Did you ever wonder why we get in a car but on a plane? And why is an actor on television but in a movie? Oh, and how can standing on line and in line mean the same thing? It doesn’t seem to make any sense!
There is actually a similar confusion regarding the mitzvah of tefillin (phylacteries) which is alluded to in this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Ki Savo – as we shall soon see.
The Torah in Deuteronomy 28:10 tells us: “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the Name of G-d is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you”.
The Talmud in Berachos 6a explains that this verse is referring to tefillin she’berosh (lit. “tefillin in the head”), the tefillin worn on the head. [In contrast to the tefillin worn on the arm, which is meant to be covered by clothing, and is primarily a reminder for the one who wears it, the tefillin on the head is seen by others and boldly proclaims the Name of G-d and our connection to Him, which causes the peoples of the earth to fear us.]
Now I don’t know about you folks, but I wear my tefillin on my head, not in my head! So what does the Talmud mean when it refers to “tefillin in the head”?
The following story about the Vilna Gaon will help us understand the Talmud’s words:
It is related that the Vilna Gaon was once staying overnight at a Jewish-owned inn. In the morning, the innkeeper got up to say his prayers and put on tefillin. The Vilna Gaon did the same in his own room. Suddenly, a stranger marched into the room where the innkeeper was praying and started to attack him. When the Vilna Gaon heard the innkeeper’s cries, he opened the door to his room. When the attacker saw the Vilna Gaon, he was overcome by fear and collapsed on the spot. The innkeeper turned to his prominent guest, full of wonder, and asked him, “Why did the attacker collapse like that? What did you do to him?” To this the Vilna Gaon answered, “What are you so surprised about? The Torah says that when the peoples of the earth shall see your head-tefillin they shall fear you.” The innkeeper responded, "But I was also wearing tefillin on my head and that didn’t stop the stranger from attacking me?!" The Vilna Gaon said to his host, “The difference between me and you is that you wear your tefillin ‘on’ your head and I wear my tefillin ‘in’ my head. In other words, you put your tefillin on each day without internalizing the message of the tefillin as I do. The tefillin worn on the head are meant to arouse us to be faithful servants of G-d and to subjugate our minds to Him, and to reinforce our belief in the Torah values that are contained within the parchments inside the tefillin. It is for this reason that the Talmud says that the verse in Deuteronomy is specifically referring to tefillin ‘in’ the head, for only one who internalizes the message of the tefillin to the point that he subjugates himself to G-d, and all can see that G-d’s Name is proclaimed over him, will merit special protection and will be revered and feared by the peoples of the earth.
With this idea in mind (as opposed to on mind?) we can answer a question that many have asked: Why is a 13-year-old boy called a bar-mitzvah? You see, bar is an Aramaic word meaning “son of”, so that bar-mitzvah literally means “son of a mitzvah”. Which is kind of a strange thing to call someone. I mean, we’ve all heard of “son of a gun”, but “son of a mitzvah”? What’s that supposed to mean?
I can just see it now. A guy at a cocktail party says to his friend, “Hey, I’d like to introduce you to my dad the matzah. And this is my mom the pushka (charity box). Yeah, I know, I’ve been told that I bear no resemblance to them at all.”
I believe that by calling a 13-year-old boy a bar-mitzvah (or, for that matter, calling a 12-year-old girl a bas-mitzvah) we are teaching the new Jewish adult a profound lesson about the proper performance of mitzvos.
Until now, as a minor, the child may have done many mitzvos, but they were mostly done on him and not in him, i.e. they weren’t transformative, since they were performed externally without focusing on the mitzvah’s inner purpose.
Now that he is (hopefully) a mature 13-year-old and a counted member of the Jewish community, the mitzvos he does are meant to mold him and transform him through his internalizing their message, hence the title bar-mitzvah, “son of a mitzvah”, i.e. one who is created and molded by the mitzvos he does.
I always say that once you’re a bar-mitzvah, it’s not enough for you to ‘do’ a mitzvah, the mitzvah’s gotta ‘do you’.
May we all merit to raise the ‘bar’ of our mitzvah performance by trying to internalize our actions and focusing on each mitzvah’s inner meaning. Amen.