Parshas Ki Savo
Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
The Sfas Emes takes as his initial text the following pasuk (Devarim,
26:16:): "Ha'yom ha'zeh HaShem Eloke'cha metza'vecha la'asos es
ha'chukim ha'eileh ..." ("Today,HaShem, your G-d, commands you to do
these decrees ...").
This pasuk leads the Sfas Emes to draw our attention to the first
paragraph of Medrash Tanchuma on the parsha. That Medrash starts with
the pasuk just quoted; but then veers off in a totally unexpected
direction. Here is the Medrash. You can see why I decribe it as
going off in a surprising way.
"The pasuk in Tehilim (95:6) says: "Bo'u nish'tacha'veh
ve'nichre'ah ..."(ArtScroll: "Come! Let us prostrate ourselves
and bow ... ").Moshe foresaw that with the destruction of the
Beis HaMikdash, the mitzva of bikurim would come to an end. To
deal with that situation, Moshe established the practice of
tefila (prayer) three times daily."
I find this statement -- and its place in a logical flow of ideas --
incomprehensible. The Sfas Emes may have felt initially the same way;
for he soon brings up reinforcements to help us. Thus, the Sfas Emes
tells us his grandfather's comment on this Medrash. The Chidushei
HaRim remarked that the mitzva of tefila resembles the mitzva of
bikurim. How? Because the season's first fruits are the fruits for
which the farmer has been yearning impatiently. Hence, the mitzva of
bikurim involves denying oneself the joy of eating those much desired
fruits, and instead, symbolically giving them to HaShem. By giving the
reishis, the first fruits, to HaShem, the person is acknowledging that
all his produce comes from HaShem.
So, too, tefila entails renouncing the first part of the day -- which
could conceivably be spent in sleep or in some other activity -- and
instead, dedicating it to tefila -- i.e., to his relationship with
HaShem. By renouncing other possible ways of spending the reishis --
the beginning -- of the day, and davening, the person is symbolically
dedicating the activities of his entire day to HaShem.
But note a potentially serious problem with this interpretation.
Granted, Tefilas Shacharis can be compared to bikurim. However, a
challenge to this analogy of tefila to bikurim soon comes to mind. In
the course of the day, we have other tefilos -- Mincha and Arvis --
for which the concept of "reishis" is not relevant. Can we apply the
tefila/bikurim analogy in the context of those other tefilos?
I suggest that we can. To address this question we draw on an idea of
the Maharal (a thought that I saw many years ago) . The Maharal
points out that the time for Mincha often comes just when a person is
preoccupied with some other activity. Just at the point where one's
"at work" skills are going into high gear, it is time to daven
Mincha. Likewise, the time for davening Arvis often arrives just when
alternative activities beckon most seductively. For example, just when
a person is beginning to relax after the day's work; just when one is
"winding down" -- just then, the call comes out for Arvis.
Thus, the analogy between bikurim and tefila does work. Bikurim
involves renouncing the most sought-after fruit, and thus symbolically
dedicating all of one's produce to HaShem. (Question: To whom is the
person signaling with this symbolic act? Answer: Obviously to
So, too, in our context. With tefila. a person breaks off what he
would otherwise do -- sleep, work, relax -- in order to attend to his
relationship with HaShem. By this reallocation of his time, a person
symbolically dedicates all of his day's activities to HaShem.
At this point, the Sfas Emes asks a question that may have been
bothering you. The Sfas Emes began this ma'amar with "Ha'yom ha'zeh
..." ("Today ..."). How does the focus on "today" fit into this
discussion of bikurim and tefila? The Sfas Emes cites Rashi and the
Medrash on this issue. They respond to the implicit question by
explaining that just as today is a new day, so too should we view the
Torah and mitzvos as new every day. What does that mean? It means
living and doing mitzvos with all the excitement that comes with doing
something God-given -- i.e., important and pleasant -- for the first
time. Living our lives that way would involve radical changes. So, to
bolster his position, the Sfas Emes quotes a familiar maxim: "Be'chol
yom yi'heyu be'eine'cha ke'chada'shim." ("Every day, view the Torah
and mitzvos as brand new.")
