By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Vayechi. 5631
The Sfas Emes begins by focusing on the parsha's first four
words: "Vayechi Ya'akov be'Eretz Mitzrayim... " ("Ya'akov lived in
Egypt..."). The Sfas Emes sees special significance in the Torah's
decision to start the parsha with the word 'Vayechi' Why? Because the
word "Vayechi" comes from the same Hebrew root as the words "chiyus"
and "chayim". Those words resonate with a unique importance for the Sfas
Emes. They signify 'truly' living; that is, living connected to one's
Shoresh (root), i.e., to HaShem.
A basic question. How was Ya'akov Avinu able to experience chiyus
(vibrancy; vitality) in Mitzrayim, a country well known to be a cesspool
of tum'a (spiritual impurity) ? This question -- and the Sfas Emes's
answer to it -- are of great practical interest to us. For, as we
know, "ma'aseh avos siman lebanim". That is, the lives of our Patriarchs
provide a paradigm for us, their descendants, to follow in our own lives.
The Sfas Emes answers : Ya'akov Avinu was able to live in the mode of
chiyus -- i.e., to flourish spiritually -- even in Egypt because his
identifying quality was Emes (truthfulness). That is, we know that
Avraham Avinu's identifying trait was chessed --loving kindness. Likewise,
Yitzchok Avinu had a signature trait--gevura ( discipline ). Ya'akov
Avinu's special trait -- the feature that he lived with special intensity -
- was Emes. In that vein, the pasuk (Micha, 7,20) tells us: ' Titein Emes
leYa'akov '('Grant truthfulness to Ya'akov'). That quality of truthfulness
enabled him to live with chiyus -- even in Mitzrayim.
How did this work? The Sfas Emes does not elaborate, presumably because
he considers the answer to this question to be self-evident. I suggest
that what he has in mind is the following. First, through his strict
adherence to truth, Ya'akov Avinu was able to recognize that the ideas
concerning metaphysics that were then current in Mitzrayim were
falsehoods. We should not underestimate the attractiveness of those
ideas. At that time, Egypt was the world's intellectual center. For this
reason, the ideas circulating within that country's intellectual elite
came with great persuasive power. But Ya'akov Avinu's firm grip on truth
enabled him to know that those superficially plausible ideas were in fact
intellectual booby traps.
I suggest that another way through which his quality of Emes enabled our
forefather to live with chiyus even in Mitzrayim was his truthfulness to
himself. To understand what I mean when I say that Ya'akov was truthful
to himself, consider the opposite situation wherein we do not acknowledge
to ourselves that we are doing wrong. Such intellectual dishonesty
precludes the possibility of Teshuva. Indeed, the person may continue
doing wrong, and do so with an air of self-satisfaction -- thus adding
ga'ava (haughtyness) to his/her portfolio of aveiros.
Continuing his discussion, the Sfas Emes notes another condition that
enabled Ya'akov Avinu to succeed: Simcha (joy). (I have the impression
that the kind of Simcha that the Sfas Emes has in mind here is not
ordinary, garden variety joy, but rather "transcendental simcha'. I use
this term to describe joy that transcends the particular circumstances or
conditions that a person is experiencing. In transcendental simcha, the
person simply glows, perhaps because he/she feels at one with the Cosmos).
As the Sfas Emes recounts Ya'akov Avinu's experience in Egypt, Emes
brought chiyus -- a closer connection with HaShem. Chiyus, in turn,
brought Simcha. On this key point, the Sfas Emes cites the pasuk
(Bereishis, 45: 27): "Vatechi ruach Ya'akov avihem." ('The spirit of their
father, Ya'akov, took on new life.') The Sfas Emes introduces the
explanation of the Zohar, which focuses on the word 'Vatechi' in that
pasuk. The Zohar corroborates the Sfas Emes's interpretation that with
chiyus -- to which the pasuk's word "Vatechi" refers -- Simcha also came
to Ya'akov Avinu.
Simcha, in turn, had a marvelous effect. Because Ya'akov had been
despondent over the loss of Yosef, he had lost the capacity for ruach
hakodesh. For joy is one of the conditions necessary for a person to
achieve that close contact with HaShem. With the advent of joy, Ya'akov
was able to reconnect with ruach hakodesh. Further, as this account
indicates, Chiyus and Simcha can be mutually-reinforcing. Starting with
Emes, a person may generate a self-sustaining upward spiral. Thus,
adherence to truth can help a person live his/her life with joy. And
unburdened of negative feelings to life, the person can come still closer
to an awareness of reality; that is, to recognition that the entire Cosmos
draws its existence from HaShem.
Now the Sfas Emes moves on to a new topic. And since we are still in the
first paragraph of the ma'amar of the year 5631, we will follow him to see
what he says.
Rashi, following Medrash Rabba, comments on our parsha's first pasuk, and
tells us: Ya'akov Avinu wanted to be megaleh (to reveal) 'the keitz' (the
time of Moshiach's coming, and the end of golus) to his sons. But HaShem
did not want him to do so; and blocked Ya'kov Avinu's access to the
The Sfas Emes quotes his Grandfather -- the Chidushei HaRim -- who, in
turn, quoted the Rav of Parshischa -- a great Tzaddik of the previous
generation -- who asked a basic question: why did Ya'akov Avinu want to
reveal the keitz to his sons? What good would it have done to Ya'akov
Avinu's descendants if he had revealed the keitz to them?
To which question these three Tzaddikim respond with the following
answer. In standard usage, the phrase 'to be megaleh the keitz' means: to
reveal when Moshiach will come and the golus will end. By contrast, the
Sfas Emes and his illustrious predecessors read this phrase as meaning: to
reveal the fact that a keitz exists.
Now we know why Ya'akov Avinu's descendants would have benefitted if he
had revealed the keitz to them. For, the Sfas Emes explains, knowing that
the golus will end makes it easy ('be'nakeil') to experience the whole
golus period -- regardless of how long it will last and when it will end.
Indeed, says the Sfas Emes, if the fact of the keitz had been
revealed, 'lo haya golus klal' (it would not even have been golus.) Why
not? Because knowing that there is a keitz will give meaning to history,
removing the impression that history is nothing but a sequence of random ,
painful events. Thus, knowing that there is a keitz would make it readily
apparent that what we have been experiencing is only Hester, behind which
HaShem is truly there.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.