Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas-Emes, Sfas Emes (Zechuso Tagein Aleinu), Noach, 5639
The parsha begins (Bereishis, 6:9): " ... Noach ish tzadik ...; es HaElokim
hishalech Noach." ("Noach was a righteous man ...; Noach walked with
God."). Chazal -- and Rashi -- note the contrast with Avraham, of whom the
Torah says (Bereishis, 17:1): "... walk before me ... ". Chazal and (Rashi)
comment that, to conduct himself as a righteous person, Noach needed
heavenly support. That is, he needed HaShem to hold his hand. By contrast,
Avraham was able to attain and handle the role of tzadik on his own.
The Sfas Emes begins this maamar by telling us that, certainly
("be'vdai"!), in contrasting Noach with Avraham, it never entered Chazal's
mind to diminish Noach's stature. (Parenthetically, note the Sfas Emes's
koach hachiddush -- his unhesitating, sheer innovative power to view
received texts through his own discerning eyes.) Rather, the Sfas Emes
tells us, the world had to progress with a certain unavoidable order. Thus,
first there had to appear on the scene a tzadik who needed HaShem's
support. Only thereafter could someone come who could fill the role of
tzadik wtihout needing HaShem to hold his hand.
Why so? The Sfas Emes tells us that the cosmos simply could not function
with a tzadik like Avraham unless it had first experienced a tzadik on the
level of Noach. Note: This explanation does not really answer the question
of "why so?". But we may find it comforting to know that the world
functions with a fixed order. From that perspective, the question of "why
so?" in this context is as meaningless as asking "why so?" regarding the
law of gravity.
The seforim speak of three fundamental domains in the world "Olam, Shanna,
vNefesh" (space, time, and soul). And the seforim tell us to expect similar
patterns in each of these three domains. Hence, we should not be surprised
to see the Sfas Emes applying this perspective in the present
context. Thus, he tells us that the nefesh (soul) of a Jewish person also
goes through a pattern of growth in stages. The first stage is that of a
child. The Sfas Emes describes a child as "tohu" -- as in Bereishis, 1:2:
"tohu vavohu." (ArtScroll: "astonishingly empty". A more colloquial
translation: "a complete mess.") Parents and teachers may find consolation
in the Sfas Emes's certification of their charges as "tohu".
But just as HaShem intervened to save Noach and his family from the disaste
that awaited the rest of humankind, so too does HaShem protect a particle
of kedusha (sanctity) within a child. And that bit of kedusha can
subsequently expand within the child as he/she grows, and enables him to
develop midos tovos (proper behavior).
Continuing with this perspective, the Sfas Emes now refers us to the maxim
"Derech eretz kadma laTorah." That is, proper behavior must precede and is
therefore a prerequisite to the proper observance of Torah and mitzvos. In
support of this sequence, the Sfas Emes cites the lives of Avraham,
Yitzchok and Yaakov. It was necessary for the lives of the Avos, with their
exemplary personal conduct, to precede our people's receiving the
Torah. The necessity of this sequence is neither self-evident nor easily
grasped. For this reason, the Sfas Emes concludes with a phrase of advice
and admonition that he rarely utters: "Vedok vehavein" That is: "think it
through, and you will understand!"
Note that the Sfas Emes has taught us a two-fold mussar haskeil in an area
in which he, as Gerrer Rebbe, had special knowledge: First, he has told us
that, in fact, people can grow in their avoda. And second, he advises us
that growth comes not in a linear fashion, but rather unevenly, and in
stages. We should therefore not become discouraged if we see that, despite
serious effort to make progress, we are at any given time only treading
water in ruchniyus (spiritual matters). The Rebbe is telling us: Persist!
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Project Genesis, Inc.