April 13, 2024 |

How To Increase Your Love of Hashem

In just a couple of weeks we have a novel project beginning in our shul. And I especially want everyone—men and women-- to consider participating in this project. It requires a time commitment of approximately 12-15 hours but it is definitely worth it. We will be the first Orthodox synagogue in the world to participate in this project.

I am referring to the Kesher Tefillin project with Noah Greenberg. Noah Greenberg is a world renowned artist who lives in Israel in the city of Tzfat. He is well known for the unique shtender he built with another artist named David Moss. This spectacular piece of usable art now sells for $60,000—and the price is going up.

A couple of years ago, as Noah was preparing to purchase a pair of tefillin for his son’s bar mitzvah, he wondered to himself, how did the Jewish people make tefillin when they lived in the desert? When they didn’t have fancy machinery and hydraulic presses, what did they do? So Noah, being the creative genius that he is worked closely with great Torah scholars and figured out how one can make absolutely kosher tefillin in a manner consistent with the way the Jewish people made their tefillin in the desert.

After discovering this Noah realized that our connection to the mitzvah and our understanding of tefillin would be that much greater if we actually constructed the tefillin ourselves. So Noah designed an educational program which over a period of 12-15 hours allows one to both make tefillin and understand the laws and deeper symbolism of tefillin. It is this course which we will hold in our shul beginning on Saturday night November 6.

Some of you might be so excited about this idea that you will run out to the street and tell your friends about it. Your friends will then say, “What do I need to make my own tefillin for? I can just purchase them in the store. Especially since while these tefillin will be kosher they will be more fragile and thus are not recommended for everyday use.”

Here is the answer I want you to share with your friends when they raise that issue.

Today we read the in the Torah about the Akeidah, the near sacrifice of Yitzchak. In this story, Hashem tests Avraham, vaelokim nisah et avraham, and asks him to bring his son up to Mount Moriah as an olah offering. Avraham willingly brings his son up the mountain and thus passes the test.

But the commentators ask: Why does Hashem have to test Avraham? After all Hashem is omniscient and thus He already knows whether or not Avraham will pass the test. Why make Avraham go through with this gut wrenching test?

A well known answer to this question is the explanation of the great Nachmanides (Ramban).

Says Ramban: Of course, Hashem knew what Avraham was going to do but He still gave him this challenge, kedei lehotzi mei hakoach el hapoel, in order to help Abraham take his innate potential and actualize it.

In other words, Hashem knows Avraham has the potential to pass this great challenge, but He still challenges Avraham with this difficult task so that his innate talent can be actualized.

This idea of Ramban is very powerful, but it needs to be properly understood.

If Hashem already knows what it is in our hearts, what value is there in actualizing our potential?

Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshiva University, explains that the way to understand this Ramban is through a verse that appears in Deuteronomy.

In Deuteronomy (13:4) The Torah states that Hashem sometimes will even allow a false prophet to perform a miracle in order to test us. But this miracle should not distract us from the fact that this prophet is false. Hashem has allowed the prophet to perform a miracle for the sole purpose of testing us: Ki menaseh Hashem Elokeichem etchem ladaat ha-yeshchem ohavim et Hashem Elokeichem beckhol levavchem u-vekhol nafshekhem, God has tested you in order for you to know if you love Hashem with all your heart and all your soul.

The purpose of the test from Hashem is for us to see how much we love Hashem. It is not for Hashem to see how much we love Him. It is for us to show ourselves how much we love Him.

That is the idea behind taking something from the potential to the actual. It is Hashem’s way of showing us how much we love Him. For the more we realize how much we love Him the better we can serve Him and the more reward He can give us.

So according to Ramban: God tests us in order to bring out our potential, so that we can in turn feel good about ourselves and love God even more and thus gain more reward from God.

The rabbinic idea behind this is, acharei hapeulah nimshachot hamachashavot, the thoughts follow the actions. Thus, the more mitzvoth we do, the more our souls broaden (marchiv nefesh), the more spiritual we become, and the more we grow closer to Hashem.

On a practical level this is why the rabbis emphasize the need to perform mitzvoth as frequently as possible. The rabbis encourage one to perform as many mitzvoth as possible rather than doing the entire mitzvah all at once. For example, all things being equal, it is better to study Torah every day for one hour than to study one day a week for seven hours. And, so too, it is better to give ten different poor people a single dollar, than to give one poor person ten dollars.

The Chofetz Chayyim once told a person it is appropriate to take a job as a bank teller so that he could accustom himself to handing money out to other people. In this way, he would be more likely to give charity to others as well.

The more mitzvoth we do, the more we are conditioning ourselves and actualizing our spirituality.

