By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Vayigash, 5631
The parsha begins: "Vayigash eilav Yehuda". The simple/pshat translation
of which is: "Yehuda approached him [Yosef]." But these words prompt the
Sfas Emes to recall a comment of his Grandfather on the name
"Yehuda". The Chidushei HaRim's comment is especially pertinent because
our people takes its name from Yehuda. That is, we are called "Yehudim".
Thus, this comment on the name Yehuda sheds light on what the Chidushei
HaRim and the Sfas Emes view as the essence of being a Jew.
As the Sfas Emes sees it, the name "Yehuda" is related to the word
"hoda'a." I would translate i''hod'a ntext as I suggest that the
accurate translation of 'hoda'a' in this context is: 'concession' or
'acknowledgement'. [For further support of this translation, see endnote
1]. This translation implies a tense, andlikely, a conflicted
relationship. For a. person can 'concede' a point reluctantly or
grudgingly -- perhaps only between gritted teeth.. Thus, the Sfas Emes
is telling us that we 'Yehudim' are a people who acknowledge that --
whether we like it or not -- HaShem's Presence is everywhere. And
'everywhere' includes situations in which an observer without Torah would
bemoan HaShem's absence.
We move on to another line of thought. The Sfas Emes tells us that when
a person encounters a rough patch in life, he should realize that he is
also gaining the opportunity for a richer relationship with HaShem.
Further, the Sfas Emesadvises that the way to handle such an encounter is
to come closer to the penimiyus (the inner reality) of the situation;
that is, to HaShem. Thus, in the present case, Yehuda reviewed in his
mind the events that had befallen the brothers. Acknowledging that the
entire episode came from HaShem, he accepted it "besimcha" (with joy)..
Yehuda could then take what was for him the obvious next step: to come
closer to HaShem.
The Sfas Emes has just given us a radically new nonpshat on our parsha's
first sentence. The text says: "Vayigash eilav Yehuda". As noted above,
the conventional reading of this phrase is: "Yehuda approached Yosef".
By contrast, the Sfas Emes is reading this text as: Yehuda came closer to
Note another feature of this model on how to handle a rough patch in
life. To come closer to the penimiyus, we must first remove the
intellectual and emotional blockages that obstruct our access to HaShem.
Thus, before Yosef revealed himself to his brothers -- and thereby showed
them the penimiyus of what they had been experiencing -- he had to have
the room cleared. Hence, we hear Yosef saying (Bereishis, 45: 1):
'Hotzi'yu kohl ish'.
The Sfas Emes points to a similar process in our own lives. He quotes a
passage in the Zohar, a text that we also saw him cite a few weeks ago.
(Nusach Sfarad says this paragraph before "Borchu" on leil Shabbos.)
"Vekol dinim mis'abrin minei". Thus, when Shabbos arrives and we come
closer to the penimiyus, we try to remove all the extraneous elements in
our minds, to have those distractions leave us. Yosef had to take a
concrete action to remove impediments to perceiving the penimiyus.
Similarly, to free ourselves on Shabbos from thoughts that are not
"Shabbosdick", we too must take action. If we want to experience Shabbos
as coming closer to HaShem, we must be careful about not only what we do,
but also what we say, and indeed, what we think. That is, on Shabbos, we
should strive not only for: shinui ma'aseh but also for shinui dibur; and
even for shinui mach'shava. Clearly, this lineup has implications for
what we read and what we talk about on Shabbos.
The Sfas Emes moves on, and we attempt to follow. Yehuda says
(Bereishis, 44: 18): "Bi adoni". The pshat translation of this phrase
is: "Please, my lord". But the Sfas Emes quotes a nonpshat of the ARIzal
on this phrase and on the name "Yehuda". The ARIzl read the words "bi
adoni" as: "My Lord is within me". That is, if we examine the letters
with which the name Yehuda is written -- i.e., YHDH - we find the letters
of HaShem's name ("YKVK")!
