A key feature in the Sfas Emes's derech ha'limud (intellectual style) is
an approach that he learned from his Grandfather. Like the Chidushei
HaRim, the Sfas Emes often reads words or phrases in a totally innovative
way. His non-conventional manner opens new vistas to people with the
imagination to follow him. But the approach also raises questions.
First, how do the Sfas Emes (and the Chidushei Harim) apply their
approach? Do they follow the rules of Hebrew grammar when they reveal
previously unknown allusions and word associations ("remazim")? Or are
their non-peshatim simply a free-for-all - unconstrained subjective
musing? Second, why do the Sfas Emes and the Chidushei HaRim use this
approach, in preference to more conventional ways of understanding Torah
and life? To address both questions, we will examine a "case study" -- a
ma'amar of the Sfas Emes on VaYeilech.
In his ma'amar of the year 5631 (1871), the Sfas Emes recalls how the
Chidushei HaRim understood a pasuk in this parsha. The pasuk
(Devarim,31:28) says: "Ve'a'ida bahm es ha'shamayim ve'es ha'aretz".
(ArtScroll: " ... I shall...call heaven and earth to bear witness
against them". In other words, heaven and earth will be called to testify
as witnesses in a din Torah if Bnai Yisroel do not keep the Bris
(covenant) with HaShem.
The Chidushei HaRim reads this pasuk very differently. He understands it
as telling us: HaShem has given Bnai Yisroel the responsibility of
clarifying the inner reality of creation -- i.e., of heaven and earth. You
may ask: What do we do that clarifies the reality of the cosmos? The
Chidushei HaRim answers: "by bearing witness that heaven and earth -- the
whole world -- exist only through the power of HaShem".
Differerent people may react differently to the Chidushei HaRim's
interpretation of this pasuk, You may be especially struck by the wide gap
betweeen ArtScroll and the Chidushei HaRim. The former has Bnai Yisroel
being testified against; the latter has us doing the testifying. The
Chidushei HaRim's non-pshat (echoed by the Sfas Emes) may delight, and/ or
unsettle, and/ or disturb you, (and/ or all of the above). Once past
one's first emotional reaction, their non-pshat
raises two questions.
First, how can the Sfas Emes and Chidushei HaRim arrive at their totally
different interpretation of the pasuk? And second, why do they choose to
learn this pasuk -- and Chumash in general -- using the non-pshat mode, an
approach that some people may find unsettling?
The "How?" question is easily answered. Interpretation of the pasuk
depends on how one understands the word "bahm", and especially, the
letter "b" in the pasuk's phrase -- "Ve'a'ida bahm ...". The pshat
reading -- as per ArtScroll -- sees the "b" in the word "bahm" as
meaning "against" . Hence, the phrase can be taken as meaning: "I will
bear witness against them, with heaven and earth". By contrast, the Sfas
Emes reads the "b" as: "by means of". This is consistent
with: "I will use them (Bnai Yisroel) to bring testimony concerning heaven
and earth" (i.e., about creation).
As you see, the Chidushei HaRim and the Sfas Emes did not distort or take
liberties with the text. They merely read it differently. Why did they
choose to go with the alternative reading? Here I can only offer a
surmise. Their reading presents two facts: that HaShem gives life to all
creation ; and that He has given Klal Yisroel the responsibility of making
that reality known. The truth and the relevance of those two facts must
have borne down very heavily on the Chidushei HaRim and on the Sfas Emes.
I suggest: so heavily that, in effect, they had no choice. They had to go
with the non-pshat reading.