Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Beha’alosecha, 5631/5641
The parsha begins: ‘ Beha’alosecha es ha’neiros…’ (ArtScroll: ‘ When you kindle the lamps…’) So far, so good. But Chazal react to this pasuk in a surprising manner. What is their reaction? In the second paragraph of Medrash Rabba on the parsha, we find Chazal quoting a pasuk from Yeshayahu (42:21): “HaShem chafeitz lema’an tzidko, yagdil Torah veya’adir.” (ArtScroll: “HaShem desired, for the sake of [Israel’s] righteousness, that the Torah be made great and glorious.”)
You see why I describe Chazal’s reaction as ‘surprising’. At this point, it is hard to see any connection between ‘Beha’alosecha es ha’neiros’ and ‘HaShem chafeitz …’ But let us be patient, confident that the Sfas Emes will put all the pieces of the puzzle together. And while we are being patient, note what this statement of HaShem -which is echoed by Yeshayahu, Chazal, and the Sfas Emes — has given us. A key feature of our relationship with HaShem is the many mitzvos that He has commanded us to perform. Apparently, having good values and having knowledge of HaShem is not enough to make a person a good Jew. HaShem also demands the concrete actions that are involved in performing the mitzvos.
Why does HaShem want us to do mitzvos? The pasuk just quoted provides one answer. By living our lives in accordance with His instructions — i.e., Torah and mitzvos — we make the Torah great and glorious. And by thus demonstrating our willingness to subordinate our will to His, we rise in righteousness and acquire merit in His eyes. Thus, we have an answer to the question posed earlier. HaShem has given us many commandments — and expects us to obey Him by doing what He has commanded — to enable us to deepen our commitment and our relationship with Him.
A fair question at this point is: Why does the Medrash wait until Parshas Beha’alosecha to give us this explanation of the reason for mitzvos? This issue is so important that one would have expected to find it at the very beginning of the cycle of Torah readings. Further, why does the Torah tell us this reason for mitzvos in this specific context: with the commandment to light lamps in the Sanctuary?
Apparently, these questions also bothered the Sfas Emes. How do I know? Because these are the questions that he proceeds to answer. To address these issues, the Sfas Emes needs one more piece of infomation, which he brings from a pasuk in Sefer Mishlei. The pasuk there (6, 23) says: ‘Ki neir mitzvo ve’ohr Torah,’ (ArtScroll: ‘ For a commandment is a lamp and the Torah is light.’) Why is the information that this pasuk provides vital ? Because this pasuk explicitly links the two themes that earlier seemed totally unconnected: kindling the neiros and ‘HaShem chafeitz…’ — HaShem’s desire that we live a life rich in mitzvos.
The Sfas Emes sees much more in this pasuk that connects the two themes other than joint mention of the word ‘neir’. In fact, he shows us how this pasuk clarifies the relationship between our awarenes of HaShem and our obligation to perform mitzvos. He does this by pointing out a connection between the three realities of which the pasuk in Mishlei speaks: neir, ohr, and Torah. The connection between “ohr” and “Torah” is easy to see. Not only is the sound of the vowels similar, but the pasuk in Mishlei links these two words explicitly.
Likewise, the Sfas Emes notes a connection between ‘neir’ and ‘ohr’ (and hence, with Torah). The Sfas Emes sees the word ‘neir’ as a sort of hif’il — a causative construction — of the word ‘ohr’. That is, the neir brings forth light. Thus, the Sfas Emes explains, the mitzvos extend the light of Torah to the world of human activity (ma’aseh). For the mitzvos are from the Torah — i.e., from HaShem. As we perform the mitzvos, we connect with HaShem’s Presence in all Creation.
Note that ‘all Creation’ just mentioned includes ”Hester”– HaShem’s hiding Himself. At the beginning of the parsha, Medrash Tanchuma tells us that Aharon had been despondent. Why? Because — unlike the nesi’im of the other shevatim (the leaders of the other tribes) -Aharon had not brought an offering at the inauguration of the mishkan (the Tabernacle). HaShem consoled Aharon by telling him: ‘shelcha le’olam ka’yemes’. In its plain/literal meaning, this phrase translates as: ‘Your service will endure forever.’ By contrast, the Sfas Emes reads this phrase in non-pshat mode as: ‘your service will penetrate the he’elam’ — the Hester behind which HaShem hides from us.
The Sfas Emes had more to say about these issues. In his ma’amar for parshas Beha’alosecha in the year 5641, he returned to this topic, and further developed his thoughts on the subject. The Sfas Emes works there with five parallel couplets: neir/ohr; mitzvos/Torah; action/knowledge; weekdays/Shabbos; guf/neshama. . Most Torah authorities view these couplets as iimplying either/ or decisions. That is., they see these phenomena as dichotomies — the more of one, the less of the other. By contrast, the Sfas Emes sees them as complementing each other — the more of one, the more of the other. The Sfas Emes gives an example.. He tells us that one cannot attain the hightened spirituality of Shabbos without the prior preparatory experience of yemei hama’aseh (the workdays)..
We can now sum up some this ma’mar’s themes. The Sfas Emes has told us us that our mitzvos maintain the chiyus (vibrancy ) of the Torah in the world of action. Without the mitzvos that we do with our actions, HaShem’s Presence would be hidden in olam ha’asiya (the world of human activity). More generally, this ma’amar focuses on the connections between mitzvos and our spiritual state. The link between the neiros and the ohr — the lamp and light — is easy to perceive. For this reason, Chazal view the candle/light connection as the prototype of the purpose of mitzvos. But this particular link is only a more graphic example of the general phenomenon of mitzvos. By conducting ourselves in accordance with HaShem’s commandments, we can come closer to HaShem.
In this vein, we find the Medrash at the beginning of the parsha reading the words “Beha’alosecha es ha’neiros” in an unexpected way. The text’s simple meaning is: “When you kindle the lamps …”. But the Medrash — being the Medrash — is not constrained to stick with the text’s simple meaning. Instead, the Medrash reads this phrase as: “When you elevate YOURSELF by lighting the lamps …”
A postscript. You may wonder: how can the Medrash arrive at the radically different reading just presented? Is it all arbitrary? Are there no rules? In fact, there are rules. In the present case, three perfectly legitimate innovations suffice to move from the pshat to the non-pshat reading. First, the Medrash takes the shoresh (root) of the word ‘Beha’alosecha’ to be ayin/ lamed/hei. That root means ‘to go up’; and in its present, causative, construction, ‘to lift up’ ; i.e., to ‘elevate’. Second, the Medrash understands the syllables “secha” in the word “beha’alosecha” as indicating a reflexive construction; i.e., referring back to the person who is lighting the candles. This reflexive form gives us the ‘yourself’. Third, the Medrash construes the pasuk’s word “es” as meaning “with” — in the sense of: “by means of”. And so, ‘Beha’alosecha es ha’neiros’ becomes: “When you elevate yourself by lighting …”.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.