By Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, 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
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 experience.
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 and political 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,
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
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
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
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
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.
This Sfas Emes is rich -- in fact, so rich that one cannot hold on to it.
One way to handle this situation of overflowing insights is to focus on
some thoughts that speak to one with special force. Tastes, interests, and
background vary, so there is no single list of Sfas Emes thoughts that
will serve for everyone. But to stimulate your own thinking about "take
home" Sfas Emes thoughts, here are two suggestions. One unique and
powerful Sfas Emes idea is the notion that every generation experiences
its own enslavement and Redemption. Another powerful new idea is the
thought that Pesach is a time for individuals to break out of their
personal constraints and grow.
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.