At this point, a basic question may arise in your mind. The ARIzal's
reading -- "My Lord is within me" -- bespeaks a close, positive
relationship between Yehudim and HaShem. But this ma'amar began with the
Sfas Emes observing that we are a people who (sometimes) are willing to
concede (perhaps only reluctantly) that all that happens in life comes
from HaShem. Is this not a blatant contradiction with the picture of a
people who can say "bi adoni"?
In addressing this question, it helps to be aware of a key feature of the
Sfas Emes. The Sfas Emes is not afraid of internal inconsistencies and
blatant contradictions. As we look at the world, we observe many
contradictions between what we (think we) know and what we (think we)
see. Part of the gadlus (greatness) of the Sfas Emes is his willingness
to make such inconsistencies explicit; indeed, to put them up for all to
view. In practical terms, the Sfas Emes has given us a model to follow:
demonstrating that we can take apparent contradictions in stride as
obvious facts of life, and continue our lives as Ovdei HaShem be'simcha.
In the present context, however, we need not posit inconsistency. For,
in fact, a person may live both relationships with HaShem -- i.e., "bi
adoni" and "hoda'a" -- at different times of his life. Likewise, a person
may live both relationships with HaShem at different times of the same
day. Indeed,a person may well live both relationships with HaShem
simultaneously! That state of mind has a name; it is called
"ambivalence". It is important to recognize that ambivalence is not an
aberration or a deviation from normal behavior. In fact, such feelings
are so common that the Torah takes them explicitly into account. Where?
In a basic text , the Shema, in which the Torah tells us to serve HaShem
"bechol levavecha". The word "levavecha" is plural, connoting multiple
mindsets -- for example, both 'bi adoni' and 'hoda'a'.
We conclude with still another line of thought that the Sfas Emes
includes in this one ma'amar. He quotes the first Medrash Rabba on
Parshas Vayigash. Remember the context within which this parsha begins.
Yehuda had put himself forward as the guarantor of Binyomin's safe
return.The situation of guarantor ("oreiv") evokes for the Medrash a
posuk in Mishlei (6: 1) in which a guarantor figures prominently. The
pasuk says: "Beni, ihm oravta le'rei'echa ...." (That is: "My son, if
you have gotten into the situation of being a guarantor (oreiv) for your
A question: Who is this 'friend' of whom the posuk speaks? One
commentary on Mishlei provides an answer to this question. He tells us
"Rei'echa, zeh Hakadosh Baruch Hu". ("The friend to whom you have made
this commitment is: HaShem.") Seeing 'rei'echa' as HaShem is daring
enough. But seeing klal Yisroel as -- kivyachol (so to speak) --
guarantor of HaShem is extreme in the extreme. Being a guarantor means
taking the responsibility for making good if the one being guaranteed
does not come up to standard. In our context, the metaphor seems to be
saying. that if HaShem seems to under-perform, we -- klal Yisroel -- have
the responsibility of compensating for His apparent deficiency. I find
this idea totally mind-boggling.
You may wonder who is the author of the far out, apparently Chassidische
understanding of the word "rei'acha" that we cited above? The answer is
Rashi, a mainline commentator reputed to be an extreme pashtan . Thus, we
see here another case in support of a key Sfas Emes theme: namely, that
we live in a complex world, a world in which things are not always what
we initially perceive them to be.
We conclude with an exhortation of the Sfas Emes. Echoing the Medrash,
he tells us: If you have made this commitment -- to be a guarantor of
HaShem -- "kabeil adnuso". Accept His kingship! By which the Sfas Emes
means: do it in a conscious, active mode.
Endnote 1. In support of translating "hoda'a" as "acknowledgement"
rather than as "gratitude", I cite the Sfas Emes's ma'amar on the third
night of Chanuka, 5631. In that that ma'amar, he quotes the Chazal's
phrase: "u'modeh -- mich'lal dipligei". That is, when a Mishna uses the
word "u'modeh" it is saying that on this point under dispute, the tanna
concedes. However, on other points, he continues to disagree. As this
example indicates, translating the word 'u'modeh' as "concedes" makes
sense; translating it as "expresses gratitude" does not. For another
instance in which being "modeh" is clearly used to express a person's
conceding something, see Rashi on Bereishis, (33, 9.)
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.