By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parshas Shoftim, 5631/5635
This parsha begins: "Shoftim ve'shotrim ti'tein le'cha be'chol
she'areetcha asher HaShem Elo'kehcha no'sein le'cha ..." (ArtScroll:
"Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your cities [literally,
gates] which HaShem, your God gives you ..."). The Sfas Emes tells
us that his grandfather had his own way of reading this pasuk. The
Chidushei HaRim would focus on the phrase " ... the gateways that
HaShem, your God, is giving you ..." He would then comment that the
Torah here is telling us a basic -- but often forgotten -- fact of
life. We should keep in mind that the gateways -- she'arim -- that
permit access to HaShem are themselves a gift from Him. Like any
gift, this access to HaShem should not be taken for granted.
Continuing, the Sfas Emes presents what he refers to as the pshat (the
plain/simple meaning) of the pasuk. In that mode, he reads the pasuk
as a command that we place judges and "enforcers" at all the points of
access to our senses. Thus, we should monitor our eyes, so that we do
not see what we should not see. Similarly, we should monitor our
ears, so we do not hear what we should not hear (e.g., music from the
Thus far, I have been presenting the Sfas Emes of 5631. Four years
later he elaborated on this theme, explaining that the "shoftim" (the
"judges") to which this pasuk refers are our "chochma veda'as" (wisdom
and knowledge). He adds that sometimes our chochma veda'as suffice to
induce us to do the right thing. But we must also conduct ourselves
properly in cases "she'ein ha'seichel mas'kim" (in which our
intelligence does not concur).
Living life intelligently -- and doing the right thing -- requires
yishuv hada'as (calm reflection). But often we are not able to be
calm and reflective. In such circumstances, our seichel does not do
the job. On the contrary, our judgment becomes an unreliable compass
for navigating life. The Sfas Emes notes that such cases often occur.
That is, many times ("harbei zemanim") a person is not priviledged to
be in a state of yishuv hada'as, and thus to reach proper judgments
and proper behavior. In such cases, the Sfas Emes tells us, the
"shoteir" ("enforcer") -- is needed to coerce us to do the right
thing. In our context, what might fill the role of shoteir in cases
where our sei'chel is not giving us accurate decisions? Two candidates
come to mind. Peer pressure (from the right peers!); and firm
adherence to policies that were decided in an atmosphere of yishuv
Continuing with his ma'amar in 5631, the Sfas Emes closes the circle.
Thus, he tells us that placing overseers on our senses can help us
live life more reflectively. And living life with yishuv hada'as, we
are better able to perceive the world as governed by HaShem rather
than by immutable Nature. Finally, to the extent that we live our
lives with prior reflection, the sha'ar of access to HaShem will be
opened wider for us.
The Sfas Emes concludes this discussion by citing a zemira, written by
the Arizal, for the Shabbos evening se'uda. The Sfas Emes quotes the
zemira to help connect two things: song (shira) and access (sha'ar).
(gateway) and shira (song)). We say in this zemira, "Aza'meir
bish'va'chim lemei'al gav pisc'hin ..." That is: "I sing praises of
HaShem, and thus go into the entrance" -- i.e., through the sha'ar.
In fact, singing praise of HaShem can remove the Hester behind which
His Presence is often hidden. The Sfas Emes elaborates on the idea
that song (zemira) can help us in our avoda (service), To do so, he
calls up a secondary meaning of the Hebrew root ZMR -- namely, "to cut
away". Working with that meaning of ZMR, the Sfas Emes explains the
objective of the "pe'su'kei de'zimra" ("the verses of song" are
recited before we begin the formal Shabbos Shacharis davening). By
singing of HaShem, we can cut away the sitra achra -- the power of
evil -- that constantly tries to interpose itself between HaShem and
His people. Thus, azameir bishevachim becomes: "I will cut through
wiith praises". Sounds right.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.