By Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Bechukosai, 5632
The parsha begins: "Im be'chuko'sai tei'leichu"(ArtScroll: "If you
will follow my decrees.") Translated literally, the parsha's initial
phrase is: "If you will walk with my decrees" -- an unusual turn of
phrase. As just noted, ArtScroll deals with the problem that this
unusual phrasing poses by translating "walk" as "follow". But the
phrase cries out for other interpretations.
The Sfas Emes cites the first Medrash Rabba on the parsha, which tells
us one way (out of several) with which Chazal reacted to the unusual
turn of phrase: "If you will walk ... ". The Medrash handles this
problem by referring us to another pasuk in the Torah in which
"walking" is involved. That pasuk is: Tehilim, (119, 59). The pasuk
there says: "Chishavti dera'chai, ve'ahshiva raglai el eidoseh'cha".
(ArtScroll: "Chishaviti -- I thought long and hard -- dera'chai -- my
ways, in the sense of which way to go -- and I returned my feet to
Your testimonies". So much for the pshat pashut -- the literal
meaning -- of this pasuk.
Now comes the Medrash: "Ahmahr David. Ribono shel olam! Bechol yohm
vayohm, hah'yisi mechashev ve'omeir: le'makohm peloni ul'bais dira pelonis
ahni ho'laych. Ve'hayu rag'lai moh'lichos osi le'batei ke'neisiyos
u'lebatei medrashos." That is, Dovid Hamelech said: "Master of the
Universe! Every day, I would think things over, and decide to go to such
and such place ... But my feet led me to Shuls and to Bahtay Medrash."
Now comes the Sfas Emes, who presents his understanding of the Medrash.
The Sfas Emes sees the text of the Medrash as coming in the following
context. Dovid Hamelech is telling us what was going on in his life.
Every day, he would decide to go to business; but his feet took him
instead to Shuls or to Bahtey Medrash.
Next, the Sfas Emes presents his reading of Dovid Hamelech's experience.
He sees Dovid saying the following. HaShem's chiyus (life-giving power)
is present in every thing and in every place. The chiyus is there in
different ways and in different forms; but the inner reality is the same
all over. Thus Dovid Hamelech could say: Wherever I go, I encounter
HaShem's Presence. For in fact, the world's inner reality is identical
As you see, the Sfas Emes is reading the Medrash in a radically innovative
way. Most (Almost all? All?) people would understand this Medrash as
saying: "I decided I was going to Wall Street. But my feet took me to
Lakewood instead". By contrast, the Sfas Emes is reading the Medrash as
saying: "I decided to go to Wall Street, and I went to Wall Street. And
there I encountered the exact same Presence of HaShem -- albeit in
different guise -- that I would experience in Lakewood!"
(Parenthetically, note that the Sfas Emes views his way of understanding
the Medrash as so self-evident that he does not think it necessary even to
mention the conventional way of reading the Medrash. Also, note that wth
this incredible intellectual boldness and subtlety, the Sfas Emes
attracted -- and retained -- thousands of Chassidim. The success of the
Sfas Emes as Gerrer Rebbe indicates how thirsty people were -- and are --
for the "Hashkofa for adults" that he provides.)
Moving on, the Sfas Emes works with the pasuk quoted earlier from Tehilim
(119, 59). "Chishavti derachai" ("I considered my ways ... ") The Sfas
Emes uses the perspective gained from this pasuk to comment on Chazal's
dictum that danger lurks on the roads. He notes that the pasuk tells us
how to avoid such danger. How? By thinking things through
(i.e., "Chishavti") beforehand. (Note that the verb "chishavti" is not in
binyan kahl -- the simple construction -- but rather, is in binyan
pi'eil, -- the intensive construction. In this context, binyan pi'eil
implies: thinking things through thoroughly.)
Thus the Sfas Emes is telling us that to travel safely along life's
highways requires intellectual activity. By thinking ahead and
anticipating the problems he/she is likely to encounter, a person can
indeed find HaShem's Presence everywhere and in every thing. The Sfas
Emes's advice -- "chishavti" -- is relevant to all of us; for we are all
travelers on the highway of life.
The Sfas Emes continues to work with the pasuk in Tehilim. He reads the
words "... el eidosecha" as coming from the word "eid" -- "witness".
Hence , the Sfas Emes tells us that that we have an obligation to bear
testimony that the entire cosmos draws its existence from HaShem.
The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph of his notes by presenting his
perspective on Learning. The Sfas Emes's view here is complex. On the
one hand, he feels very strongly that we should subordinate our
intelligence and knowledge totally to the service of HaShem; that is, to
His will. On the other hand, the Sfas Emes recognizes that to reach that
state, one must start with intellectual activity. Thus, the pasuk in
Tehilim begins with "Chishavti".
The Sfas Emes attempts to resolve this inconsistency by saying that, at
any rate, the goal of our cogitation should be non-intellectual, but
rather to subordinate our intelligence to HaShem. But true to his
intellect, the Sfas Emes recognizes that reaching that objective
requires "da'as ve'cheshbon" (knowledge and analysis); i.e., intellectual
The Sfas Emes leaves us with the picture of a person constantly seeking --
and attaining -- higher intellectual levels in order to achieve ever
greater degrees of intellectual subordination to HaShem. In fact, this is
how the Sfas Emes understands the famous phrase (quoted in the parsha's
first Rashi): "Sheh'tiheyu a'meilim baTorah". That is, we are enjoined
to "toil" in learning Torah. As the Sfas Emes reads it, that statement is
telling us to view Learning as a religious activity -- a form of serving
HaShem -- rather than an intellectual activity.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.