By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Vayeishev, 5631
Here we are again. It is Shabbos, and the Sfas Emes is speaking to his
chassidim. Full-time learning -- i.e., kollel -- is not an option for
them. First, they are too poor to afford it. Second, I have been told
that Gerrer Chassidus does not believe in kollel for all,
forever. This approach should not come as a surprise after last week's
ma'amar of the Sfas Emes . As we saw there, the Sfas Emes does not
view our activities (our "asiya") during the week ("yemei ha'ma'aseh")
negatively, as a curse. On the contrary, he sees our asiya as having
the potential for positive spiritual value. Thus, in the Gerrer
approach, after marriage, most men go to work.
But these people face a daunting task: How to suffuse their lives with
kedusha (sanctity) without full-time learning? A properly experienced
Shabbos can be a great help in dealing with that difficult
assignment. For this reason, the Sfas Emes's ma'amar often discusses
Shabbos and its potential for ruchniyus (spirituality). For a reason
that will soon become apparent, on this Shabbos, parshas Vayeishev,
the Sfas Emes dealt with Shabbos not as a collateral topic, but rather
as his central theme.
The Sfas Emes begins by noting the linguistic link between the words
VayeiSHeV and SHaBBos. (This link is obvious once the Sfas Emes
pointed it out. But how come I never noticed it until he showed it to
me?) The Sfas Emes is not playing a word game here. Rather, the link
in language has alerted him to a connection in meaning -- in this
case, a connection that is telling us something about the substance of
Shabbos. Namely, that we should view Shabbos as an opportunity to
('nisyaSHeiV') -- i.e., to 'settle into', 'to return' to our shoresh
(our 'root'): to our primal selves , including our relationship with
The Sfas Emes goes on to tell us that Shabbos is (or can be) a time
for "habitul lashoresh"; that is, a time for deleting our personal
agenda, and replacing it with the desire to do retzon HaShem (HaShem's
will)... The Sfas Emes proceeds to develop this line of thought. He does
so by quoting the first paragraph of Medrash Rabba on Vayeishev. The key
phrase here is: " kinuso vekinus banav hitzilo." (That is, Ya'akov
Avinu's "kinus" and the "kinus" of his progeny saved him from Esav.) Some
commentaries understand "kinus " as meaning tefila (prayer). Other
authorities -- including the Sfas Emes -- understand "kinuso" as
meaning "coming together."
A question. According to the authorities who understand "kinuso" as
"coming together", who is coming together with whom? The mainline
answer is: Ya'akov and his sons came together. That is, Yaakov Avinu
and the Shevatim put aside whatever difficulties they may have had,
and united to confront Esau. By contrast, the Sfas Emes reads the
Medrash very differently.. As noted, he understands it as telling us
that what saved Ya' akov Avinu was his coming together with his
shoresh -- i.e., with his primal, true self..
'Coming together with one's primal, true self' may seem unremarkable,
unimportant, and irrelevant in life. But consider the opposite state
-- one in which a person is not all together -- at one -- with his/her
self, with nature, and with HaShem. That state is called
'alienation'. And alienation is the name used to characterize many of
the individual and social problems of today's world.
The Sfas Emes buttresses this perspective by citing a phrase (from the
Zohar Hakadosh) that Nusach Sefard recites just before ma'ariv on leil
Shabbos: "Beshabbos is'yachadas beraza de'echad." (That is, on
Shabbos, she -- Knessess Yisroel -- comes together with the secret of
HaShem's yichud (unity) . For, HaShem's yichud is in fact a secret.
Note how few people are aware of it.)
The text in the Zohar continues: 'Ve'ahl yedei zeh, kohl dinin
mis'abrin minei.' That is, by coming together with our true nature -
i.e., when we recognize that we are created in the image of HaShem,
and what that implies for the way we should live our lives -- all
harsh judgements depart and leave us alone. And as the Sfas Emes
points out, induced by Ya'akov Avinu's "kinus," Eisav did in fact
depart, and Ya'akov was saved.