Then, the Sfas Emes poses a startling question. Is the Torah trying
to mislead us by having us regard as new something that in fact has
been with us for a long time? The Sfas Emes responds: We have within
ourselves the capacity to make things new. That is, HaShem built into
the cosmos the quality of constantly being new -- and hence, being
constantly fresh .. For, as we know, HaShem is "mechadeish bechol yom
tamid ma'asei bereishis." That is, HaShem is constantly renewing
A metaphor may help us grasp this phenomenon of constant creation. A
current of electricity, when connected to an iron bar, magnetizes the
iron. With this magnetism, the iron bar can attract and pick up metal
filings. However, if the flow of electricity stops, the iron bar loses
its magnetism, and the metal filings fall to the ground. So too,
HaShem provides a constant flow of chiyus (vitality) to the
cosmos. Without this flow from Him, the world would cease to exist.
Since the world is constantly being created, in principle, we should
be able to perceive the world as it really is, i.e., fresh and
new. But, as the Sfas Emes acknowledges, in practice, it is hard to
get an accurate picture of reality. Why? Because when HaShem created
the world, He also built in a klipa, an outer husk, that covers and
hides His constant energizing role. What is the standard word for that
klipa? "Teva" (Nature).
But, continues the Sfas Emes, we have within ourselves the power to
unmask the Presence of HaShem that the klipa hides. How? To answer
this key question, the Sfas Emes returns to the text with which we
started: "Ha'yom ha'zeh HaShem ...metza'vecha la'asos ..." As we saw
earlier, the pshat reading of that pasuk has HaShem commanding us to
do -- to obey -- His decrees ("Today, HaShem ...commands you to do
...") By contrast. the Sfas Emes reads this pasuk as telling us:
"HaShem commands you to make every day into "today," i.e., to affirm
creation's constant newness and freshness.
Further, the Sfas Emes tells us how to go about this task. We can
find HaShem's hidden Presence by performing mitzvos, for mitzvos are
actions in the physical world that embody HaShem's chiyus. Note that
the Sfas Emes is not directing us to a life of contemplation. On the
contrary, we find the freshness of " hayom hazeh" in our everyday
lives by performing .mitzvos -- i.e., physical actions in the physical
world ('olam hagashmi').
The Sfas Emes now moves on, as he quotes a pasuk in Yechezkel (46:1),
a pasuk that describes the architectural plans for the third Beis
HaMikdash. The pasuk tells us that the edifice should have an inner
court and a gate leading into that inner court.. Further, the pasuk
tells us that the gate to the inner court should be open only on
Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh, but closed on weekdays.
The Sfas Emes reads the pasuk as telling us the following message.
Just as the gate to the inner court in the Beis HaMikdash were opened
on Shabbos, so, too, on Shabbos we can experience greater awareness of
HaShem's ongoing creation. Thus, on Shabbos we gain easier access to
HaShem's Presence as the source of the chiyus that constantly renews
the world. And, the Sfas Emes tells us, we can apply this feature of
newness even further -- by renewing OURSELVES on Shabbos!
The Sfas Emes continues, assuring us that we can -- and, indeed, must
(' 'tze'richim') -- extend that heightened access to kedusha from
Shabbos to the days of the week. The pshat meaning of the pasuk in
Yechezkel is: the gate shall be closed during the week, but shall be
open on Shabbos. But working in non-pshat mode, the Sfas Emes reads
the pasuk as telling us that, by means of Shabbos, the gate will also
be open during the weekdays. As you see, the Sfas Emes's ko'ach
ha'chidush (innovative power) is so great that he presents a non-pshat
that is the very reverse of the pshat!
The Sfas Emes concludes by returning to the Medrash Tanchuma that he
quoted at the outset, .As you may recall, the Medrash there quotes a
pasuk in Tehilim that deals with tefila. The pasuk continues:
"nish'ta'chaveh ve'nichra'a" (" ...let us prostrate ourselves and bow
..."). To explain the sequence of the pasuk's ideas, the Sfas Emes
reads the word "venichra'a" as a nif'al (i.e., a passive)
construction. That is, the verb should be understood as: ' we will be
Thus, the Sfas Emes sees the pasuk as proceeding in the following
lsequence. If we are willing actively to prostrate ourselves before
HaShem, He will help us by facilitating our "being bowed." The Sfas
Emes explains. In the measure that we subordinate ourselves to see
the world as HaShem wants us to see it -- with the light of HaShem's
Presence hidden by the klipa -- He will enable us to experience it as
our true reality.
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Project Genesis, Inc.