June 16, 2019 |

Outside the Box

On my desk I have a picture of myself with a very dear friend who is also a highly successful entrepreneur. This friend signed the picture to me: “To Rav Shmuel: Who taught me everything I know about thinking out of the box.”

In actual fact, I taught this man nothing about “thinking outside the box.” But that is beside the point. The point is that he meant to compliment me. To say someone “thinks outside the box” is to say someone is creative and is able to bring a new perspective to problem solving.

The origins of this phrase are not clear. But many think it goes back to a puzzle—called the nine dots puzzle--that was first introduced in the early 1900’s and later became popular in the 1960’s. The challenge of the puzzle is to connect dots by drawing four straight, continuous lines that pass through each of the nine dots without ever lifting the pencil from the paper. The solution is simple, but only if you “think outside the box;” i.e. if you draw the lines outside the confines of the square area defined by the nine dots themselves. The puzzle only seems difficult because we imagine that we are confined to the box, when really we need to think outside the box.

Today I would like to propose a new definition of what it means to think outside the box, based upon a Rashi to this week’s portion.

The pasuk states (32:23) that Yakov crossed over the Yabok River in order to meet his brother, Esav. “Vayakam balailah hahu vayikach et shetei nashav ve-et shetei shifchotav ve-et achad asar yeladav, and Jacob awoke that night and he took his two wives and his two concubines and his eleven children.”

Rashi wonders: By this point Jacob had not eleven, but twelve children. He had eleven boys and one girl. So Rashi asks, ve-dinah heichan haitah, and where was Dina? Rashi answers natnah bateivah. Jacob had placed Dinah in a box so that Esav would not desire to be with her.

Can you imagine that? Yakov hid his own daughter in a box!

This action is not looked upon favorably by the rabbis. Rashi continues: “Lekach ne-enash yakov shemanah meiachiv shemah tachzirenu lemutavh venaflah beyad Shechem. It is for this reason that Jacob was punished. Because Yakov held back Dinah he prevented Dinah from having a good influence upon Esav, and in the end Dinah fell into the hands of Shechem.”

Rashi is telling us that Yakov had no right to place Dinah inside a box. Dinah was put on this earth by Hashem for a reason. Maybe she was put here to change the world, to have a positive influence upon Esav. Whatever the reason, she surely was not created by God in order to be placed inside a box. Yakov acted in a selfish manner. He didn’t want Esav to see her, so he removed her from the world and put her in a box. Dinah was capable of tremendous good. But Yaakov did not let her accomplish it because he kept her inside the box.

I thought about this teaching of Rashi this past week while I was personally involved in the creation of a new pair of tefillin.

As you know some people from our shul—ten of us—are involved in a three week project of literally making our own tefillin. This is an amazing process which everyone involved finds to be extraordinarily rewarding.

As part of the process of making tefillin we literally made the batim, or the boxes of the tefillin. To make these boxes we took sheep skin, pounded it out into a specific shape. We then painted them black, and folded them into the shape of a box—a tefillin box.

But then came the hardest part. Each box of tefillin contains within it four paragraphs from the Torah written upon parchment. The four paragraphs are broken down as follows: the first paragraph is from Exodus 13 1-10 and it is called Kadesh li kol bechor, and the second paragraph is from Exodus 11-16 and it is called Vehayah ki yeviakhah. The third and fourth paragraphs that go into the tefillin are the first of the Shema which contain within them the commandment to wear tefillin.

So there are four separate compartments and parchments for the head tefillin (one parchment for each paragraph), and only one for the hand tefillin, for all the paragraphs for the hand tefillin are written on one piece of parchment.

We took the combined total of five pieces of parchment, upon which was written four paragraphs from the Torah, and in accordance with the ancient tradition taught to Moses at Sinai, we wrapped the parchment in another parchment covering called a matlis, and then (again in accordance with a law taught to Moses at Sinai) we tied up the parchment and its covering with the hair of a calf. We then placed that bundle into a compartment inside the box.

So in short, in the box for the tefillin shel rosh (of the head) we placed four pieces of parchment with each piece of parchment containing a separate paragraph from the Torah, and in the box for the tefillin shel yad (hand) we placed one piece, since those same paragraphs are written on one slip of parchment for the tefillin shel yad. We then sewed up the box of tefillin using the sinew of an animal.

Before we covered up the parchment with the matlis and the calf hair and closed up the box, I remember thinking to myself: This parchment is absolutely beautiful. The calligraphy on it was exquisite and the passages that were written upon the parchment are powerful words from the Torah.

And then I began to feel a little sad: I was about to confine these beautiful passages to the inside of a dark box, never to be seen again.

These parchments and their coverings are so beautiful. So why would we go to all this trouble and place it inside a box where no one can ever see it?

The answer lies in the very words written on the parchment.