The Sfas Emes moves on now to another theme. As we have seen, a word
in the parsha's first pasuk , "Vayeishev", called to the Sfas Emes's
mind the word "Shabbos ", and triggered a discussion of that
topic. Similarly, a word in the parsha's second pasuk leads the Sfas
Emes (and hence, us) to a new line of thought. Which word is the
trigger in the second pasuk? "Yosef", which, translated literally,
means: " he will increase" . What will "he increase"? The Sfas Emes
tells us: "Shabbos"! Thus, the association of words just noted leads
the Sfas Emes to a brief discussion of "tosefes Shabbos".
What is "tosefes Shabbos"? The term refers to the practice of bringing
Shabbos in early -- before the time that halacha mandates. The Sfas
Emes commends this practice. As he phrases it: 'Vezeh avoda gedola,
le'havi kedushas hashabbos toch yemei ha'ma'aseh mamash': ("This is a
great avoda -- to bring the sanctity of Shabbos into weekday time."
How can a person bring about such a transformation? The Sfas Emes
answers: a person's yearning and love for Shabbos can give him/her
simcha (joy). And that joy gives a person the power to turn weekday
time into Shabbos time.
A fair reaction at this point may be: "The idea that simcha can have
this marvelous power sounds wonderful. But how does it work in the
real world?" I say: 'a fair reaction' because the Sfas Emes always
deals with the (real) real world. Hence, the question: how does this
extraordinary process of transforming weekday time into Shabbos
Apparently this question also bothered the Sfas Emes. How do we know?
Because he provided an answer. He does so by quoting a pasuk in
Mishlei (27:19): 'Kamayim ha'pahnim la'pahnim, kein leiv ha'ahdam
la'ahdam'. (ArtScroll: " As water reflects back a face to a face,so
one's heart is reflected back to him by another.') Thus, if we
prepare for Shabbos with simcha, HaShem reciprocates with simcha
toward us. And HaShem's joy -- likened to the joy of a choson after
the chupa (Tehilim,19: 6) -- gives us the extraordinary power needed
to transform weekday time into Shabbos.
A take-home lesson? One possibility comes to mind immediately. Go back
to the beginning of this ma'amar, where I mentioned the difficult task
that these chassidim face. They must try to live a life of kedusha
even though they are out in the world, without full-time Torah
learning. As you probably noted, we face the same challenge. For most
of the people who receive the Sfas Emes e-mails are also out in the
world. Indeed, we are even more vulnerable than the chassidim; for
they have sources of protection that most of us lack. The sources of
protection unique to chassidim include: tight social ties, which
culminate in reverence for the Rebbe, shelita; and the levush
(chassidic attire), which can help keep them out of unsavory
Despite these advantages, the Sfas Emes made special efforts to
emphasize the potential of a well-lived Shabbos to infuse his
chassidim with kedusha. The take-home lesson is clear: that we focus
on Shabbos as an avenue to kedusha. This may involve making the
effort on Shabbos to come together with our true nature - i.e., to try
to view ourselves as agents of HaShem's will.
That notion may initially seem strange to us. We live in a society
that glorifies self-expression -- to the point of narcissism. In such
a social context, the idea of subordinating our will to anyone else's
will -- even HaShem's will -- may even strike us as morally repugnant.
But the Sfas Emes is obviously on firm hashkofo ground when he
commends this doctrine to our attention. Hopefully, by heeding his
counsel, we will experience Shabbos not as a day to catch up on our
sleep, but rather as Shabbos is supposed to be: 'yom menucha
u'kedusha' -- a day of repose and sanctity.
1. Fellow-learners who remember last week's Sfas Emes may find his
commendation of tosefes Shabbos this week confusing. For, in parshas
Vayishlach, the Sfas Emes (echoing Chazal in Medrash Raba) spoke with
approbation of Ya'akov Avinu's doing melacha until the very last
moment before Shabbos. So you may ask: which practice is right --
tosefes Shabbos or working until the last moment?
I suggest that the answer is: both. That is, one approach may be right
for one person and the other approach suits someone else. Or, one
practice may be right for a person at one time or at one phase of his
life . But as circumstances change, so too should his/her practice
change. We live in a complex world; but with the help of HaShem, we
should be able to handle it.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.