Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Chayei Soro, 5649
The parsha begins with the petira (passing) of Soro Imeinu. Chazal react (in the parsha’s first paragraph of Medrash Raba) by quoting a pasuk in Tehlilim (37:18): “Yodei’a HaShem ye’mei temi’mim …” (ArtScroll: “HaShem knows the days of the perfect …”). (The word “perfect” here refers to tzadikim; i.e, individuals of extraordinary spiritual quality.)
A look ahead in the text of the Medrash and of the Sfas Emes makes it clear that we will not be able to make progress in this ma’amar unless and until we clarify the meaning of “temimim” (or, “temimus”). So let us focus now on the meaning of these key words.
We can begin by deleting a total non-starter from our list of possible translations. In many contexts, “temimus” has the sense of “naivete”. Not so here. That translation does not fit in the context within which the Sfas Emes is working (See below.) ArtScroll offers a more likely candidate; it translates temimim as “perfect”. An even better translation would be: “complete”, in the sense of “whole”. In any case, on a non-pshat level, there is no need to choose between these different possibilities. Chazal do not see them as alternatives, and hence, as a source of tension. On the contrary, we can view them as complements. In fact, some drashos on this pasuk are based on the ambiguity and twofold meaning of the word “temimim”.
Thus, commenting on that pasuk in Tehilim, the Medrash tells us: “Kesheim she’heim temimim, kach she’no’som temimim”. That is: just as they (the tzadikim) are perfect, so too, are their lives complete — i.e., filled with good deeds. The Sfas Emes elaborates, telling us what particular “good deeds” Chazal have in mind here. Simply put: tzadikim elevate (“ma’alim”) Time and Nature!
That is, when HaShem created the world, He built Time and Nature into it. This feature of creation introduced a potential killer problem. People might easily make the mistake of viewing Time and Nature as autonomous forces — in a world without HaShem’s active participation. Fortunately, the tzadik can save us from that horrendous error. To help us gain a better understanding of what he is saying, the Sfas Emes cites a parallel case. We know that the presence of a tzadik raises the spiritual quality of the place where he or she resides. So, too, tzadikim raise the spiritual quality of the Time in the era in which they live.
How does this work? It operates via the temimus of the tzadik. To explain, the Sfas Emes offers an interpretation of what Temimus means, an interpretation that — for me, at least — was brand new. He tells us that the ikar (the essence) of Temimus is “hisdabkus bashoresh she’lema’ala min hateva”; i.e., clinging to the root of reality, above Nature. In other words, Temimus is not naivete, but rather the sophistication of seeing Nature and Time accurately, in their true metaphysical context.
Continuing his exposition, the Sfas Emes quotes a pasuk in Devarim (18:13): “Tamim ti’heye im HaShem Elokekha” (ArtScroll: “You shall be wholehearted with HaShem”). The contrast is with the nations of the world who (Devarim, 18:14) “hearkened to … diviners”. That is, the nations analyze Time and Nature rationally, and schedule their activities in accordance with their analysis (“hischakmus”).
The Sfas Emes readily acknowledges that scientific analysis of Time and Nature has its place; for the cosmos is put together with logic. But we should go past the perspective that stops with science. Bnei Yisroel should recognize and be aware of HaShem’s Presence in Time and Nature. The Sfas Emes takes this point further. Thus, he tells us that here we find our raison d’etre — the reason for our very existence. As he phrases it: Bnei Yisroel were created for the purpose of elevating Nature; i.e., to clarify and be witnesses that HaShem is Master of Nature and Time. We bear testimony — to ourselves as well as to others — that HaShem directs Time and Nature. By being aware (emotionally as well as intellectually) of HaShem’s Presence, we can transform those domains from neutral — if not hostile — contexts in our relationship to HaShem to becoming regions of Kedusha and Tahara. Hence, the terminology of “elevating” and “raising high” that we saw earlier.
Taking seriously the notion that we have a responsibility to bear testimony that HaShem conducts Time may sound “too Chassidisch”. The idea that Yiddishkeit includes educating the nations may seem “modern”. The Sfas Emes hastens to bring information that can save us from such misconceptions. Thus, he quotes a pasuk in Yeshayahu (43:12): “Va’atem eidai … va’ahni Keil” (ArtScroll: “You are My witnesses … I am God”). One pasuk says it all.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.