his book Defining Moments, he shares details of his audience with the Rebbe in 1969.
Zacks writes:
The Rebbe quoted the book ‘Zorba the Greek’ to me during our conversation. "Do you remember the young man talking with Zorba on the beach, when Zorba asks what the purpose of life is? The young fellow admits he doesn't know. And Zorba comments, 'Well, all those books you read -- what good are they? Why do you read them?' Zorba's friend says he doesn't know. Zorba can see his friend doesn't have an answer to the most fundamental question.

“’ That's the trouble with you… Wise men and grocers weigh everything. They can never cut the cord and be free.

“Your problem, Mr. Zacks, is that you are trying to find G-d's map through your head. You are unlikely to find it that way. You must experience before you can truly feel and then be free to learn. Let me send a teacher to live with you for a year and teach you how to be Jewish. You will unleash a whole new dimension to your life. If you really want to change the world, change yourself!

 It's like dropping a stone into a pool of water and watching the concentric circles radiate to the shore. You will influence all the people around you, and they will influence others in turn. That's how you bring about improvement in the world."

Zacks concludes: “He may not have gotten exactly what he wanted from me, but the Rebbe surely taught me the power of changing yourself to influence others.

This man came out of the scientific community to return to religious life. Every Israeli prime minister and Israeli chief of staff found his way to the Rebbe's doorstep when they came to the United States.

“The essence of the Rebbe's teaching is a celebration of G-d. The Chabad radiates a wonderful joy of life that is a reverberation of the Rebbe's spirit. I wish I could believe the way they do, with their absolute confidence in their answer. Their sheer love for celebrating Jewish traditions with singing and dancing is unmatched. Nothing equals the celebration of a Shabbat with a Chabadnik. The food is homemade, delicious -- though not necessarily healthy for your arteries -- but it's only the beginning of the positive energy that flows in each Shabbat from celebrating the birthday of the world!”

But tefillin on the arm is not enough.

Judaism is not only about routine, rituals, and behaviors. It may begin this way but should never end this way. G-d wants you to learn, study, reflect, understand, and appreciate with your minds whatever you can of the Torah and Mitzvot.

In the words of the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh:
If people would sense the sweetness and delight and goodness of Torah, they would go insane, running after it with an explosive passion. In their eyes, an entire world of silver and gold would be considered valueless, because the Torah encompasses all the good of the world.

Yigael Yadin was a well-known Israeli archeologist and politician, and the second Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces.
As an archeologist, he excavated some of the most important sites in Israel, including Masada.

The following story he wrote in his book Experiences of a Jewish Archeologist:

Shortly after the Six-Day War, I purchased an antique object for the Shrine of the Book, a division of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The article I purchased turned out to be an ancient pair of tefillin with all four of its parshiot (tefillin scrolls). This Tefillin was later verified to be the oldest known tefillin in existence today, written during the Second Temple era.

The ancient script was exceptionally small. When certain questions arose regarding these tefillin, it was necessary for the scrolls to be analyzed by equipment that at the time was to be found only in the central police lab in Tel Aviv. So, one day, carrying photocopies of the tefillin scrolls that had not yet been seen by anybody but myself, I found myself riding the train from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. Obviously, what I was holding in my hand—worth millions and millions of dollars—was top secret.

The town of Kfar Chabad is one of the stops on the way from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. At the Kfar Chabad station, some young men boarded the train and started making the rounds through the train’s cars. I was used to this scene: the Chabadniks would go from person to person, trying to get people to lay tefillin.

Soon it was my turn to be approached. I politely refused but couldn’t help noticing the foreign accent of the young man who asked me to lay tefillin.

“Where are you from?” I asked.

He informed me that he was a recent immigrant from the Soviet Union.

“And did you lay tefillin in the Soviet Union?” I wondered aloud.

“I’ve been laying tefillin every day since my bar mitzvah.”

When I heard that, I reconsidered. “If you did this mitzvah in the repressive Soviet Union, I won’t be the one to refuse you now in the Jewish homeland!”

I put on Tefilin with this young Chabadnik from the Soviet Union.

Little did this boy know that Yigal Yadin was one of the most famous figures in Israel and was held at the time Tefilin was written by a Jew some two thousand or 2500 years earlier, during the era when the Chanukah events transpired!

Before getting off the train in Tel Aviv, a woman approached Yigal Yadin while still sitting on the train.

 “Professor Yadin, I am glad that you agreed to the request of that young man—who obviously did not recognize who you are.

“You see, my son, also a Chabadnik, was a paratrooper who was mortally wounded in battle near the Suez Canal (in the Six-Day War). Before he died, the members of his platoon visited him in the hospital. His last request of them was that they lay tefillin. In my mind, when you donned Tefillin today, you too joined in fulfilling my son’s last request, moments before he died.”

Although Yigal Yadin did not know this, the fallen hero in this story was Rabbi David Marasow, a resident of Kfar Chabad. Immediately after the Six-Day War, his widow, Shifra, spearheaded the Chabad effort to benefit the widows and orphans of the soldiers who perished during the war. She arranged holiday programs, a camp, and grand bar and bat mitzvahs for the orphans. Following the war, the family of every slain soldier received a financial compensation package from the government. Mrs. Marasow selflessly used this money allotted to her to purchase tefillin for all the orphans, due to her husband’s last request!

Yigal Yadin continues the story:

I found myself fighting back tears. “What a remarkable chain of events!” I told her. “I have in my pocket photocopies of the oldest known existing Tefillin. I cannot think of anything more appropriate than to show them to you at this moment!”

Yigal Yadin took out the Tefilin and showed them to Mrs. Marasow.

Think about the story:
Yigal Yadin was a brilliant Jew—dedicated to the security and history of Israel. In his hand, he carried tefillin 2500 years old, for which he dedicated years and years to discover, research, and preserve. Yet, it did not dawn on him that he should also put on Tefillin!

His deep connection with the Tefillin was via his mind!

But on that train ride, he met a Soviet Jew who gave his blood, sweat, and tears for Yiddishkeit. Yigal Yadin met a Jew not only in the head but also in his entire body. And this inspired him! He saw not only the head of Judaism but the arm of Judaism. He observed, commitment, sacrifice, and conviction.

This is the power of living Jewish.

And there is something else about Tefilin. “And all the nations of the world will see that the Name of G-d is upon you, and they will fear you, the Torah states. What does it mean that "the Name of G-d is upon you"?

The Talmud explained that the verse refers to the tefillin worn on the head, which bears the letter Shins symbolizing G-d's name.

Today is a time when we need the protection offered by Tefilin. I want to request that all of us should increase our dedication to the mitzvah of Tefilin. Those of us who put on Tefilin daily should be extra sensitive to its holiness and should influence others to wear Tefilin. Those of us who don’t yet put them on daily should try to put on Tefilin each day.
May the Tefilin protect all of our brothers and sisters the world over and bring us redemption speedily in our days!


Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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