It is only a twelve-second video clip, but I can’t stop watching it.
“Baruch Ata Hashem, Elokeinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidishanu B’Mitzvosav Vitzivanu Al Mitzvas Tefillin.”
It is a rushed brachah – with some words slurred or skipped altogether – but it is a perfect brachah nonetheless. I am mesmerized as I hit replay. Again and again and again.
It is a video clip filmed just this week of my son Naftali – my brand-new bar mitzvah boy – putting on tefillin for the first time.
It is an unconventional scene, unlike most bar mitzvah celebrations. My husband and son are standing in the corner of our dining room, and I and my cell phone are the only audience. There is no sponge cake or shot glasses on the table, no well-wishers or proud grandparents present. After endless debate, we decided not to invite anyone to join us.
He is not ready. We are not ready.
So, it is just us, my husband and I, holding our breath to see how he will respond to the stiff leather straps around his arms and his head, to the weight of expectations he usually despises.
My husband works quickly and deliberately, wrapping and crisscrossing the ritzuos in the way they have been wrapped for generations, but in a way that is new and overwhelming for Naftali.
We have been preparing for this moment for months. We have worked with his behavioral therapist to choose the right strategy, showing him pictures of tefillin, taking photos of the men in his life wearing tefillin, allowing him to select the prize he will receive when – if – he puts on his tefillin. There is a brand-new Lego set waiting on the table – maybe not the most typical gift for a boy turning thirteen – but that is what he asked for.
Still, I wait for Naftali to refuse. He has always been a sensory child, fussy about the fabrics and textures that touch his skin. When he refuses something, he becomes loud and aggressive – sometimes he is even violent.
I anticipate that he will push the tefillin away, fight the straps when they are placed on his arms. This moment could be ugly and disappointing – or – it could be beautiful.
I get the camera ready anyway. Maybe, maybe, he will surprise us, and I will want to share this video with the many who love him but were not asked to attend.
He is not fighting.
He is standing perfectly still.
He is saying the words willingly.
Without ever practicing the brachah, he somehow knows the words to say and when to say them. Even though he mumbles, each sacred word has an almost symphonic energy that tells me I am witnessing something that is not only of this world.
His neshama, his tafkid on this earth, is compelling him to do a mitzvah he should logically reject.
He should hate the feeling of restriction the tefillin straps create. He should hate being told to stand in one place. He should yell loudly like he often does. He should kick and flail. But he is allowing it. No, he is embracing it. He is as proud of himself as I have ever seen.
I can’t help myself. I am smiling as I cry. I am crying as I smile.
On most days, I don’t allow myself to play the what if game. It is too alluring to drift off into a parallel universe where life unfolds exactly the way you dreamed it would.
But recently I could not help myself. Two of my nephews, born within nine days of Naftali, had their bar mitzvahs this week. I celebrated those simchos with a warm, open, happy heart, so proud of my nephews for the men they are becoming. But as I watched them meet magnificent milestones, I let myself wonder.
What if Naftali had not been born prematurely? What if he had been born prematurely but had not had developmental delays? What if he had never been diagnosed with autism?
Sitting at those simchos, I let myself imagine: What would his personality be like? Would he have stood before a quiet shul and dazzled everyone with a melodious parashah leining?
But this moment that I keep replaying in my mind and on my cell phone helps quiet those what ifs.
I can see in this moment that Naftali was never supposed to be someone different, someone else. He was given to us exactly how he was intended to be, with a purpose crafted precisely for him.
The commandment of tefillin requires the one laying them to bind heart, mind, and deed. I don’t know what is in Naftali’s heart. I don’t know what is in Naftali’s mind. But his deed stands as a testament to a neshama that is being perfected, no matter the imperfections of his guf.
His willingness to embrace this mitzvah – so unexpected, so unlikely – transcends the here and now, transcends our limited understanding of body and soul.
Even if he does not have the words to tell me so, even if he has not had the typical celebration to commemorate it as such, I know that the impact of his brand-new mitzvah is shaking the heavens.