Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Vayigash, 5631
The parsha begins: "Vayigash eilav Yehuda". The simple/pshat translation of
which is: "Yehuda approached him [Yosef]." But these words prompt the Sfas
Emes to recall a comment of his Grandfather on the name "Yehuda". The
Chidushei HaRim's comment is especially pertinent because our people takes
its name from Yehuda. That is, we are called "Yehudim". Thus, this comment
on the name Yehuda sheds light on what the Chidushei HaRim and the Sfas
Emes view as the essence of being a Jew.
As the Sfas Emes sees it, the name "Yehuda" is related to the word
"hoda'a." The question is : how to translate the word 'hoda'a'. It would
be a mistake to translate 'hoda'a' as 'gratitude'. Leshon ha'kodesh has a
word for gratitude: namely, 'hodaya'. I suggest that the correct
translation of 'hoda'a' in this context is: 'concession' or
'acknowledgement'. [For further support of this translation, see footnote 1].
This difference in translation is crucial; for it changes the whole nature
of the relationship. A person can 'concede' a point reluctantly or
grudgingly -- perhaps only between gritted teeth. By contrast, 'gratitude'
is a much more positive and forthcoming attitude. The Sfas Emes is telling
us that 'Yehudim' are people who acknowledge that -- whether they like it
or not -- HaShem's Presence is everywhere. And 'everywhere' includes
situations in which an observer without Torah would bemoan HaShem's absence
-- that is even in the midst of hester (contexts in which HaShem is hiding
his Presence). More generally, this understanding of the word hoda'a
implies that -- perhaps only reluctantly, and perhaps only after a long
interval that they need to think things through -- Yehudim concede that all
comes from HaShem.
We move on now to another point. The Sfas Emes tells us that when a person
encounters a hard patch in life, he should realize that in fact, he is
encountering HaShem -- hiding behind the hester. Further, the Sfas Emes
tells us that the way to handle such an encounter is to come closer to the
penimiyus (the inner reality) of the situation; that is, to HaShem. Thus,
in the present case, Yehuda reviewed in his mind the events that had
befallen the brothers. Acknowledging that the entire episode came from
HaShem, he accepted it "besimcha" (with joy)! Yehuda could then take what
was for him the obvious next step: To come closer to HaShem.
Note: The Sfas Emes has just given us a radically new nonpshat on our
parsha's first sentence. The text says: "Vayigash eilav Yehuda". The
conventional reading of this phrase is: Yehuda approached Yosef. By
contrast, the Sfas Emes is reading this text as: Yehuda came closer to HaShem.
To come closer to the penimiyus, we must first remove all the intellectual
and emotional blockages that obstruct our access to HaShem. Thus, before
Yosef revealed himself to his brothers -- and thereby showed them the
penimiyus of what they had been experiencing -- he had to have the room
cleared. Hence, we hear Yosef saying (Bereishis, 45: 1): 'Hotziyu kohl ish'.
The Sfas Emes points to a similar process in our own lives. He quotes a
passage in the Zohar, a text that we also saw him cite a few weeks
ago. (Nusach Sfarad says this paragraph before "Borchu " on leil Shabbos
kodesh.) "Vekol dinim misabrin minei." Thus, when Shabbos arrives and we
come closer to the penimiyus, we try to remove all the extraneous elements
in our minds, to have those distractions leave us. Yosef had to take a
concrete action to remove impediments to perceiving the penimiyus.
Similarly, to free ourselves on Shabbos from thoughts that are not
"Shabbosdick", we too must take action. If we want to experience Shabbos
as coming closer to HaShem, we must be careful about what we read and what
we talk about on Shabbos.
The Sfas Emes moves on, and we attempt to follow. Yehuda says (Bereishis,
44: 18): "Bi adoni". The pshat translation of this phrase is: "Please my
lord." But the Sfas Emes quotes a nonpshat of the ARIzal. The ARIzal read
the words "bi adoni " as: "My Lord is within me." That is, if we examine
the letters with which the name Yehuda is written -- i.e., YHDH - we find
the letters of HaShem's name ("YKVK")!
At this point, a basic question may arise in your mind. The ARIzal's
reading -- "My Lord is within me" -- bespeaks a close, positive
relationship between Yehudim and HaShem. But this ma'amar began with the
Sfas Emes observing that we are a people who (sometimes) are willing to
concede (only reluctantly) that all that happens in life comes from
HaShem. Is this not a blatant contradiction with the picture of a people
who can say "bi adoni"?
