By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas-Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Toldos, 5631
The Sfas Emes takes us back to the subject -- and the reality -- of
"hester." That is, HaShem is at all times present, but is "hiding"
behind nature and chitzoniyus (superficial appearances). Last week, in
Parshas Chayei Sara, the Sfas Emes discussed hester in the context of
zeman (time); i.e., in viewing history and current events. This week,
the Sfas Emes discusses hester in more general terms. He also focuses
on the responsibility that hester brings with it for us, namely, the
task of penetrating the Hester to be aware of HaShem's Presence --
despite the hester.
Where in Parshas Toldos does the Sfas Emes find the issue of hester?
He finds it in Bereishis, 26:18-22. Avraham Avinu had dug wells to
give people access to water. Chazal see these wells, not only as
real-life wells, but also as a metaphor for Avraham Avinu's activity
in giving people access to HaShem, Whose Presence is manifest in the
water of the wells.
After Avraham was niftar, the Plishtim -- the original Palestinians --
filled in the wells with earth. Again, viewing this real-world
experience in metaphoric terms, we see this action of the Plishtim as
blocking access to HaShem. I.e., they actively tried to block access
to HaShem. Now came Yitzchok Avinu. He removed the earth that the
Plishtim had used to close the channels to -- and from --
HaShem. Thus, the Sfas Emes sees Yitzchok's removal of the earth to
reach the water in the wells as an act of penetrating the hester to
renew contact with HaShem.
Why does the Sfas Emes return so often to the theme of hester? In his
constant reference to HaShem's being hidden, the Sfas Emes may be
addressing his own personal question of: where is HaShem? And out of
his personal experience with this problem, the Sfas Emes drew a
crucial insight. As he has often told us: the purpose of Creation is
to give us the challenging task of penetrating the Hester; and thus to
finding HaShem in nature (ma'aseh breishis). That is, our key
responsibility is to make ourselves aware that despite appearences to
the contrary, all existence comes from HaShem.
After Yitzchok Avinu encountered strife and hatred from the Plishtim
in the matter of the wells, he dug a new well, over which there was no
conflict. Accordingly, Yitzchok called that well "Rechovos," a name
which connotes expansiveness and repose. The name Rechovos evokes for
the Sfas Emes a posuk in Mishlei (1:20): "Chochmos bachutz barona,
baRECHOVOS titein kolah." (ArtScroll: "Wisdom sings out in the
streets; it gives forth its voice in the squares.") The message is
clear: Once we remove the outer shell which hides HaShem, an awareness
of His Presence will expand and permeate the world.
Continuing with this theme, the Sfas Emes tells us that the agent for
this permeation is Torah Shebe'al Peh (the Oral Law). How does this
process work ? The Sfas Emes explains. By extending HaShem's
accessibility to all our activities, Torah Shebe'al Peh enables us to
experience HaShem's Presence more thoroughly in our daily lives. Thus
the posuk in Mishlei is telling us that by giving forth its voice (an
allusion to Torah Shebe'al Peh ), wisdom -- Torah -- expands its
The Sfas Emes continues. This specification of our role in life -- to
expand awareness of HaShem's Presence -- helps answer a puzzling
question. Why -- and how -- did Yitzchok Avinu misjudge his son Esav?
A posuk (Bereishis 24:62) tells us: "Vayeitzei Yitzchok lasuach
basadeh." (That is: Yitzchok went out (ArtScroll: "to supplicate;"
Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: to "medidate") in the field.) As you see,
translation of the word "lasuach" is not obvious. The Sfas Emes sees
this word as related to the word 'sicha' -- spoken words. Thus, he
reads 'lasuach' as; "to speak." Why did Yitzchok Avinu go out "to
speak" in the field? The Sfas Emes answers: To expand awareness of
HaShem in the world. Thus, the Sfas Emes sees Yitzchok Avinu as being
engaged in kiruv (outreach).
Further, the Torah tells us (Bereishis, 25:27) that Esav, too, was
known to be an "ish sadeh" (a person of the field). But for Yitzchok
Avinu, the sole reason for going out 'to the field' was kiruv.
Yitzchok thought that Esav, too, was engaged in kiruv. Thus Yitzchok
Avinu misperceived his son Esav, viewing him as "a chip off the
block." "Like father, like son."
Finally, Esav played on his father's misperception. He did this by
asking Yitzchok Avinu questions that implied that he, too, was
concerned to extend awareness of HaShem's Presence. Thus he asked his
father: How does one give ma'aseir (tithe) from salt? How does one
give ma'aseir from straw? The former question conveyed the impression
that he (Esav) wanted to extend our awareness of HaShem even to the
inanimate world (salt); and the latter question, even to the
relatively unimportant part of the world (the chaff).
Three suggested take-home lessons from this Sfas Emes. Bear in mind:
1. The sheer evil of the Plishtim, expending resources to block access
2. The Sfas Emes's novel interpretation of why Yitzchok favored Esav;
i.e., ish sadeh.
3. The fact that hester is not something that happens accidentally or
that we bring upon ourselves. The Sfas Emes is telling us that
HaShem built hester into creation -- to give us the challenge of
seeing Him despite the hester!
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.