This parsha presents Klal Yisroel with numerous mitzvos. Rashi notes hat
many of these mitzvos are introduced with the words: " ... Ani HaShem
Elokeichem." ("I am HaShem, your God." (See Rashi's comment on the pasuk
Rashi is echoing a remark by the Mechilta, which notes another case where
mitzvos are presented the same way that they are presented in our parsha.
Where? The Aseres Hadibros (the Ten Commandments) are also introduced
with the same prefatory phrase (Shemos, 20:2): "Anochi HaShem
Elokecha ... " ("I am HaShem, your God ").
The Mechilta there comments: We can understand this introductory statement
in terms of the following mashal.. A king entered the capital city of a
country that had just become part of his kingdom. His courtiers advised
him to promulgate decrees to his new subjects. The king replied: there is
no point in issuing my commands now. First, let my subjects accept my
kingship; only then will it make sense to issue my decrees.
I have presented this Medrash in accordance with its plain/simple meaning
(pshat pashut). But the Sfas Emes reads this Mechilta very differently. As
he sees it, the world does not function in a two-stage process like the
one just proposed.. (That is: Stage 1. People accept the king's rule; and
then; Stage 2: People agree to abide by his decrees.)
Rather, issuing the decrees -- and having them accepted -- is itself the
process by which the subjects accept the king's sovereignty. The Sfas Emes
explains that the purpose of the mitzvos is precisely to give us an
opportunity to accept HaShem as our ruler. That is, one may ask: why do
we do mitzvos? The Sfas Emes's answer is: because HaShem commands us to do
them. Thus, performing mitzvos is -- so to speak -- our way to place a
crown on HaShem's head.
Following up on this thought, the Sfas Emes addresses a question that the
Torah leaves unanswered. That puzzling issue is: what did Nahdav and Avihu
do that was wrong (Vayikra, 10, 1-2)? The Sfas Emes explains that they
went off the track because they did something "ahsher LO tziva ..." --
that HaShem had NOT commanded (Vayikra, 10:1). In other words, their
misbehavior lay in their performing a religious act that was not an
expression of their subordination to HaShem.
This perspective on Nahdav and Avihu is supported if we take a careful
look at the text. The Torah recounts the story of Nahdav and Avihu after
it presents a lengthy series of things that Moshe and Aharon had
done "ka'asher tziva HaShem". That is, Moshe and Aharon did what they
did solely for the sake of being in accordance with HaShem's will. The
contrast with Nahdav and Avihu is clear.
Why does the Sfas Emes give this topic so much attention? First,
because it clarifies the episode of Nahdav and Avihu. Second, because
this discussion leads to an interpretation of the meaning of mitzvos. And
finally, because this context gives the Sfas Emes the opportunity to
discuss the connection between two key features of Yiddishkeit -- our
relationship with HaShem and our commitment to perform mitzvos. As the
Sfas Emes has explained, mitzvos are the means by which we develop and
maintain our relationship with HaShem.
Continuing, the Sfas Emes discusses a famous pasuk (Vayikra, 18, 5): "...
asher ya'aseh osahm ha'ahdam vachai bahehm." (ArtScroll: "You shall
observe My decrees and My laws, which man shall carry out and by which he
shall live ...") The Sfas Emes reads this text in a non-pshat mode as
follows. He understands the phrase "va'chai bahem" to mean "he shall give
life" rather than "he shall live". (That is, he reads the word "vachai"
as a transitive verb -- po'al yotzei -- rather than as an intransitive
verb -- po'al omeid). Thus, the Sfas Emes reads this pasuk as telling us
that by doing mitzvos, we give chiyus -- a concept that includes joy as
well as life -- to the whole world.
How does this work? We know -- from the earlier part of the ma'amar --
that doing mitzvos is the way we accept HaShem's kingship. Now the Sfas
Emes adds that mitzvos encompass all human activity. Hence, by doing
mitzvos we can bring all creation closer to HaShem. By doing HaShem's
will -- i.e., accepting His authority -- we can bring life and joy to the
For a brief comment on a key issue, we go now to the Sfas Emes of
5635, paragraph 1:
(Vayikra, 18, 3) "Ke'ma'aseh Eretz Mitzrayim ... lo ta'asu ...
u'be'chukosei'hem lo tei'lei'chu". (ArtScroll: "Do not perform the
practice of the land of Egypt ... and do not follow their traditions".)
The Sfas Emes reads this last phrase ("u'be'chukosei'hem ...") as
follows. The root of " u'beCHUKOseihem" is the same as the root of the
word"chuka". A "chuka" is a practice or behavior that has no meaning .
Thus, the Torah is telling us that the people of Egypt live their lives
with "chukos" -- i.e., behavior without meaning.
Why? Because they do not have mitzvos, and thus they lack access to
life's inner content -- the pe'nimiyus. We can do the same things
that they do -- the mechanics of living -- but since we have mitzvos,
our lives have meaning. The mitzvos enable us to form a relationship
with HaShem, a relationship that gives structure and content to our