By Rabbi Tuvia Bolton
In this week’s Torah reading, Ki Sisa, we saw how Moses convinced G-d to forgive the Jews after they committed the worst sin imaginable: the Golden Calf!
After G-d took them from Egypt, split the sea, gave them manna etc. and told them personally at Sinai not to worship idols … they nevertheless did it! And He forgave them!
But here we see a strange thing. Part of the forgiveness was when G-d said to Moses, “I will show you My back” (33:23) And Rashi comments, ‘G-d showed him the knot on His (G-d’s) Head Tefillin’.
This seems to makes no sense. First of all, as encouraging as it is to us, how could G-d forgive such a deliberate and heinous sin as the Golden calf? And what does this have to do with G-d’s Tefillin knot? Finally, G-d is infinite and certainly doesn’t have limbs or a head, so what does it mean that He wears Tefillin?
To understand this… Here is a story.
The Baal Shem Tov (Besh’t for short) was once on a journey with his prize pupil Rebbe Dov Ber of Mezeritz. They passed through a city and were recognized by a Jew who ran to them and explained what a miracle it was to meet the Baal Shem Tov …. especially today; the day of his son’s Bris!! His wife gave birth to a boy eight days ago, the Brit (circumcision) was going to be in just a few hours and he would be overjoyed if the Besh’t would agree to be the Sandak (one who holds the child on his lap at the time of circumcision, which is a great honor and blessing)!
To his pleasant surprise the Baal Shem Tov agreed… but made two conditions. First, that the Rabbi of the town, who had already agreed to be the Sandak, would give his permission, and secondly that he (the Baal Shem Tov) be allowed to choose and slaughter the chicken that would be his portion for the festive meal held after the Brit.
The joyous father of the child escorted the Baal Shem Tov and his pupil to the Synagogue, then ran to the Rabbi and got his full permission (the Rabbi was delighted) and then ran back to help the Baal Shem Tov to choose a chicken.
But it wasn’t as easy as he thought. There were several chicken farms in the area, but when they went to one and found the chicken coops the Baal Shem Tov put his walking stick in and all the chickens ran away. “Not here” he said, “we will have to try somewhere else.” But the same thing happened everywhere they visited until finally at the last farm one scraggly fowl that probably didn’t have more than a few spoonfuls of meat on its bones, stayed still.
This is the one.” said the Baal Shem Tov as he undid his sack, took out a small, longish box, opened it, produced a ritual slaughtering knife and a small rectangular flat stone. He then sharpened the knife, had his pupil check it to see if it was done correctly, made a blessing and slaughtered the chicken.
“Hmmm” he said as he looked closely at the chicken, I think there is something wrong here… call the Rabbi.”
In just moments the Rabbi was there. He examined the bird and declared it to be kosher. But the Baal Shem Tov turned to his pupil and asked “What do you think, Dov Ber?” Rabbi Dov Ber answered, “I think it is not kosher!” and he brought several reasons why.
But the Rabbi didn’t agree and began quoting noted opinions to support his lenient decision. But when he finished the Baal Shem Tov’s pupil rebutted with equally great opinions to contradict those brought by the Rabbi and so they went on for almost an hour!
Meanwhile the father of the child was getting desperate… it was getting late! It was already well after noon, in a few hours it would be dark and too late to make the brit. But it seemed like the argument would go on forever.
Finally, the Baal Shem Tov interrupted the debate and said to the Rabbi, “I think the only way to decide this is to ask your son Alexander Sender for his opinion.
The Rabbi’s eyes opened wide almost in horror, he became pale and looked like he was about to faint as he stammered, “Sen… Sender? My… my … my son Sender? How did you know I had a son? How did you know his name?”
The Baal Shem Tov calmly continued. “Just go and ask him, I’m sure he knows the answer.”
“But… but… he’s paralyzed… since birth.” The Rabbi whispered aloud. “From birth… he can’t … why … he can’t even talk.”
“Ridiculous!” answered the Baal Shem Tov, “Come, I’ll show you.
They walked to the Rabbi’s house, entered the boy’s room and sure enough when his father bent down and asked him to see the chicken …. The boy suddenly sat up and said, “But I can’t go in pajamas, daddy! You’ll have to find me something to wear.”
The entire household was upside down, screaming and jumping around hysterically but after a few moments they calmed down, found clothes for him and he went to examine the chicken.
“The chicken is kosher!” the boy declared. And he proceeded to give a genius analysis of his own, including all the previous opinions, that solved all the problems and supported his opinion.
