The Sfas Emes starts by alluding to the first paragraph of Medrash
Rabba of Parshas Behar. The Medrash, in turn, quotes a pasuk in
Mishlei (18:21): "Maves vechayim beyad halashon." (ArtScroll: "Death
and life are in the power of the tongue.")
Why does the Medrash discuss the power of speech here, in Parshas
Behar? The formal reason is straightforward. Later in the parsha
(25, 17), the Torah tells us to avoid "ona'as devarim,"; i.e., from
giving people grief -- hurting people-- with what we say. Hence, the
focus on being careful with one's speech. Still, the question
persists. The Torah tells us about "ona'as devarim" well into the
parsha. Why does the Medrash give this topic star billing by
discussing it in its very first paragraph?
I suggest that Chazal chose to focus on the potential good or potential
harm that we can do with what we say because, in fact, "maves vechaim
beyad halashon. " That is, our words can do much good or much harm. A
(partial) list of harmful speech includes: foul language; citing the name
of gentile gods; saying things that cause pain to the listener; saying
things that are not true; and, of course, old reliable--lashon hara.
By the same token, what we do say can bring much good. Here is an
example of a mode of speech which, when utilized, can increase the
'chayim'--life and joy-- of which the pasuk in Mishlei speaks.
Unfortunately, many people suffer from low self-esteem. In that
context, it is important to let people know when they are doing a good
job. Why? Because a remark of commendation from an outside observer can
help replace self-doubt with self-confidence. And a deserved pat on
the back can correct the distorted self-image from which a person
with low self-esteem typically suffers.
To drive home the point that our speech can be either highly destructive
or highly constructive, the Medrash provides some metaphors. One metaphor
speaks of a burning coal. If a person uses his mouth to breathe on the
ember, he can revive its fire. By contrast, if the person uses his mouth
to spit on the coal, he will extinguish its fire.
Mention of the burning coal draws the Sfas Emes into the discussion.
Certainly, he explains, HaShem's chiyus is present throughout Creation.
For when He created the world, Hashem used the Torah, which we know is
compared to fire. Hence, just as the burning coal radiates fire, so too
does HaShem's Presence permeate all Creation. But HaShem created the
world in such a manner that the Torah , with its light and its wamth, is
hidden, as in the burning coal.
Further, the metaphor of the burning coal--whose internal fire is not
apparent-- brings with it a major responsibility for us. For,
continues the Sfas Emes, we are charged with the mission of searching
for (and finding !) the illumination of the Torah that is present
These are truly beautiful thoughts ; but what do they mean? What does the
Sfas Emes have in mind when he says that we can --and indeed, must-- find
the Torah's illumination in every thing in the world ? I emphasize that
what follows here in an effort to answer this question is only le'anius
da'ati -- i. e. comes only from my very limited knowledge. But the
issues here are so important that it is worth trying to address the
We need some help. I suggest that we can get the necessary help from
R. Nachman of Breslov (z'ta.). On the very first page of his sefer Likutei
Maharan, R' Nachman writes:
" Ki ha'ish ha'yisra'eili tzarich tamid lehistakeil ba'seichel shel kohl
davar. U'lekasheir ahtzmo el ha'chochma ve'haseichel she'yeish be'chol
davar. Kedei she'yair lo ha'seichel she'yeish be'chol davar lehiskareiv
laShem yisborach ahl yedei oso davar"
That is : "For a Jew must always look for the seiche
(intelligence/rationality/logic) that is present in all things. And he
should attach himself to the knowledge and the rationality present in
every thing will provide him with light, and thus enable him to come
closer to HaShem via that thing."
R. Nachman is telling us that HaShem built rationality into the world.
(When I say 'rationality', I refer to such features as cause/effect.--in
counter-distinction to randomness or chaos. ) Hence, by observing the
world around us and learning how it works, we can be aware of HaShem's
Presence. And the rationality that we perceive can bring us
closer to HaShem.
These ideas of R' Nachman can help clarify a key thought of the Sfas
Emes that may previously have been obscure. I refer to the Sfas
Emes's recurring dictum that what we do in our work during the weekdays--
our asiya ; our ma'aseh -- can be a form of avoda (serving HaShem,
worship). Some possibilities for avoda (worship) in the course of
avoda (weekday work) come readily to mind. An obvious example is the
physicist or the biologist who marvel at the uncanny way with which
HaShem put this world together. But R. Nachman's insight shows us that the
potential for avoda ( service of HaShem) in the course of one's weekday
avoda (work) also exists in more humble occupations.
For example, consider the case of a salesperson who sells shoes.
Rationality here would require that he find the shoe that truly fits a
customer's feet. The salesperson searches--using trial-and-error as well
as measurement-- until he finds the right shoe. By finding the accurate
solution to his problem, the salesperson brings to light the presence of
rationality -- and hence, HaShem -- in his world. (You may find this
example farfetched. If so, it probably means that you have never
encountered the irrationality of buying and wearing a pair
of shoes that did not fit.)
Likewise, consider a bond trader who detects a possibility for
profitable arbitrage. That opportunity reflects irrationality --
i.e., momentary disequilibrium in the market. Hence, by executing
trades that correct the disequilibrium, the bond trader is bringing
about rationality, and thus revealing HaShem's presence in his weekday
More generally, the same possibility for avoda is open in any context
where a person solves problems. By "figuring things out," a person
can find the rationality that HaShem built into the situation. But
like the fire in the ember, the rationality cannot be perceived unless we
make an effort. By trying to understand the logic of a phenomenon
or of a situation, a person can bring himself closer to HaShem.
In an earlier version of this shiur, when I mentioned the the bond
trader who was taking advantage of an arbitrage opportunity, a
professional bond trader raised a basic objection. This bond trader
had much experience in buying and selling financial assets. He had
never felt that by executing trades for profitable arbitrage, he was
revealing rationality, and hence, HaShem's presence.
This bond trader's objection brought to mind a story about Shelomo
Hamelech (King Solomon). One day while traveling on the road, Shelomo
Hamelech encountered two men who were transporting a heavy stone. The
king stopped and asked them what they were doing. The first person
replied, "I am carrying a heavy stone." The second man answered, "I am
building the Beis Hamikdash!" The moral of the story as it applies to our
bond trader ? It helps to see oneself in accurate metaphysical context.