Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, zechuso tagein aleinu, Beshalach, 5631
The Sfas Emes begins this ma'amar with a reference to the first
paragraph of Medrash Rabba on the posuk "Ahz yashir..". (Shemos,
15:1) (ArtScroll: "Then Moses and the Children of Israel chose to sing
..."). That Medrash, in turn, quotes the posuk in Tehillim (93:2):
"nachon kis'acha mei'ahz, mei'olam ata" (ArtScroll: "Your throne is
established from of old; eternal are You".) This posuk, with its
mention of "mei'ahz," clearly echoes the "ahz" of "Ahz yashir". The
Sfas Emes takes it for granted that we are aware that the focus on the
word "ahz" is an immediate tip-off. . Tip-off to what?
Tip-off to the fact that we are dealing here with phenomena that are
"lema'ala min hateva" (i.e., above nature, supernatural -- "super"
being the Latin for "above". How do we know that we are in the realm
of lema'ala min hateva? The letters of the word "ahz" have the
numerical value of 8. (How so? Alef == 1; Zayin == 7; 7+1=8.) And the
number 8 is often an indicator of special kedusha (sanctity)
status. Thus, bris milah takes place on the eighth day after
birth. Likewise, the festival of Shemini Atzeres -- the eighth day of
Yom Tov -- has so much intrinsic kedusha that we have no need for
"visual aids" like a sukka or arba minim.
But much more is going on here than the word "ahz" and its remez
(hint) to the supernatural. The Sfas Emes is reading the word
kis'acha" in the posuk just cited (Tehillim, 93:2) as related to the
word "michseh" -- i.e., a cover. Thus, he understands the posuk as
telling us that HaShem's presence in the world is covered; i.e., not
apparent to our eyes. In the same vein, that posuk continues with the
phrase "mei'olam ahta". Those words are clearly alluding to the word
"he'eleim" -- "hidden". And they are informing us that HaShem's
Presence is usually not evident to the unaided eye.
This is the context within which the splitting of Yam Suf took
place. The Sfas Emes tells us that with that extraordinary event,
HaShem's Presence in the world was revealed to all observers. Thus,
when B'nei Yisroel saw HaShem's intervention in human affairs, they
could say shira. For the moment, at least, the hester was gone!
The Sfas Emes notes that this feature of our people's experience --
the fact that we could now say shira -- provides an answer to a
puzzling question. Why does the Torah use the phrase "Ahz yashir" to
tell us what happened? If the Torah wanted to say that Moshe and B'nei
Yisroel sang, the text should say: "Ahz shar," not "Ahz yashir!"
(A note on grammar. "Shar" is the past tense of binyan kal, the basic
construction for verbs. Hence, as just noted, "Moshe sang" would be
"Ahz shar Moshe". The construction that the Torah uses -- "yashir" --
is (in the text's pshat/simple meaning) the future tense of binyan
kal. That is, "Ahz yashir Moshe " translates as "Moshe will sing".
In the text's simple pshat, the Torah uses the future tense here as a
form of poetic embellishment, but with the meaning of "sang". In
fact, I checked three different English-language translations of the
Chumash on this phrase. All three translate " yashir" in this clause
The Sfas Emes gives a radically new answer to the question of why the
Torah says "yashir" rather than "shar". As noted, the construction
"yashir" is the future tense of binyan kal. But "yashir" can also be
the future tense of the "causative" construction -- binyan hif'il.
For the verb "shir" (to sing), the hif'il construction -- i.e., to
cause to sing -- is also "yashir!" This fact of grammar enables the
Sfas Emes to read the words "Ahz yashir" as: "cause to sing".
Whom did Moshe and B'nei Yisroel cause to sing? The Sfas Emes
answers: All of Creation! The Sfas Emes refers us here to the "Perek
Shira," a text found at the beginning of the Otzar Tefilos Siddur, as
well as in some Nusach Sefard siddurim. Perek Shira presents the
divrei shevach vehodaya (i.e., the words of praise and gratitude)
which all of HaShem's Creation sing every day.
Thus, we find in Perek Shira the p'sukim that some 100 creatures - from
the eagle to the mouse and to the ant -- as well as phenomena such as
lightning, clouds, and the dew sing. In other words, the Sfas Emes is
telling us that when Moshe and B'nei Yisroel sang, they caused the
entire Cosmos to sing with shevach vehodaya to HaShem.
By singing shira, Moshe and B'nei Yisroel expressed their recognition
that all existence comes from HaShem. Further, by their action, Moshe
and B'nei Yisroel evoked a similar reaction throughout Creation. The
whole cosmos recognized that it, too, exists only from the life that
HaShem gives it every day. Resonating with Moshe and B'nei Yisroel,
the whole world sang Shira of -- and to -- HaShem!
A fair question at this point: if the entire Cosmos is singing shira,
why don't we hear it? Two answers come to mind. One possibility is
that indeed, all Creation is singing, but we don't hear this shira.
Why not? For the same reason that we do not hear the bas kol that
emanates each day from Har Chorev (Pirkei Avos,6,2) and says: "Oi
lahem laberiyos mei'elbona shel Torah". ("Woe is humankind because of
the insulting way with which they treat the Torah".) That is, in
fact, the whole world is singing to HaShem. But unfortunately, we a
re not tuned in to the Cosmic channel.
Another answer works with the hif'il (causative) dimension of
"yashir". Thus, the Cosmos sang because B'nei Yisroel sang. The
Cosmos is not singing now because we are not singing. A person may
object at this point, and point out that we say 'pesukei de'zimra
('verses of song') in our daily Shacharis davening. In fact, therein
lies the problem -- that we say pesukei de'zimra rather than sing it!
Why are we not singing? Because we rarely penetrate the hester, and
therefore are not really aware of HaShem's Omnipresence. In line with
this perspective, we can appreciate the Sfas Emes's frequent
references to hester. That is, we can view the Sfas Emes' constant
mention of hester as designed to enable us to see through the hester
and thus enable us to sing. You may not have thought of the Sfas Emes
as a music master, but that he is.
The Sfas Emes left us five paragraphs of notes on parshas Beshalach
for the year 5631. To get an idea of the incredible wealth of his
thought, be aware that I have attempted to present here only one of
his five paragraphs of the year 5631.. That is, I have left unsaid
four times as much as I have tried to present...
The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph -- the first of the five --
with some thoughts about Shabbos. He tells us that we can bring the
light of Shabbos into the weekdays. Indeed, extending the kedusha of
Shabbos to the days of the week is the essence ("ikar") of "shemiras
Shabbos" (Sabbath observance)!
In the same vein, the Sfas Emes cites a Medrash Rabba (25:12) on this
parsha. The Medrash says: "If B'nei Yisoel would observe the Shabbos
properly afilu yom echod (even one day), Moshiach would come. Why do I
say "in the same vein?" Because the Sfas Emes reads this Medrash in an
utterly non-conventional way, but in a way which is consistent with
what he has just said.
Thus, the conventional way of understanding this Medrash is: If we
would observe one Shabbos -- on Shabbos -- properly,..Moshach would
come.. By contrast, the Sfas Emes reads the text as telling us thatthe
"afilu yom echod" -- even one day - applies to a weekday. For the
Sfas Emes views true Shabbos observance as extending the light -- and
sanctity -- of Shabbos to the weekdays!
Copyright © 2004 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org