Chazal sometimes express themselves through the medium of aggadeta. That is, they use metaphor, parable, and/or analogy to present their ideas. The messages that such aggadeta conveys are not always obvious at first sight. Accordingly, too often we tell ourselves that the ideas being presented are probably only of marginal importance. And with this excuse, we do not make the effort necessary to penetrate the code or the metaphor within which the message is expressed.
By contrast, when the Sfas Emes encounters a difficult piece of aggadeta, he insists that the statement must make sense. Accordingly, he takes the time and makes the effort necessary to understand the piece. Here are two examples that illustrate the Sfas Emes’s approach. These examples also demonstrate the potential benefits we can gain if we take Chazal’s words seriously rather than follow the well-trodden path of “let’s skip the aggadeta.”
For the first case, go to the Sfas Emes’s ma’amar in the year 5634. This discourse is directly relevant to the Nine Days and to Tish’a Be’av. Thus, the ma’amar’s second paragraph tell us: “Kol dor.. ” That is: Any generation in which the Beis Hamikdash is not rebuilt is at the same (low) spiritual level as the generation which merited the churban (the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash)!
Taken seriously, this is a puzzling statement. In fact, the Sfas Emes himself is explicit in stating his puzzlement. He notes that there were many generations after the churban in which exceedingly worthy and pious people (“tzaddikei elyon”) lived. Hence, he asks: can we honestly say of those generations that they too merited the churban in their days?
Chazal’s statement, just quoted, also leads the Sfas Emes to ask another basic question. Do we truly expect that a generation will emerge that will be so virtuous that it will, on its own, merit the ge’ula (the Redemption) that no earlier generation deserved?
Asking questions enables the Sfas Emes to find answers. And the answers that his inquiry yields enable him to open startling new perspectives on some basic issues. Indeed, he sheds new light even on some familiar topics, topics that we may have thought we already understood thoroughly.
Thus, the Sfas Emes explains that the ge’ula will not come from the achievements of one single generation. Rather, the Redemption will come as the result of a cumulative process, in which the spiritual achievements of each generation are added to those of preceding generations. This cumulative process will continue until the world reaches the “target level” of Kedusha (sanctity) that HaShem specifies. Thus, every generation that adds spirituality to the world, by bringing light to where darkness had previously reigned, participates in rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash. It turns out, then, that the Jewish people have been rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash throughout the entire duration of the golus!
Further, we can be rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash right now. The Sfas Emes notes that in our daily davening, we refer explicitly to this ongoing process. In fact, we refer to it twice. Where? In our daily Shemoneh Esrei and in Birkas Hamazon. How? When — alluding to the pasuk in Tehilim (147,2) — we speak of HaShem as “Bonei Yerushalayim”; i.e., “He Who builds Yerushalayim”. Note that both in Tehilim and in the comprehensive Otzoros Hatefilos Siddur, the word ‘bonei’ is written with a tzeireh. This vowelization makes the word a verb (rather than a noun). Moreover, this is a verb in the present tense, thus telling us that we can make it happen now.
So far, following the text from Chazal (“Kol Dor…”), the Sfas Emes has been speaking in terms of “generations”. That is, Klal Yisroel as a collectivity can be rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash even at this very moment. Now the Sfas Emes adds a powerful new dimensionto the discusion. He tells us that the same process also operates at the level of the individual (“vechol ahdam bifrat”). Thus, the Sfas Emes reminds us of the cosmic significance of all our actions. Every person can, with his/her individual deeds, can also rebuild the Beis HaMikdash right now.
The Sfas Emes has been speaking about building the Beis Hamikdash. He continues with this theme as he concludes this paragraph (Yes. All of this rich information has been packed into a single, concise paragraph! ) with a quote from Chazal: “Hakol mesa’ayin le’binyano shel Melech”. Everyone can/may/should help build the King’s palace.
As we know, Sefer Devarim begins in a surprising way, with a list of geographical sites. Why? Rashi follows Chazal in reading the place names in Devarim 1:1 as a veiled rebuke. That is, they see Moshe as mentioning these sites to rebuke Bnei Yisroel for the aveiros (sins) that they had committed in those places. Thus, the reference to a place named “Di Zahav” is in reality a rebuke to Bnei Yisroel for the sin of eigel hazahav, the golden calf.
This interpretation seems easy to absorb. straightforward and uncontentious. However, considering the aggadeta sufficently imprtant to think through, the Sfas Emes reacts with a powerful question. He asks: What is the point of rebuking Bnei Yisroel of this generation — the generation that was about to enter Eretz Yisroel — for these aveiros (sins)? These aveiros had been committed by the previous generation, not by the people to whom Moshe Rabeinu was now speaking!
The Sfas Emes answers that every generation begins life bearing the burden of the previous generation’s aveiros … And for this reason, every generation has the responsibility of correcting those aveiros. Thus, just as there is zechus avos (people can benefit from the merit of their forefathers), so too there is “cheit avos” -the aveiros that the previous generations pass on to succeeding generations.
Note how neatly this thought of the Sfas Emes fits in with common sense. Take a moment to think about this question; and you will soon reach the same conclusion. In fact, we do start life with both the assets and the liabilities of our parents — and indeed, of their entire generation.
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Project Genesis, Inc.