By Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Vaera, 5635
The Sfas Emes begins by quoting a Medrash (Medrash Rabba, Shemos, 9:3).
That Medrash, in turn, refers us to a Mishna in Berachos (5:1): "Ein omdim
lehispalel elah mitoch coved rosh." ("One should not begin to daven unless
he/she is in a proper -- i.e., serious, sober -- frame of mind.")
Because a proper frame of mind is so essential for davening, the Mishna
continues: "... A person may not interrupt his davening -- even if a
serpent has coiled itself around his heel." Scorpions, however, are more
dangerous than serpents. Thus, the Gemara states (Berachos 32b) that if a
scorpion is targeting a person while he is davening, the person may
interrupt his prayer to take appropriate measures.
The Sfas Emes comments that "nir'eh" ( "apparently "), the reason for our
ancestors' descent to Egypt was to prepare them for living (afterwards) in
Eretz Yisroel. In support of this interpretation, the Sfas Emes notes that
when the Medrash (Parshas Shemos) lists the gifts from HaShem for whose
acquisition, suffering was necessary, it includes Eretz Yisroel.
How did our experience in Egypt prepare us to live in Eretz Yisroel? The
Sfas Emes's answer to this question may initially mystify us even more. He
cites two maxims of Chazal, both of which seem -- even at second sight --
to be totally irrelevant to the present discussion. Thus: "Only He who has
triumphed over the serpent shall marry the king's daughter." And: 'Not
everyone who deems himself worthy is, in fact, worthy.'
A fair question at this point is: what is going on here?
We start by noting the following: First, the "serpent" to which the
Medrash refers is the power of sexuality and its potential for abuse. The
Sfas Emes makes this connection clear by an allusion to the "serpent" who
got Ahdam and Chava into trouble in Gan Eden. Second, Egypt was well known
as a place where promiscuous behavior was the norm. (See, e.g., Yechezkel,
23:20.) Hence, Egypt was, so to speak, the ideal training ground for
experience in learning how to deal with that "serpent."
Why did Bnai Yisroel need that special training? Because Eretz Kena'an,
the land to which they were going, is also a place in which the "serpent"
is unusually strong.. Thus the Zohar even refers to 'Kena'an ' as
a "serpent." The Zohar is especially concerned with our limited capacity
to handle the 'serpent's' seductive power.
This concern shows itself in an unexpected way. At one point (Shemos, 6,
4 ), the Torah refers to Eretz Yisroel as "eretz megureihem". The pshat
poshut -- the simple meaning -- of this phrase is ; "the land in which
they -- -the Patriarchs -- had sojourned.. " By contrast, the Sfas Emes
reads the word 'megureihem ' as coming from the root g'u'r -- 'to fear; to
be in awe'. This reading sees Eretz Yisroel as "the land of heightened awe
The Sfas Emes continues, telling us that the reason HaShem and our
ancestors wanted us to be in Eretz Yisroel was that we accept HaShem's
kingship there. Why so? I suggest the following answer. Chazal tell us
that "kohl hagadol meichaveiro ... " ("The temptation to sin is greater
for a person who is on a higher level of spirituality than for a person on
a lower level of spirituality.") Apparently, a similar relationship
prevails geographically. That is, Eretz Yisroel is a place where higher
levels of kedusha, (sanctity) are feasible. Likewise, it presents a
heightened susceptibility to go in the opposite direction. Hence, the need
for an "immunization" process in Egypt.
Because Eretz Yisroel is a place of intense spirituality, its special
benefits accrue only to people who are on a high madreiga (spiritual
level). With this perspective in mind, we can now understand the relevance
of the two maxims that the Sfas Emes cited above. Yes: 'Only he who has
triumphed over the serpent shall marry the king's daughter.' And since
living in Eretz Yisroel is a spiritual privilege, we know why: 'Not
everyone who deems himself worthy is, in fact, worthy.' Basically, these
two maxims encapsulate most of this whole ma'amar. We can be grateful to
the Sfas Emes for taking the trouble of filling in the blank spaces.
Further, just as this logic was in operation at the national level, so,
too, at the individual level. Clearly, we cannot do a good job of
accepting HaShem's kingship if our minds are full of the "machshovos
zoros" (alien thoughts) placed there by the "serpent". Therefore, to free
our minds from such distractions, Chazal designed our Siddur to focus on
our liberation from Egypt immediately preceding our core prayer, Shemoneh
Good! Thanks to the Sfas Emes, we now have a better understanding of the
role of the "serpent" -- and measures to deal with him -- both at the
individual and at the national levels. What can we say about
the 'scorpion'? We badly need help in understanding the 'scorpion', for,
as we saw earlier, the 'scorpion' is even more dangerous than
(Before proceeding further, note some essential background information. A
serpent's bite inflames the victim's body, and gives him high fever. By
contrast, a scorpion's sting chills the victim, lowering his temperature.
I suggest that the Sfas Emes had these basic facts in mind when he
discussed the features of these two deadly creatures)
The Sfas Emes confronts the challenge of explanation head on. He does so
by telling us that the "serpent" seeks to entice us to aveiros done with
heat,. Presumably what the Sfas Emes has in mind here are aveiros of
passion or of anger. By contrast, the Sfas Emes says, the 'scorpion'
reflects mitzvos (!) done with "kerirus" -- i.e., coldly. I say mitzvos"
because the Sfas Emes immediately refers to "Amaleik, asher karcha ..."
(homiletically, "who cooled you off..."). The problem with Amaleik is not
that he entices us to do aveiros coolly, but rather, that he gets us to do
mitzvos coolly. (How does Amaleik achieve this goal? Part of the story is
reflected in a gematria: Amaleik == safeik (doubt).
The Sfas Emes states unambiguously that such "cool" behavior is "much
worse" ("garu'a beyoseir") than the aveiros done with heat. In fact, the
Sfas Emes says, our descent to Egypt was in order to enable us to escape.
Escape from what? Escape from the 'coolness' with which Lavan -- like his
colleagues Bil'am and Amaleik -- was trying to destroy us. Note: to view
our enslavement in Egypt as an escape from an even greater catastrophe
shows how ghastly is the state of kerirus.
And to make to make things even worse, we have no remedy for the spiritual
sickness of kerirus. Indeed, the Sfas Emes concludes that we may not be
able to treat this moral ailment until HaShem's name is complete; that is,
until the coming of Moshiach.
In discussing the problem of kerirus, the Sfas Emes notes two features --
ahtzvus and ahtzlus. That is : depression and the closely related,
lassitude ( inability to take iniative). The Sfas Emes does not mention a
feature of kerirus that is very prominent today -- a desire to be "laid
back" and "cool", i.e., emotionally and intellectually disengaged.
The reason for the Sfas Emes's omission of this feature may be simple. The
ultimate in being "cool" and "laid back" is a corpse on a slab of ice in
the dark of a municipal morgue. Consider the alternative option: a life
lit with the light of mitzvos and warmed by the warmth of Torah. We now
know a possible reason why the Sfas Emes did not mention the desire to
be 'cool'. Because he thought that was not a option for any intelligent
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.