By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Shemos, 5631/2
The Sfas Emes begins this ma'amar by quoting the first pasuk of the
parsha: "Ve'eila shemos ... " ("These are the names of Ya'akov
Avinu's sons, who descended to Egypt with him ... ")
I have translated the word "shemos" as "names". However, in other
contexts the word "sheim" (singular form of shemos) has a slightly
different meaning: reputation. The Sfas Emes reaches for a Medrash in
Medrash Rabba on Koheles which works with this different meaning of
sheim. The Medrash is reacting to the pasuk (7:1) "Tov sheim mishemen
tov ... " (ArtScroll: "A good name is better than good oil ... ") The
Sfas Emes quotes the comment of the Medrash, which tells us that
Chananiah, Mishoel and Azariah, who had "only" a good reputation in
their favor, did better than Nadav and Avihu, who had been anointed
with the sanctifying oil of the Mishkan.
The Sfas Emes explains. Chananiah, Mishoel and Azariah were "self-made
men." That is, they reached a high stature in their avoda only through
their own effort and striving. And in the merit of that effort, they
emerged safe and sound from the fiery furnace into which the wicked
king of Babylonia had thrown them (Doniel, Ch.3). By contrast, Nadav
and Avihu had been granted high status by HaShem -- as symbolized by
their being anointed with oil. Notwithstanding this initial advantage,
they ended their lives in disgrace -- with their neshamos burnt to a
crisp -- on the day the Mishkan was inaugurated. The contrast between
those with the shem tov and those with the shemen tov is clear.
[Question: Does this model apply to contemporary "ba'alei teshuva" and
"frum from birth?" Perhaps a third category is needed, reflecting the fact
that many people who are "ffb" also try to be "bt"]
The Sfas Emes moves on now to a new line of thought. The reason the
shevatim (Ya'akov Avinu's progeny) descended to Egypt was to extend
the light of kedusha (sanctity) to the world of hester (HaShem's
"hiding" Himself). The Patriarchs had been on an extraordinary
spiritual level -- "lema'ala min hateva." But apparently their
spiritual achievements had an inadequate impact on the world as a
whole. Hence, the need for the shevatim to come and make the world
aware of HaShem's Presence in ordinary life.
The Sfas Emes immediately draws our attention to a parallel in our own
experience. Shabbos is also a context of extraordinary kedusha, but
that kedusha is not reserved for Shabbos. On the contrary, the Sfas
Emes tells us, what Shabbos is all about -- i.e., the "inyan" of
Shabbos -- is to activate sanctity in our weekday activities as
well. Thus, during the week, we are also engaged in Avoda -- written
with an upper-case letter "A". For the Sfas Emes sees our work as
having the potential for being Service of HaShem -- to bring the
quality of Shabbos into the weekdays ...
We move now to the first paragraph of the Sfas Emes for the year 5632.
The Sfas Emes quotes the first Rashi on this parsha. Rashi asks : why
do the parsha's opening sentences go into the seemingly unnecessary
detail of listing the sons of Ya'akov by their individual names. Rashi
answers: "Le'hodia chi'basam". That is, the reason for the
individualized l listing is to tell of Hashem's love for Bnei Yisroel.
HaShem treasures each one; and therefore, identifies by his
The Sfas Emes asks a basic question: "Ul'emi le'hodia?" "To whom does
the Torah intend to convey this message of HaShem's love?" The Sfas
Emes answers: HaShem had in mind to convey this information to Bnei
Yisroel themselves. Each of us should be aware that he/she has been
sent to this world with his own mission. And, just as the stars light
up the night, so, too, were we sent to Egypt to find the light that is
present even there. We do well to note the Sfas Emes's assumption that
there is light to be found even in Egypt, as well as the sense of
mission that attaches to all of us.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.