In addressing this question, it helps to be aware of a key feature of the
Sfas Emes. The Sfas Emes is not afraid of internal inconsistencies and
blatant contradictions. As we look at the world, we observe many
contradictions between what we (think we) know and what we (think we)
see. Part of the gadlus (greatness) of the Sfas Emes is his willingness to
make such inconsistencies explicit; indeed , to put them up for all to
view. In practical terms, the Sfas Emes has given us a model to follow:
demonstrating that we can take apparent contradictions in stride as obvious
facts of life, and continue our lives as Ovdei HaShem be'simcha.
In the present context, however, we need not posit inconsistency. For, in
fact, a person may live both relationships with HaShem -i.e., "bi adoni"
and "hoda'a" - at different times of his life. Likewise, a person may live
both relationships with HaShem at different times of the same day. Indeed,
a person may well live both relationships with HaShem simultaneously
! That state of mind has a name; it is called "ambivalence". It is
important to recognize that ambivalence is not an aberration or a deviation
from normal behavior. In fact, such feelings are so common that the Torah
takes them explicitly into account. Where? In a basic text , the Shema,
in which the Torah tells us to serve HaShem "bechol levavecha". The word
"levavecha" is plural, connoting multiple mindsets -- for example, both 'bi
adoni' and 'hoda'a'.
We conclude with still another line of thought that the Sfas Emes
introduces into the ma'amar. He quotes the first Medrash Rabba on Parshas
Vayigash. Remember the context within which this parsha begins. Yehuda
had put himself forward as the guarantor of Binyomin's safe return.The
situation of guarantor ("oreiv") evokes for the Medrash a posuk in Mishlei
(6: 1) in which a guarantor figures prominently. The pasuk says: "Beni, ihm
oravta le'rei'echa..." (That is: "My son, if you have gotten into the
situation of being a guarantor (oreiv) for your friend....").
A question: Who is this 'friend' of whom the posuk speaks? One commentary
on Mishlei provides an answer to this question. He tells us: "Rei'echa,
zeh Hakadosh Baruch Hu". ("The friend to whom you have made this
commitment is: HaShem."). Seeing 'rei'echa' as HaShem is daring
enough. But seeing klal Yisroel as -- kivyachol (so to speak) -- guarantor
of HaShem is extreme in the extreme. You may wonder: who is the author of
this "far out, Chassidische" reading? The answer: none other than a
commentator reputed to be an extreme pashtan : Rashi . Thus, we see here
further support for a key thesis of the Sfas Emes: that we live in a
complex world, a world in which things are not always what we initially
perceive them to be.
We conclude with an exhortation of the Sfas Emes. Echoing the Medrash, he
tells us: If you have made this commitment-- to be a guarantor of HaShem:
'kabeil adnuso". Accept His kingship! By which the Sfas Emes means: do it
in a conscious, active mode!
1. In further support of translating "hoda'a" as
"acknowledgement" rather than as "gratitude", I cite the Sfas Emes's
ma'amar on the third night of Chanuka, 5631. In that that ma'amar, he
quotes the Chazal's phrase: "u'modeh -- mich'lal dipligei". That is, when a
Mishna uses the word "u'modeh" it is saying that on this point under
dispute, the tanna concedes. However, on other points, he continues to
disagree. As this example indicates, translating the word 'u'modeh' as
"concedes" makes sense; translating it as "expresses gratitude" does not.
For another instance in which being "modeh" is clearly used to express a
person's conceding something, see Rashi on Bereishis, 33, 9.
Our author shares with us some feedback that was received from this ma'amar:
One member of the Chabura sent in the following comment on the Sfas
Emes of Vayigash:
"I found this dvar torah especially intriguing. The idea that during a
moment of adversity we are actually experiencing closeness to
Hashem. It makes sense though. When a child does something in front of
his father and the father doesn't react, he may think that the action
was not noticed. But when father does react, even negatively - he was
To which I replied:
A correction. The Sfas Emes is not saying that in a time of
adversity, one is closer to HaShem. What he is saying is that at such
a time, one can and one should come closer. What we actually do
depends on us.
Copyright © 2003 by Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org