By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Re'ei, 5633
This parsha begins with a focus on choice. We hear Moshe Rabbeinu
saying: "Re'ei a'nochi no'sein lif'nei'chem ha'yom bracha u'klalla".
(ArtScroll: "See. I present before you today a blessing and a curse
... "). The Sfas Emes notes that implicit in this pasuk is a key
fact of life: that HaShem has endowed us with "bechira chofshis" --
free will -- to choose between good and evil.
The Sfas Emes develops this thought by citing an insight from his
Grandfather. The Chidushei HarRim had commented on the fact that
every morning, we say a bracha (blessing) whose inner message may
initially be hard to grasp. In that bracha, we thank HaShem for
giving roosters the ability to distinguish between day and night (and
accordingly, to crow at daybreak). A bracha on this theme seems
bizarre. Why did Chazal introduce it into our daily davening? The
Chiddushei HaRim explained that this bracha is a daily reminder that,
just as HaShem gives the rooster the ability to distinguish between
day and night, so, too, has He given us the free will necessary to
choose between right and wrong.
You may be wondering: the fact that we have free will is well known.
Why does the Sfas Emes bother to mention -- and to emphasize -- it?
The answer is straightforward. In reality, most people in today's
world are not aware -- and do not acknowledge -- that they have
bechira chofshis. Much research in present-day sociology and
psychology focuses on the causes of given human behavior. Often the
links of causality are drawn so taut that the behavior being studied
seems inescapable. As the French proverb says: understanding behavior
often amounts in practice to excusing it. Further, free will implies
responsibility and accountabilty for our actions -- something that
many people are not willing to accept. So, it turns out that in
reality, bechira chofshis is not a well -known fact. We can thank the
Sfas Emes for bringing the subject up, and giving us the opportunity
to think about it.
The Sfas Emes gives us his reaction to a word in the pasuk which
begins the parsha. As cited above, that pasuk says: "Re'ei ... hayom
...." That is, "I present ... today". Normally, we would expect that
a person who has done wrong would lose some of his capacity to choose
between right and wrong; that is, his free will. Not so, says the
Sfas Emes, who is working with the word "today". Every day, HaShem
renews creation ("ha'me'chadeish be'chol yom tamid ma'asei
be'reishis"), As part of this daily renewal HaShem gives us new
bechira chofshis, thus enabling us to start anew. And, adds the Sfas
Emes, quoting a pasuk in Yechezkel (33:12), "A person who is returning
will not stumble". The Sfas Emes moves on now to another topic, a set
of ideas brought to mind by a single Hebrew root. The root with which
the Sfas Emes has chosen to work is "shamor" -- usually translated as:
to guard; to protect; to take care of; to observe. The Sfas Emes
begins by citing a Medrash (4, 4) on a pasuk in Eikev (Devarim,
11:22). The pasuk contains a double use of words derived from the
root "shamor". Thus: "Ki im shamor tish'merun es kol ha'mitzva ..."
(ArtScroll: "If you will observe the entire commandment ...") Note the
double verb "shamor ti'sha'merun". Both parts of this double verb are
in the active voice (i.e., "... you will observe"). However, in
nonpshat mode, the Medrash reads the second verb as "tishameirun";
i.e., in the passive voice. Thus, the Medrash understands the pasuk
to be saying: "If you take proper care of [the mitzvos], you will be
taken care of properly".
The Sfas Emes continues, alluding to another question of the Medrash.
The pasuk cited says: "If you will observe the entire commandment ..."
("kol hamitzva"). This phrase seems to refer to a single mitzva which
-- if we observe it properly -- is equivalent to our observing the
entire Torah. What mitzva can that be? Chazal answer that the unique
mitzva which encompasses the entire Torah is Shabbos. How do they
arrive at that answer? By allusion. The pasuk indelibly inscribed in
our mind is: "Shamor es yom Hashabbos ..." That is: "Take proper care
of Shabbos".) (Devarim, 5, 14).
The Sfas Emes reacts to this idea with astonisment. He asks: Why does
Shabbos need special care? He replies by alluding to a classic
Medrash. The Medrash describes how, after the first week of creation,
all the days of the week paired up with each other. Yom Rishon paired
with Yom Sheini (Sunday with Monday), and likewise all the other days
of the week -- except Shabbos, which could find no mate. When Shabbos
told HaShem how unhappy she was for lack of a mate, HaShem replied:
"Klal Yisroel will be ben zugeich (your marriage partner)."
(Do not be taken aback by the Medrash's (and the Sfas Emes's)
personification of Shabbos as wife. This metaphor is no more extreme
than one which most of sing (with gusto) every Friday night -- in
"lecha Dodi". We know, from the text of Shir Hashirim, that HaShem
can be refered to as "Dodi" -- my beloved.. Thus, the words in "lecha
Dodi" have us saying to HaShem: "Come, my Beloved, let us welcome the
kalah"; i.e., Shabbos personified as a bride.)
Thus, the Sfas Emes is telling us that just as a wife is given to her
husband to provide her with proper care, ("husband" actually means "to
take care of"), so, too, does Shabbos need us to take proper care of
her. (Note how the Sfas Emes's view of marriage is the reverse of the
conventional view. The conventional view sees the man as having a
wife in order to have someone to take care of him.) What does "proper
care" mean in the context of shemiras Shabbos? Presumably, observance
of Shamor and Zachor -- the mitzvos that HaShem has given us to define
our relationship with Shabbos. And, continues the Sfas Emes, our
relationship with Shabbos is reciprocal; i.e., it goes in both
directions. Thus, we are commanded (Shemos, 35 : 3) to observe
Shabbos whererever we live ("bechol moshe'vosei'chem"). So, too,
Shabbos has stuck loyally with Klal Yisroel in all of our distant
dwellings. Further, Shabbos gives chiyus (vitality; vibrancy) to all
How do we know this? From two pesukim (Bereishis, 2:1-2) that we
recite kiddatush every Shabbos: "Vayechulu Hashamayim ..."; and
Vayechal ..." The Sfas Emes is reading these two words as coming from
the root "chal", and thus as related to the word keli" -- a vessel.
Mention of the word "keli" immediately evokes the phrase "keli machzik
beracha" -- that is, a vessel that contains a blessing from HaShem.
That phrase, in turn, evokes the maxim that the best vessel for
holding a beracha is shalom (peace; harmony). And sure enough,
Shabbos is closely related to shalom.
The Sfas Emes has taken us on a circuit of associations: shamor;
Shabbos; kala; vayechulu; keli; beracha; shalom. That circuit is not
easy to follow, So it helps to keep its central feature in mind.
Shabbos brings a special blessing: to fill all creation -- heaven and
earth -- with the chiyus of HaShem. We can all partake of this
additional flow of HaShem's Presence that comes on Shabbos, each of us
at his own capacity.
What can we do to increase our capacity to receive HaShem's additional
presence on Shabbos? The Sfas Emes tells us that subordinating one's
personal agenda (one's nefesh) and giving a lower priority to one's
physical wants (one's guf) will help. The Sfas Emes underlines this
vital point by noting still another meaning -- and hence another
allusion -- of the root "shamor".
The word "shemarim" is the Hebrew word for lees (the sediment after
grapes have been squeezed to make wine). The Sfas Emes leads us to a
phrase in Yeshayahu (7:4): "Hishameir vehashkeit ..." ("Be calm and
still ..."). He quotes Rashi on that pasuk to bring home the point
about keeping one's personal agenda and one's bodily wants in their
proper place. Rashi tells us that, left in their proper place -- the
bottom -- the lees, too, can enhance the wine.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.