Sarah’s Corner: We Can Always Return


We Can Always Return

Sarah Pachter

“Making returns is a major part of my job description.”

– A mother

When I try to return merchandise from Amazon, there are three options available: UPS drop off, UPS pick up, and Kohl’s drop off.

Similarly, Hashem offers us a variety of ways to return to Him.

Rabbi Shmuel Kamenetzky shares the following idea.

Imagine someone walked into the Library of Congress and wanted to see the Declaration of Independence. He asks the guide to direct him, and the guide points to a certain area. He approaches the document on display and sees that it is written in Russian! He wonders, Why would the U.S. government use a foreign language to identify the very document that symbolizes the essence of America? 

One of the primary “documents” of the Jewish people is the Shema. We say it twice daily, are commanded to remember the words, and teach them to our children. The content is utilized in our tefillin.

And part of the prayer is written in a foreign language:

Vehayu le’totafot bein einecha, it shall be for you two between your eyes.  

The Gemara in Sanhedrin says the origin of the word totafot is a compound word that combines two foreign words. Tot stems from the language of the Katfei,  an ancient sect rooted in Egypt. Fot is from the Afriki language. Each part means the number two; therefore, in the tefillin on rosh, head there are four separate compartments for the parshios, whereas in the yad, the arm, there is only one compartment.[1]

Additionally, Rabbi Kamenetzky shares that tefillin are referred to as a remembrance,[2]Vehaya zicharon ben einecha.”[3]

The following beautiful story provides insight into why the  Torah refers to tefillin as a remembrance and why it uses a word of foreign origin such as totafot?

Steve Savisky was on an airplane and was upgraded  to first class. Sitting  next to him was a large man wearing chains, an open collar, and a gold ring. When it came time for the meal, this man was enjoying a ham sandwich, while Mr. Savisky ate his kosher meal. At the end of the meal, the stewardess came by to clean up, at which point Mr. Savisky took out his small siddur and started saying birkat hamazon.

The man seated next to him looked at him and said in a southern drawl, “Hey, is that a siddur?”

He replied, “Yes, it is. Would you like to see it?”

“I haven’t seen a siddur in so many years! Can I hold it?”

He took the siddur in his hands, stood up, and began to daven maariv, shuckling the whole time.

Mr. Savisky looked at him in shock. The man explained that he was observant many years prior and that the siddur brought back memories from his childhood. 

At the end of the flight, Mr. Savisky gave him the siddur as a memento.

This story sheds light on the origin of the word  tefillin. The Torah purposefully calls tefillin a remembrance, and gives it a foreign name. This is to teach that no matter where a Jew is, the Jewish symbols will be there to remind you to come home.

Unfortunately, very often, generations pass and children and grandchildren don’t always stay on the derech. But there is a promise that if we honor our parents, our descendents will be close to Hashem.

A leader of the Jewish Orthodox community in the 1920s, Rav Weinberg was the head of Hildesheimer Academy. On Rosh Hashanah, he wanted to daven in the main shul, and he walked a far distance to reach it. When the gabbai recited Yizkor, a limo passed by and out steppedWalter Rathenau, who served as a German foreign minister in the Weimar Republic.

Members of the shul began to call out, “Apikores! How can we allow him in the shul?

Regardless, Rathenau walked in, said Yizkor, and walked out, unbothered by the uproar.

Afterwards, the Rabbi directed his attention to the audience. “How could you possibly be criticizing another Jew for honoring his parents? We are taught that anyone who honors their parents, will merit to see their offspring  eventually come back to the religion.”

Several years later, Rabbi Weissbrot, a student of Rav Weinberg, was asked to give a shiur in Modi’in on kivud av ve’em. He shared the story about Rathenau. One young student came over and asked, “What name did you say?”

He replied, “Walter Rathenau.”

The young man was stunned. “That was my grandfather. My father was chozer betshuva.”

I have seen this to be true in my own family. My grandfather was born in Morocco, following a long line of rebbeim. As an adult, he was not religious at all, but the one mitzvah he was diligent about was kivud av ve’em. Today, many of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now observant.

Rabbi Asher Yaakov Sinclair shares a beautiful story.

During the Holocaust, the Allies managed to bomb a major road that the Nazis had built across Poland. The road was left with gaping holes throughout the ground. The Nazis were furious that the road was destroyed.

One evening, the Nazis pulled many Jews from concentration camps and demanded that they jump across the crater-like dip in the ground. If they managed to make it across they would be allowed to live, but if they fell or could not cross in one hop, they would be shot. All of this was purely for the entertainment of the soldiers.

Throughout the night, Jewish people were shot, and their neshamas rose to greet their Creator.

The Bluzhever Rav was part of the line of Jews waiting to jump. Behind him was a young man who had lost his faith as a result of the atrocities of the war.

The young fellow said angrily, “When it’s my turn, I’m not going to jump. Let them shoot me where I stand. I’m not going to entertain them or perform for them like a dog.”

The Bluzhever Rebbe responded to him softly, “My friend, what a precious gift the Creator has given us. It is the gift of life. However, there is one condition. We cannot take it back one moment earlier than He takes it from us.”

Right before the Rebbe’s turn to jump, he closed his eyes and mustered up all the strength he had left. He stood there for a few short moments, and the young lad seemed to see a smile spread across his face.

He jumped into the darkness, and when he opened his eyes, he had miraculously crossed safely to the other side.

The young man was next to him moments later. He asked the Rebbe, “How did you possibly have the strength to do that? You are old, you are weak…”

The Rebbe answered, “Just before I jumped, I saw a vision of my zeide, grandfather in front of me. In front of him was his zeide, and all the Jews back through the ages to Mount Sinai. All of those holy Jews kept the Torah, even though it cost them their lives. I saw my grandfather jumping across the pit, and I stretched my arms out and grabbed his coat tails, and he pulled me across.”

The two stood quietly for some time.

Then the Rebbe said, “That’s how I made it across. But you, how did you do it?”

He answered, “Rebbe, I was hanging on to your coat tails.”

Although we are not as holy as the Bluzhever Rebbe, every person has someone who is relying on us. Those people need our love, our help, and our guidance.

Just like a father patiently waits for his child to come back, so too Hashem waits longingly for our return. Tefillin, kivud av ve’em is the mitzvah, and hanging onto the coattails of great people can help bring us and our descendents  back. No matter how far a person strays, there is always a possibility to return.

[1] Rashi and the Gemara Sanhedrin 4B

[2] Parshat Bo

[3] Dvar Torah by Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky in 1998