By Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Purim, 5631
The Sfas Emes on Purim is extraordinarily rich. He has bequeathed us
page after page of new, mind-stretching ideas. So be aware that what offer
here is like a drop of water from the ocean or a grain of sand from the
beach. The implication is: much joy awaits you if you take the plunge,
buy yourself a set of the Sfas Emes, and learn some of the text yourself
(or with a chavrusa) each week.
Let us work with the third paragraph of the Sfas Emes's ma'amar for Purim
in his first year as Rebbe, 5631. The text there begins: "U'mitzvas
mishlo'ach manos ..." ("The mitzvah of sending presents to one
another ... ") The Sfas Emes immediately appends his comment: "Nir'eh
lavo le'ahavas Yisroel" ("Apparently, the objective of this mitzva is to
get us to a state of Ahavas Yisroel" [love of our co-religionists]).
Note what the Sfas Emes has just done. His comment on mishlo'ach manos
has, in effect, inverted the conventional view of how thismiitzva
operates. The standard approach sees mishlo'ach manos as an expression of
our deeply founded, pre-existent love of our fellow Jews. By contrast, the
Sfas Emes has just told us -- without making a big splash about it -- that
in reality, first comes the gift giving; and only later, the love, The
Sfas Emes is apparently working here with an idea similar to Sefer
HaChinuch's maxim: "Ahdam nif'al lefi pe'ulosov." ("A person becomes what
he does.") In the present context, this idea tells us that the purpose of
mishlo'ach manos is to get us to a state in which we love our fellow Jews.
The implication is clear. The Sfas Emes takes it for granted that many of
us may start from a state in which we do not love our fellow Jews. But he
does not stop there. The Sfas Emes goes on to tell us that although we
may begin from that state, we should not remain there. And he views
mishlo' ach manos as an instrument to get us from our initial negative or
indifferent state to one of true ahavas Yisroel.
The ma'amar moves on now to a new perspective on ahavas Yisroel. The
Megilla's first mention of Mordechai refers to him (Esther, 2:5) as "Ish
Yehudi ..." i.e., "a Jewish person." However, in non-pshat mode, Medrash
Rabba reads these words as "Ish yechidi" i.e., "a single person." What
does this mean? Is the Medrash telling us that Mordechai was
an "isolated person"? A social misfit? Chas veshalom! Read on.
The commentaries on that Medrash explain that Mordechai was
called 'yechidi' because he proclaimed HaShem's unity (yichud). How did
he do this? By refusing to bow before Haman's idol. But in what amounts
to a Medrash on the Medrash, the Sfas Emes reads "Ish yechidi" very
differently. The Sfas Emes reads "Ish yechidi " as telling us that
Mordechai unified -- i.e. brought together -- the Jewish people.
Why was it important to bring Klal Yisroel (the Jewish people) together?
Because in a state of unity, we were able to fulfill the mitzva (Vayikra,
19: 18) of "Ve'ahavta lerei'echa kamocha." (R. Aryeh Kaplan: "Love your
neighbor as much as you love yourself.") Chazal tell us that this mitzva
is a " klal gadol baTorah ("a major principle of Yiddishkeit") By any
standard, enabling people to rise above their innate egoism is a major
achievement. Hence, the question arises: How did Mordechai do it?
The Sfas Emes answers by citing what may sound like a far-fetched
chassidische commentary on the posuk "Ve'ahavta lerei'acha kamocha." That
commentary explains: "Rei'acha -- zeh Hakadosh Baruch Hu." That is, when
the Torah tells us: "Love your neighbor as you love yourself," the Torah
is really telling us: love HaShem -- who is our true rei'ah
('friend'; 'neighbor') -- as we love ourselves.
You may be wondering: who is the "far-fetched chassidische" commentator
quoted above? The answer may come as a surprise: Rashi. He offers this
explanation in Gemora Shabbos (31a). In support of this explanation, Rashi
cites a posuk (Mishlei, 27:10) which refers to HaShem as our "rei'a". To
maintain credibility, I quote the posuk: "Rei'acha verei'ah avicha ahl
ta'azov". (Artscroll: "Do not forsake your friend and the friend of your
The Sfas Emes proceeds to explain HOW ahavas HaShem can lead to ahavas
Yisroel. If we all cling tightly to the inner core of our existence --
to HaShem -- we are all connected to each other. Then, in fact, all of
Bnei Yisroel are one. And, recognizing that joint inner connection, we can
treat each other -- in reality, ourselves -- with love. Thus, in
principle, we can reach Ahavas Yisroel by starting with Ahavas HaShem.
Continuing in this vein, the Sfas Emes refers us to the posuk (Esther,
8:11) which says: "nikhalu ve'amod ahl nafsham". That is, Bnei
Yisroel "came together and defended themselves." The Sfas Emes points out
that in the Hebrew text, the word translated here as "themselves" is given
in the singular. Thus, translated literally, the pasuk says: "they
defended their 'nefesh'". As you see, the word 'nefesh' is in the
singular. But from the context, we know that the text is speaking about a
multitude. Why does the text not use the plural?
To answer, the Sfas Emes refers us to Rashi on Bereishis, 46:26. That
posuk speaks of the Bnei Yisroel who went to Mitzrayim. There, too, the
Torah is speaking of many people but, nevertheless, employs the singular
word "nefesh." Rashi there notes the contrast with the family of Esav
Harasha, of whom the Torah (Bereishis, 36, 6) speaks in the
plural, "nafshos beiso." Rashi explains that Bnei Yisroel is referred to
in the singular because they all served the one HaShem. Thus, in that
case, too, many people holding tightly to the same HaShem became, in
effect, one. Hence, the posuk can -- and does in fact -- refer to them in
Why do the Torah -- and Rashi -- have to tell us that all Bnei Yisroel
served the same HaShem? Perhaps because an uninformed observer could
easily misperceive the situation. That is, seeing the individual tribes -
each with its own headgear and garb; with its own way of pronouncing
Hebrew words; its own poskim; and its minhagim (customs) -- a person would
have the impression that, in fact, they were serving different deities.
For this reason, we have to be told that, notwithstanding superficial
impressions, we are in fact one people.)
Finally, the Sfas Emes cites his grandfather, the Chiddushei HaRim, who
noted an important fact. Our coming together -- initially for self-
defense and ultimately, with mishlo'ach manos -- generated ahavas Yisroel
and achdus (unity ). This achdus, in turn, had a further beneficial
effect. Unity enabled us to receive the Torah again, in Esther's time, as
we had received it at Har Sinai -- "ke'ish echad belev echad." (As one
person with one heart.") Receiving the Torah in that manner was no small
thing. Awareness of that 'side effect' of Purim should increase our joy.
In fact, Purim is the happiest day in
This ma'amar has much to teach us: e.g., What is mish'loach manos all
about? Who is the the "rei'ah" of mish'loach manos ish "le'rei'eihu"?
Who is the "rei'ah" of Veahavta le'rei'acha kamocha?
Text Copyright © 2005 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.