When we encounter a cryptic mashal (metaphor, parable) or a statement
that Chazal wrap in the form of aggada, too often we assume that its
message is of marginal importance. And for this reason, we do not make
the effort to penetrate the code or the metaphor within which the
message is presented. By contrast, when the Sfas Emes works with a
difficult Ma'amar of Chazal, he insists that the statement must make
sense. Accordingly, he takes the time and effort necessary to
understand the Ma'amar and explain it to us. The following illustrate
the Sfas Emes's discipline in this respect, as well as demonstrate the
benefit that we gain from taking Chazal's words seriously rather than
taking the path of "let's skip the Aggadata".
For the first example, the second paragraph of the Sfas Emes's Ma'amar
in year 5634 begins: "Kol Dor ..." (That is: Any generation in which
the Beis Hamikdash is not rebuilt is on the same low spiritual level
as the generation which merited the Churban -- the destruction of the
If taken seriously and literally, this is a very powerful, if
enigmatic, statement. So much so that that the Sfas Emes observes that
there were, in fact, many generations following the Churban in which
exceptionally worthy and pious people ("Tzaddikei Elyon") lived. Can
we honestly say of those generations, he asks, that they literally
merited the Churban of the Beis Hamikdash in their days? Likewise, do
we truly expect that there will arise a generation so virtuous that it
will, on its own, merit the Ge'ula (the Redemption) that no earlier
To this the Sfas Emes answers the Ge'ula will come as the result of a
cumulative process, in which the spiritual achievements of each
generation will be added to those of all preceding generations until
finally we reach the "target level". Thus, every generation that adds
spirituality to the world, by bringing light to where darkness had
previously reigned, participates in building the Beis
Hamikdash. (Note: This perspective implies a view of history as
progress rather than of decline or degeneration.) It turns out, then,
that the Jewish people have actually been rebuilding the Beis
Hamikdash throughout the entire duration of the Golus!
Further, we can be building it right now. The Sfas Emes notes that
this ongoing process is precisely referred to (twice) in our Siddur
(in the daily Shemoneh Esrei and in Birkas Hamazon): namely, "Bonei
Yerushalayim" ("He who builds - present tense! -- Yerushalayim").
The Sfas Emes explains that this Chazal ("Any generation in which the
Beis Hamikdash is not rebuilt ... ") refers to a generation that does
not participate at all in the cumulative process.
So far, following the text from Chazal, the Sfas Emes has been
speaking in terms of "generations"; i.e., Klal Yisroel as a
collectivity can be rebuilding the Beis Hamikdash right now. Now he
adds that the same process also operates at the level of the
individual ("Vechol Ahdam Bifrat"). Thus, he is telling us that we
should be aware that each indivudal's actions can also help to rebuild
the Beis HaMikdash right now!
The Sfas Emes concludes this paragraph (yes, all of this has been
packed into a single, concise paragraph) with a quote from Chazal:
"Hakol Mesa'ayin Lebinyano Shel Melech". That is, each and every one
of us can/may/should help in rebuilding the King's palace.
The following is another example in which, by taking a Ma'amar of
Chazal seriously, the Sfas Emes is led to a question which (to my very
limited knowledge) had not been asked before and, in addressing that
question, takes us to a totally new perspective. This example comes
from the Sfas Emes of the year 5635.
As we know, Sefer Devarim begins in a surprising way, with a list of
geographical sites. Why so? Rashi follows (some of) 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.
To this the Sfas Emes reacts, asking: What is the point of rebuking
Bnei Yisroel of this generation -- i.e., the generation that was about
to enter Eretz Yisroel -- for these Aveiros? These Aveiros had been
committed by the previous generation, not the people to whom Moshe was
The Sfas Emes answers that every generation begins life with the
Aveiros of the previous generation on its back, so to speak. 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
Note how neatly this thought of the Sfas Emes fits in with common
sense. Take a moment to think about this question, 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 the whole
generation to which they belonged.