By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes (Zechuso Tagein Aleinu), Shavuos, 5639
The Sfas Emes begins this ma'amar with a quote from the Zohar: "A
person should hold tight to the special tahara (purity) that descends
upon him on this night" (the night of Shavuos). For, explains the
Sfas Emes, HaShem purifies Bnei Yisroel on this night, so we can be
keilim tehorim (vessels in a state of purity), and thus fit to receive
Continuing, the Sfas Emes quotes from Tehillim (12:7-8): "Imros HaShem
imaros tehoros ... " (ArtScroll: "The words of HaShem are pure words;
like purified silver ... refined sevenfold ("shiva'sayim"). Note
this word -- "sevenfold". Later in the ma'amar, we will often
encounter the number 49. This pasuk is the source from which that
number is drawn.
The pasuk continues: "May, You, HaShem, protect them ...". The Sfas
Emes explains that the "them" which the pasuk is asking HaShem to
protect refers to the words of Torah. Their purity will be preserved
by their being kept in the purity of our hearts. The Zohar (and the
Sfas Emes) are telling us is that now, at our Matan Torah, we too
should prepare our hearts to be vessels suitable for preserving the
Torah in its purity.
Note the implication. If we do not make a special effort to preserve
the words in their purity, they will be lost. Apparently, there are
powerful forces in the world that erode the purity of our hearts, and
thus, of HaShem's words. Those corrosive agents go under multiple
names; but they share the same underlying identity. As Chazal phrase
it (Bava Basra, 16a): "Hu hasatan, hu yetzer hara, hu malach hamaves".
["Satan, the Evil Inclination and the Angel of Death are all one and
the same."] All of these names refer to the same basic feature of
human existence: the dark forces of self-destruction that lurk deep
within all of us.
The Sfas Emes explains that we can achieve the necessary preparation
for receiving the Torah during sefiras ha'omer. Clearly, this process
of purification is not automatic. How does it work? To help us
understand what he has in mind, the Sfas Emes refers us to the Medrash
Rabba on parshas Emor. The Medrash there comments on the pesukim in
Tehilim that the Sfas Emes cited earlier in this ma'amar. The Medrash
explains that Dovid Hamelech composed that perek (chapter) (Tehilim,
12) in a very specific historical context.
In the time of Dovid Hamelech, there were children who were extremely
accomplished. These children were so advanced in Learning that they
could discern many alternative "pahnim" (perspectives; ways of looking
at a case) on which to decide a halachic question. In fact, their
intellect took them so far that they could see 49 ways of ruling a
halachic case as being tahor (ritually pure) and -- in the very same
case -- 49 perspectives to rule it tamei (ritually impure).
The Medrash is saying that working with their precocious intellect,
these young talmidei chachamim came up with utter
ambiguity. Consequently, they had no basis for knowing right from
wrong. Further, ambiguity also means uncertainty and doubt -- i.e,
"safeik". And, as you may recall, the word "safeik" is exactly the
same gematria (numerical value) as the name of our -- and HaShem's --
This was the context within which Dovid Hamelech prayed to HaShem to
protect them (the bright scholars and their Learning). The Sfas Emes
extends this line of thought by presenting his non-pshat of the
Medrash. During the 49 days of sefiras ha'omer, we work to separate
("levarer") the 49 pahnim of tahara which are mixed together with the
49 pahnim of tum'a. The mixture of purity with impurity can easily
put us in a state of confusion. In the 49 days of sefiras ha'omer, we
wrestle intellectually with life's ambiguities, doubts, and moral
uncertainties. Apparently, the Sfas Emes sees this phase of struggle
with doubt as a necessary part of the process of receiving the Torah.
Ulimately, we can come through this stage of 49 levels of ambiguity,
and reach the 50th gateway ("sha'ar") -- Shavu'os. There, receiving
the Torah anew, we have access to unalloyed tahara!
Finally, the Sfas Emes notes an allusion that we may have missed. To
the Sfas Emes, the word "pahnim" brings irresistibly to mind the fact
of "penimiyus" -- the inner Presence of HaShem. The Sfas Emes tells
us that the 49 pahnim of tum'a also contain HaShem at their
penimiyus. Thus, the process of sefiras ha'omer can also include
extracting the tahor from the tamei.
For these reasons, on Shavuos we bring the offering of the two Loaves
of Chometz. (Note: leavened bread, i.e., chometz, symbolizes the
yetzer hara.) For, with the Torah, we can (try to?) handle the yetzer
hara. Also, by bringing this offering of chometz, we express another
thought. If a person looks at the world with untutored eyes, he/she
could well come to a metaphysics of dualism. That is, he/she could
perceive good and evil -- tum'a and tahara -- as independent
forces. By bringing the offering of chometz to HaShem, we make it
clear (to ourselves) that at the Source, all is unity and tahara.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.