By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Parashas Beha'alosecha, 5631/5641
The parasha begins: ' Beha'alosecha es ha'neiros...' (ArtScroll: ' When you
kindle the lamps...') So far, so good. But Chazal react to this pasuk in a
surprising manner. What is their reaction? In the second paragraph of
Medrash Rabba on the parsha, we find Chazal quoting a pasuk from Yeshayahu
(42:21): "HaShem chafeitz lema'an tzidko, yagdil Torah veya'adir."
(ArtScroll: "HaShem desired, for the sake of [Israel's] righteousness,
that the Torah be made great and glorious.")
You see why I describe Chazal's reaction as 'surprising'. At this point,
it is hard to see any connection between 'Beha'alosecha es ha'neiros'
and 'HaShem chafeitz ...' But let us be patient, confident that the Sfas
Emes will put all the pieces of the puzzle together. And while we are
being patient, note what this statement of HaShem -which is echoed by
Yeshayahu, Chazal, and the Sfas Emes -- has given us. A key feature of our
relationship with HaShem is the many mitzvos that He has commanded us to
perform. Apparently, having good values and having knowledge of HaShem is
not enough to make a person a good Jew. HaShem also demands the concrete
actions that are involved in performing the mitzvos.
Why does HaShem want us to do mitzvos? The pasuk just quoted provides one
answer. By living our lives in accordance with His instructions -- i.e.,
Torah and mitzvos -- we make the Torah great and glorious. And by thus
demonstrating our willingness to subordinate our will to His, we rise in
righteousness and acquire merit in His eyes. Thus, we have an answer to
the question posed earlier. HaShem has given us many commandments -- and
expects us to obey Him by doing what He has commanded -- to enable us to
deepen our commitment and our relationship with Him.
A fair question at this point is: Why does the Medrash wait until Parshas
Beha'alosecha to give us this explanation of the reason for mitzvos? This
issue is so important that one would have expected to find it at the very
beginning of the cycle of Torah readings. Further, why does the Torah tell
us this reason for mitzvos in this specific context: with the commandment
to light lamps in the Sanctuary?
Apparently, these questions also bothered the Sfas Emes. How do I know?
Because these are the questions that he proceeds to answer. To address
these issues, the Sfas Emes needs one more piece of infomation, which he
brings from a pasuk in Sefer Mishlei. The pasuk there (6, 23) says: 'Ki
neir mitzvo ve'ohr Torah,' (ArtScroll: ' For a commandment is a lamp and
the Torah is light.') Why is the information that this pasuk provides
vital ? Because this pasuk explicitly links the two themes that earlier
seemed totally unconnected: kindling the neiros and 'HaShem chafeitz...' --
HaShem's desire that we live a life rich in mitzvos.
The Sfas Emes sees much more in this pasuk that connects the two themes
other than joint mention of the word 'neir'. In fact, he shows us how this
pasuk clarifies the relationship between our awarenes of HaShem and our
obligation to perform mitzvos. He does this by pointing out a connection
between the three realities of which the pasuk in Mishlei speaks: neir,
ohr, and Torah. The connection between "ohr" and "Torah" is easy to see.
Not only is the sound of the vowels similar, but the pasuk in Mishlei
links these two words explicitly.
Likewise, the Sfas Emes notes a connection between 'neir' and 'ohr' (and
hence, with Torah). The Sfas Emes sees the word 'neir' as a sort of
hif'il -- a causative construction -- of the word 'ohr'. That is, the neir
brings forth light. Thus, the Sfas Emes explains, the mitzvos extend the
light of Torah to the world of human activity (ma'aseh). For the mitzvos
are from the Torah -- i.e., from HaShem. As we perform the mitzvos, we
connect with HaShem's Presence in all Creation.
Note that 'all Creation' just mentioned includes ''Hester''-- HaShem's
hiding Himself. At the beginning of the parsha, Medrash Tanchuma tells us
that Aharon had been despondent. Why? Because -- unlike the nesi'im of the
other shevatim (the leaders of the other tribes) -Aharon had not brought
an offering at the inauguration of the mishkan (the Tabernacle). HaShem
consoled Aharon by telling him: 'shelcha le'olam ka'yemes'. In its
plain/literal meaning, this phrase translates as: 'Your service will
endure forever.' By contrast, the Sfas Emes reads this phrase in non-pshat
mode as: 'your service will penetrate the he'elam' -- the Hester behind
which HaShem hides from us.
The Sfas Emes had more to say about these issues. In his ma'amar for
parshas Beha'alosecha in the year 5641, he returned to this topic, and
further developed his thoughts on the subject. The Sfas Emes works there
with five parallel couplets: neir/ohr; mitzvos/Torah; action/knowledge;
weekdays/Shabbos; guf/neshama. . Most Torah authorities view these
couplets as iimplying either/ or decisions. That is., they see these
phenomena as dichotomies -- the more of one, the less of the other. By
contrast, the Sfas Emes sees them as complementing each other -- the more
of one, the more of the other. The Sfas Emes gives an example.. He tells
us that one cannot attain the hightened spirituality of Shabbos without
the prior preparatory experience of yemei hama'aseh (the workdays)..
We can now sum up some this ma'mar's themes. The Sfas Emes has told us us
that our mitzvos maintain the chiyus (vibrancy ) of the Torah in the world
of action. Without the mitzvos that we do with our actions, HaShem's
Presence would be hidden in olam ha'asiya (the world of human activity).
More generally, this ma'amar focuses on the connections between mitzvos
and our spiritual state. The link between the neiros and the ohr -- the
lamp and light -- is easy to perceive. For this reason, Chazal view the
candle/light connection as the prototype of the purpose of mitzvos. But
this particular link is only a more graphic example of the general
phenomenon of mitzvos. By conducting ourselves in accordance with HaShem's
commandments, we can come closer to HaShem.
In this vein, we find the Medrash at the beginning of the parsha reading
the words "Beha'alosecha es ha'neiros" in an unexpected way. The text's
simple meaning is: "When you kindle the lamps ...". But the Medrash --
being the Medrash -- is not constrained to stick with the text's simple
meaning. Instead, the Medrash reads this phrase as: "When you elevate
YOURSELF by lighting the lamps ..."
A postscript. You may wonder: how can the Medrash arrive at the radically
different reading just presented? Is it all arbitrary? Are there no rules?
In fact, there are rules. In the present case, three perfectly legitimate
innovations suffice to move from the pshat to the non-pshat reading.
First, the Medrash takes the shoresh (root) of the word 'Beha'alosecha' to
be ayin/ lamed/hei. That root means 'to go up'; and in its present,
causative, construction, 'to lift up' ; i.e., to 'elevate'. Second, the
Medrash understands the syllables "secha" in the word "beha'alosecha" as
indicating a reflexive construction; i.e., referring back to the person
who is lighting the candles. This reflexive form gives us the 'yourself'.
Third, the Medrash construes the pasuk's word "es" as meaning "with" -- in
the sense of: "by means of". And so, 'Beha'alosecha es ha'neiros'
becomes: "When you elevate yourself by lighting ...".
Text Copyright © 2006 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.