Avraham understands that the akeidah is a command from Hashem in order to help Abraham concretize his spirituality. Since it is a command, a mitzvah, he also realizes that the more he personally does himself the closer he will come to Hashem. Turning the potential into the actual requires Avraham to personally do many of the necessary actions for the akeidah himself.

Thus, in this context the verses highlight all the physical activity that Abraham personally did for the Akeidah: “Vayashkem avraham baboker, Abraham woke up early in the morning, vayachavosh et chamoro, he saddled his donkey…vayivakah atzei olah, he chopped the wood for the offering.”

Rashi explains: “Hu beatzmo velo tzivah le-echad miavadav.” He did these actions himself and he did not command it to any of his servants.

Avraham understands that the way to achieve a greater love of God is to take our inner spiritually and concretize it. The more we perform a physical action in service of God, the closer we will come to Him.

This is why He embraces the seemingly menial tasks surrounding the akeidah as ways to serve Hashem.

There are many examples of this in Judaism. Take a funeral. This is the reason why we ourselves carry the coffin to the grave; and this is the reason why we fill up the grave with earth rather than allowing the cemetery workers to perform this task.

On a personal note, one of the most spiritual moments of my rabbinate was when our synagogue engaged in the baking of matzah on the eve of Pesach last year. The more we physically partake in actions in service of God, the closer we will come to Him and the more we will love Him.

In that context I urge you all to engage in this practice of making our tefillin. The act of participating in the making of tefillin will bring us to a greater love of Hashem; the more we fold the leather and shape it and lovingly put together a kosher pair of tefillin, the more we will love Hashem.

I can’t wait to wear tefillin that I personally made. I will take it out once a year on a special occasion and place them on my head and I am sure that it will give me extra special kavvanah.

I want to encourage women to participate in this activity as well. Although there are specific parts of the process that only a man can do according to Halakhah, and although the Rama specifically says that a woman should not wear Tefillin, still this is a very special practice for a woman to participate in. Can you imagine a woman presenting this pair of tefillin to her son on his bar mitzvah day or to her husband on his wedding day or to her father on father’s day? That is a truly spiritual gift which can transform a relationship forever.

I believe that everyone who engages in this activity will have a deeper and more meaningful relationship with Hashem.

But some of you might have friends who still question this program. They might ask you: “Where does it say it is a mitzvah to make tefillin? Sure, it is a mitzvah to wear tefillin, but to make tefillin? Nonsense! I will simply buy it in the store.”

Well my answer to that is that this act of making tefillin isn’t necessarily a mitzvah, but it is a way of increasing our love of Hashem.

The lesson of the akeidah is that we need to act in service of Hashem out of a great love for Him, even more than out of a command to do His will.

God didn’t just tell Abraham, “Kach et binkhah, take your son.” Instead He said, “kach na et binkhah. Please take your son.” Why the word nah, since when does Hashem have to say “please”?

R. Herschel Schachter, cites the medieval authority, known as the Ran who explains, that Hashem is asking Abraham to do Him a favor. He is telling Abraham: “This isn’t a mitzvah. I am not commanding you to do this. But if you want you can do this.”

The test of Abraham is whether or not he will do something even though Hashem does not require it from him. This is the idea of loving Hashem; as Mesillat Yesharim explains it means we perform an act for Hashem even without a specific command.

There are different ways to show love in this world.

When a wife asks a husband to pick up chocolate for her at the store and he does so that is one expression of love. But when the husband surprises his wife with chocolate for a special occasion…that is an even higher expression of love.

Getting to a higher level of love in all our relationships is always a good thing.

Sometimes we will try anything at all just to spread the love around.

Recently, I bought a thousand pens which I now give out to everyone I meet. The pens say, “Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld loves you.”

Just this week I had lunch with the next mayor of DC, Vince Gray. The first thing I did was give him a pen. I told him that he should keep the pen in his pocket and when he has a bad day—when the media criticizes him—he should take out the pen and remember that I love him. He looked at me, laughed, and said, “Rabbi: You REALLY are off the wall.”

When it comes to Hashem we are encouraged to seek out new ways of increasing our love for Him.

An act that helps us have more love for Hashem is a great thing to do even though it is not an explicit mitzvah. According to some such an act is even greater than a mitzvah for the highest level of serving Hashem is to do things out of love of Hashem, even though we are not commanded.

When we lovingly create our own pair of tefillin we will be doing an action that concretizes our love of God. We will be saying: “We know we can just walk into any Jewish book store and purchase a pair of tefillin. But, for Hashem, that simply isn’t enough. We want to grow closer with Him and serve Him as much as possible. So we will learn everything possible about this mitzvah. All in the hopes that as a result we will come just a little bit closer to Hashem, the Holy One Blessed be He.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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