Sfas Emes, Pesach, 5631
The Sfas Emes on Pesach is very rich: 69 double-columned pages in small Rashi script. The Sfas Emes has so much to say on Pesach that my best effort to transmit here is like taking a spoonful of water from the ocean.
Why do I mention how much more Sfas Emes is available? Because being aware of how much more Sfas Emes is out there, some members of this Chabura may realize that the time has come to purchase their own set of Sfas Emes. I suggest that you view this purchase as an investment in mind-stretching Divrei Torah — an afikoman present for the entire family. Owning your own copy of the Sfas Emes will increase your access to his ideas. And better access to the ideas of the Sfas Emes will help you (and your family) avoid a malady to which observant Jews are all too susceptible — religious stagnation.
Before we begin this ma’amar, it helps to have an idea of what to expect. The ma’amar is crafted along three themes: past and present; the individual and the klal (the collectivity); emes (provable truth) and emuna (unprovable truth). These three themes weave in and out of the ma’amar, giving it a rare beauty. Finally, toward the end of the ma’amar, expect an extraordinary khap — intellectual coup — such that only the Sfas Emes could deliver.
In his very first ma’amar on Pesach, the Sfas Emes quotes a text from the Haggada: “Bechol dor vador chayav (!) ahdam lir’os es atzmo ke’ilu HU yatza miMitzrayim.” That is, in each generation, a person must (!) view himself as having personally experienced the Redemption from Egypt. The Sfas Emes takes this mandate seriously., This leads to a basic question: what should a person do to reach this esired – more accurately: mandated — goal? The Sfas Emes answers that a two-step process is involved. The first step is to realize that, in reality, every generation experiences its own version of the Redemption from Egypt. With that belief under our belt., the Sfas Emes tells us, we can in fact relive the original, prototypical ge’ula as a personal experience.
The Sfas Emes now elaborates on this idea: i.e., that we are enjoined to relive the experience of our Liberation from Egypt. That Liberation involved much more than escape from physical and political subordination to the Egyptians. Redemption also included escape from the tum’a of Egyptian culture and intellectual life.
Continuing with this theme of experiencing Redemption, the Sfas Emes quotes a statement of the Maharal. The Maharal tells us that “bevadai” (“certainly”) we all participated in the experience of the Redemption from Egypt as a klal (i.e., the Jewish People as a collectivity). But the Haggada is telling us more than the fact that we experienced Redemption as a collectivity. In mandating: “ke’ilu HU yatzami Mitzrayim”, the Haggada is telling us that we must also experience Liberation on an individual, personal level.
How does a person achieve that much more difficult goal of reliving the Redemption from Egypt at an individual, personal level? The Sfas Emes answers: by joining the collectivity. (Note: The idea that an individual can achieve personal religious fulfillment by joining the collectivity is a startling paradox . Anyone but the Sfas Emes would steer clear of such an apparent internal contradiction. By contrast, the Sfas Emes explicitly recognizes the seeming inconsistencies that HaShem built into the world. In fact, he gives them center stage.)
How does an individual become part of the collectivity? With emuna! by truly believing that we were redeemed from the galus of Mitzrayim, we can re-live the actual experience. Once we affirm our membership in the collectivity, we can access this experience on an individual basis. A fair question here is: how does this process work (in the real world)? That is, how does having emuna enable an individual to become part of a collectivity?
I suggest the following explanation. By definition, emuna involves affirmation of ideas that cannot be proven. Hence, choosing to accept a given set of ideas sets a person apart from people who do not give credence to those ideas. By the same token, choosing to accept those ideas puts the person together with people who affirm the same thoughts as he. Thus, affirming a set of unprovable ideas – i.e., emuna — enables an individual to join the collectivity of klal Yisroel. (Notice how commonsensical are these ideas of the Sfas Emes once we make the effort to take them seriously.)
The Sfas Emes has articulated two conditions for experiencing personal liberation. He makes it clear that both conditions involve emuna; i.e. affirmation of an unprovable truth. Note that mesora (father to offspring tradition) is not enough for the Sfas Emes. As he sees the world, emuna is necessary to arrive at the emes. What are the two conditions for which — in this context — emuna is required? A person must view himself as having participated (past tense) in the Redemption. And he/she must have the emuna to recognize that, were it not for the Redemption, he/she would not have a relationship with HaShem. With these two emuna conditions satisfied, a person will realize that indeed he is (present tense) being liberated.
We can now sum up on this line of analysis. The Sfas Emes has told us that every generation has its ‘Yetzi’as Mitzrayim’ (Exodus from Egypt). The Redemption varies with the specific situation and needs of the generaneration. (Note: Redemption implies prior enslavement. What do you see as the nature of enslavement of the present generation?) Further, the Sfas Emes has told us that, to the degree that a person has emuna that he experienced (past tense) the Liberation from Egypt, so too, can he feel (present tense) the Redemption of his own generation. And so, too, can each individual experience Liberation from his own personal constraints.
“Constraints”? How did “constraints” get into this discussion? The answer stretches one’s mind, for it is a typical Sfas Emes chidush. To understand the answer, we must go back to basics. The word “Mitzrayim:” is usually translated as “Egypt.” But with ko’ach ha’chidush such as only the Sfas Emes can deploy, he reads the word ‘Mitzrayim” in a totally innovative way. The Hebrew word “meitzar” means “constraint” or “limit”. The Sfas Emes is reading “Mitzrayim” as being the plural of of the word “metizar”. Thus, “yetzi’as mitzrayim” has become: “liberation from one’s constraints”. The Sfas Emes does not spell out what he has specifically in mind when he refers to personal constraints that Pesach teaches us can be overcome. I suggest that he is referring to long-standing attitudes, ingrained assumptions, and habits that too often constrain a person’s growth.
A final question. Viewing Pesach as a time for Liberation from one’s personal constraints is fine and good if the constraints are in fact loosened. But does it make sense to talk of “Liberation” in a case where the constraints are NOT loosened? For example, consider a case in which the constraint derives — cholilo (God forbid) — from an incurable medical handicap. Does the Sfas Emes’s perspective on Pesach as a time for Liberation from a person’s individual constraints apply there too?
I believe the answer is: yes! How so? A major theme in the Sfas Emes’s Torah is the need to pierce the Hester with which HaShem cloaks Himself. Piercing the Hester enables a person to view reality accurately A prominent case in which the Sfas Emes applies this insight is in the context of seeing the hand of HaShem where an untutored eye would see only Nature (teva).
This observation implies that the Sfas Emes’s perspective certainly does apply to the case of the person afflicted with an incurable handicap. Knowledge that his condition comes from HaShem (rather than from mindless Nature) implies that his condition is purposeful. This awareness gives meaning to what the person is undergoing. It transforms his experience, and makes it a wholly different condition. Thus, getting the metaphysics of the situation right provides Liberation in its own special way.
This Sfas Emes is rich — in fact, so rich that one cannot hold on to it. One way to handle this situation of overflowing insights is to focus on some thoughts that speak to one with special force. Tastes, interests, and background vary, so there is no single list of Sfas Emes thoughts that will serve for everyone. But to stimulate your own thinking about “take home” Sfas Emes thoughts, here are two suggestions. One unique and powerful Sfas Emes idea is the notion that every generation experiences its own enslavement and Redemption. Another powerful new idea is the thought that Pesach is a time for individuals to break out of their personal constraints and grow.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.