Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Chazal sometimes express themselves through the medium of aggadeta. That
is, they use metaphor, parable, and/or analogy to present their ideas. The
messages that such aggadeta conveys are not always obvious at first
sight. Accordingly, too often we tell ourselves that the ideas being
presented are probably only of marginal importance. And with this excuse,
we do not make the effort necessary to penetrate the code or the metaphor
within which the message is expressed.
By contrast, when the Sfas Emes encounters a difficult piece of aggadeta,
he insists that the statement must make sense. Accordingly, he takes the
time and makes the effort necessary to understand the piece. Here are two
examples that illustrate the Sfas Emes's approach. These examples also
demonstrate the potential benefits we can gain if we take Chazal's words
seriously rather than follow the well-trodden path of "let's skip the
For the first case, go to the Sfas Emes's ma'amar in the year 5634. This
discourse is directly relevant to the Nine Days and to Tish'a Be'av. Thus,
the ma'amar's second paragraph tell us: "Kol dor.. " That is: Any
generation in which the Beis Hamikdash is not rebuilt is at the same (low)
spiritual level as the generation which merited the churban (the
destruction of the Beis Hamikdash)!
Taken seriously, this is a puzzling statement. In fact, the Sfas Emes
himself is explicit in stating his puzzlement. He notes that there were
many generations after the churban in which exceedingly worthy and pious
people ("tzaddikei elyon") lived. Hence, he asks: can we honestly say of
those generations that they too merited the churban in their days?
Chazal's statement, just quoted, also leads the Sfas Emes to ask another
basic question. Do we truly expect that a generation will emerge that will
be so virtuous that it will, on its own, merit the ge'ula (the Redemption)
that no earlier generation deserved?
Asking questions enables the Sfas Emes to find answers. And the answers
that his inquiry yields enable him to open startling new perspectives on
some basic issues. Indeed, he sheds new light even on some familiar topics,
topics that we may have thought we already understood thoroughly.
Thus, the Sfas Emes explains that the ge'ula will not come from the
achievements of one single generation. Rather, the Redemption will come as
the result of a cumulative process, in which the spiritual achievements of
each generation are added to those of preceding generations. This
cumulative process will continue until the world reaches the "target level"
of Kedusha (sanctity) that HaShem specifies. Thus, every generation that
adds spirituality to the world, by bringing light to where darkness had
previously reigned, participates in rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash. It
turns out, then, that the Jewish people have been rebuilding the Beis
Hamikdash throughout the entire duration of the golus!
Further, we can be rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash right now. The Sfas Emes
notes that in our daily davening, we refer explicitly to this ongoing
process. In fact, we refer to it twice. Where? In our daily Shemoneh Esrei
and in Birkas Hamazon. How? When -- alluding to the pasuk in Tehilim
(147,2) -- we speak of HaShem as "Bonei Yerushalayim"; i.e., "He Who builds
Yerushalayim". Note that both in Tehilim and in the comprehensive Otzoros
Hatefilos Siddur, the word 'bonei' is written with a tzeireh. This
vowelization makes the word a verb (rather than a noun). Moreover, this is
a verb in the present tense, thus telling us that we can make it happen now.
So far, following the text from Chazal ("Kol Dor..."), the Sfas Emes has
been speaking in terms of "generations". That is, Klal Yisroel as a
collectivity can be rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash even at this very
moment. Now the Sfas Emes adds a powerful new dimensionto the
discusion. He tells us that the same process also operates at the level of
the individual ("vechol ahdam bifrat"). Thus, the Sfas Emes reminds us of
the cosmic significance of all our actions. Every person can, with his/her
individual deeds, can also rebuild the Beis HaMikdash right now.
The Sfas Emes has been speaking about building the Beis Hamikdash. He
continues with this theme as he concludes this paragraph (Yes. All of this
rich information has been packed into a single, concise paragraph! ) with
a quote from Chazal: "Hakol mesa'ayin le'binyano shel Melech". Everyone
can/may/should help build the King's palace.
As we know, Sefer Devarim begins in a surprising way, with a list of
geographical sites. Why? Rashi follows Chazal in reading the place names in
Devarim 1:1 as a veiled rebuke. That is, they see Moshe as mentioning these
sites to rebuke Bnei Yisroel for the aveiros (sins) that they had committed
in those places. Thus, the reference to a place named "Di Zahav" is in
reality a rebuke to Bnei Yisroel for the sin of eigel hazahav, the golden calf.
This interpretation seems easy to absorb. straightforward and
uncontentious. However, considering the aggadeta sufficently imprtant to
think through, the Sfas Emes reacts with a powerful question. He asks: What
is the point of rebuking Bnei Yisroel of this generation -- the generation
that was about to enter Eretz Yisroel -- for these aveiros (sins)? These
aveiros had been committed by the previous generation, not by the people to
whom Moshe Rabeinu was now speaking!
The Sfas Emes answers that every generation begins life bearing the burden
of the previous generation's aveiros ... And for this reason, every
generation has the responsibility of correcting those aveiros. Thus, just
as there is zechus avos (people can benefit from the merit of their
forefathers), so too there is "cheit avos" -the aveiros that the previous
generations pass on to succeeding generations.
Note how neatly this thought of the Sfas Emes fits in with common sense.
Take a moment to think about this question; and you will soon reach the
same conclusion. In fact, we do start life with both the assets and the
liabilities of our parents -- and indeed, of their entire generation.
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Project Genesis, Inc.