Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, 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
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 andpolitical
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.
Copyright © 2004 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org