The first parchment that we placed in the tefillin box contains the passage that states (Exodus 13:1-10)—in fact with its very first words--“kadesh li kol bechor peter kol rechem bivnei yisrael badam uvah beheimah li hu, sanctify for me every first born, the opening of every womb of a human and of an animal.” Then the paragraph concludes: “vehigadatah levinkhah bayom hahu bavur zeh asah Hashem li betzeiti mimitzrayim, and you should say to your children on that day, that it is on account of this that God led me out of Egypt.”

Like Yakov did to Dinah, we have a natural tendency to take what we love in this world and place it inside a box. We want to protect it and we want to keep it to ourselves. We don’t want to share it with the Esavs of the world. But the message of the tefillin box is the exact opposite of this.

We take a box of tefillin and we place inside it the words, kadesh li kol bechor, sanctify for Me your first born.” The message that we place inside the box is that we must take our prized possessions—our first born children and animals—and take them out of the box; we must take them away from their secret hiding places and share them with the world; sanctify them not to ourselves but to Hashem.

And the next paragraph that we place in the tefillin repeats this exact same theme (13:11-17): vehaavartah kol peter rechem la-Hashem, we must dedicate the first of every womb to Hashem. And vehyah ki yishalkhah binkhah machar leimor mah zot veamartah eilav bechozek yad hotzianu hashem mi-mitzrayim, and when it will be that your children will ask you, ‘what is this?” And you will respond, for with a strong hand Hashem led us out of Egypt. Therefore, as the second paragraph concludes, “kol bechor banai efdeh, all the first born of my children, I must redeem.

We sometimes think that our possessions—and we have no more valuable possession than our children—are here to serve us. So we try to keep it to ourselves and keep it inside a box.

So when we make the teflllin box we put the exact opposite message inside the box. The message is that our bechor, our children or our prized animals, were put here for a reason. Not to serve us, but to serve Hashem. They were put here not to pleasure their parents but to serve God: Kadesh Li Kol Bechor. Our holiest and most precious items are for Hashem and we need to recognize that.

Yakov placed his daughter inside his box and for this he was punished. He should have allowed his daughter to have an impact upon the world. So when we make our boxes of tefillin, we are declaring the opposite message: the possessions that we would naturally want to hide inside the box we are instead dedicating to service of Hashem.

Do you know who carries out this message better than anyone in the Jewish community? Chabad. Chabad parents teach their children from an early age that their responsibility is to serve Hashem. And so Chabad parents willingly allow their children to go off to the four corners of the earth in order to better serve God.

This idea is very hard. What parent doesn’t want to have their kids right near them at all times? Who amongst us wants to share our most prized possessions with the world? But that is the message hidden inside the boxes of tefillin: kadesh li kol bechor, sanctify for Hashem your first-born.

But you know what else we learn from Rashi? Placing Dinah inside the box didn’t work. True she didn’t end up with Esav, but she ended up with a fate that was perhaps even worse.

The classic work, Mesillat Yesharim, of the great rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzatto states: “Because Yakov placed Dinah in a box to prevent Esav from taking her (even though he certainly meant well), the result was that he withheld his benevolence from his brother, and the Midrash says: “You did not want to marry her off to one who is circumcised so in the end she will be married off to one who is uncircumcised. You did not want to marry her off in a manner that is permissible, so in the end she will be married off in a manner that is prohibited.”

Yakov’s excessive caution was not only spiritually sinful, it also was unsuccessful.

Yakov thought he was protecting Dinah by placing her in the box. But this over-protection backfired. Placing someone in a box doesn’t work. In the end, Dinah eventually left the box and when she did so she was unprepared for the world.

The next thing we hear about Dinah in the Torah is that she fell into the hands of Shechem the son of Chamor, and that he assaulted her and violated her.

Yaakov’s misguided protection of Dinah put her at a greater risk in the world; Dinah was like a child raised in a bubble to ward off infections. Such a child is safe in the bubble, but at a much greater risk outside the bubble. So too, this was the case with Dinah; the second she left the box she was in great danger. Rashi is teaching us that instead of boxing her in, Yakov should have taught her how to protect herself in the world.

This is the message of the final two paragraphs of the tefillin (which are also the first two paragraphs of the Shema). We say in these paragraphs that we will take the message of the Torah, uvelechtecha baderekh, out on the road. As we journey, we will take with us the message of the Torah. The Torah was not meant to be hidden in a box, and as its followers, neither are we. Rather, inside our boxes we write that we have a responsibility to take our Torah and go out on the derekh, on the path, on the journey to the world in service of Hashem.

So from now on whenever we hear that seemingly ubiquitous expression –outside the box—let us remember that we Jews have another box, the boxes of tefillin. And it is our job to take the message that is inside that box and share it with the world.


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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