The boy’s father was dumbfounded, where did he learn to speak? And how could he possibly have known such deep Torah ideas if he had never opened a book? But the Baal Shem Tov didn’t seem surprised at all. “Now we have two more reasons to rejoice besides the Bris; the chicken is kosher and … today is Sender’s Bar Mitzva!”
The boy’s father thought deeply for a moment and exclaimed, “Yes! You are right! He was born exactly thirteen years ago! We have a double holiday!”
Immediately they went to the Synagogue, made the circumcision, washed their hands for bread and began the celebrations. Sender gave a long Bar Mitzva speech filled with deep and wondrous Torah ideas and after he finished, he said he wanted to lie down and rest for a while. The Besh’t agreed, Sender thanked everyone, said the blessing after eating and went to his room.
Shortly afterward the meal ended and the boy’s father thanked him profusely but the Baal Shem Tov answered. “But we still have one more ‘mitzva’ (good deed) to do.
Your son … Alexander Sender’s funeral.”
“What!” The boy’s father shouted. His mouth dropped open and his eyes widened in horror. He ran to the boy’s room and, sure enough, it was as the Baal Shem Tov said. Sender had passed away!!
Again, the household was turned upside down, but this time with cries of sorrow and heartbreaking grief.
After the funeral the boy’s father asked for an explanation and the Baal Shem Tov told him to sit down and answered.
“Years ago, lived a great and holy Torah Scholar, the author of the book Tevuat Shor, Rabbi Alexander Sender Shor. He was unequaled in erudition and people came from far and wide to drink from his wisdom and to ask him to decide difficult Torah questions.
“Well, it so happened that one Friday afternoon a poor widow arrived at his home with a problem. She had purchased a chicken for her family for Shabbat but after it was slaughtered a question arouse if it was kosher or not. This woman had worked like a slave for a month to afford this chicken for her five orphans and she was really praying that it was kosher.
“But it just so happened that precisely when she entered Rabbi Shor was so busy other things that he just took one fleeting look at the chicken said it was not kosher and wished the woman a good Shabbat. But, in fact, if he would have made the effort, he would have discovered that …. it was kosher.
“So years later when he passed away he was informed by the heavenly court that, although he had led a perfect life he could not be raised to the sublime level he really deserved because of that blemish; the chicken was kosher and he said it wasn’t.
“So his soul was given the choice to either resign itself to a ‘lesser’ heavenly level or to return, reincarnated, to this world and ‘fix’ the injustice done to the widow and her children, who had been denied the chicken, and to the chicken (that had been denied ‘elevation’ by being eaten on Shabbat).
“But Rabbi Shor’s soul protested; the world is fraught with temptations and darkness … perhaps, rather than fixing things the world might cause it to sin!
“So the solution was that he be born completely paralyzed, and unable to sin, until the age of Bar Mitzva when he would permit that chicken. That is why he passed away almost immediately after he fixed it.
This answers our questions; how G-d could forgive the Jews after the Golden Calf and what is the connection to His Tefillin knot.
The Jewish people are called “Sons of G-d”.(Ex. 4:22, Deut 14:1, see Tanya Chapt. 2) which means that they are essentially one with the Almighty, like a limb is one with the body. And just as a normal person cannot sever a limb so too, when the Jews remember their true identity is it is impossible for them to ‘sever’ themselves from G-d.
The only way that they can do it is if they ‘forget’ who they are.
In a very subtle way, how Rabbi Shur in our story didn’t decide that law with the chicken; he ‘forgot’ his obligation as a Rabbi.
That is how Moses convinced G-d to forgive the Jews; namely that their sin was due to temporary loss of memory and identity. As Moses said in his argument to G-d, “Remember, how you promised Abraham ect” (Ex, 32:13)
This is also what is meant by G-d’s Tefillin.
One of the main purposes of Tefillin is to REMIND us of our connection to G-d (Ex 13:9). And G-D’s ‘Tefillin’ are how He ‘remembers’ His connection to us.
And the knot on the back of G-d’s Tefillin shows that we are tied together in a way that is above understanding (like the Tefillin are worn ABOVE the head) even when we turn our backs on Him and He, seemingly, on us.
This will be the main job of Moshiach: to TIE all the Jews to their true source and remind them of their true identity.
And eventually connect all mankind and the entire creation to the Creator. (like the chicken finally got ‘elevated’ in our story) as we say thrice daily in the ‘Alenu’ prayer that G-d is ONE and His name (creation) is one!
It all depends on us to make it happen even one moment sooner. Just one more good deed, word or even thought can be enough to tilt the scales and bring…
Rabbi Tuvia Bolton
Yeshiva Ohr Tmimim
Kfar Chabad, Israel