The Sfas Emes begins this ma'amar by referring us to a comment of Rashi on
a pasuk in the parasha. The pasuk says (Devarim, 33:25): "Barzel
u'nechoshes min'alecha, u'che'yamehcha dov'echa".
As you see, this pasuk contains some unfamiliar, difficult words. We
might be tempted to skip these unknowns. But that would be a mistake.
Why? Because to understand what the Sfas Emes is trying to teach us by
sending us to this Rashi, we must make sense of the pasuk on which Rashi
made his comment. And to reach even a simple understanding of this pasuk,
we must first clear away the unknowns.
I have looked up the pasuk's difficult words, and this is what I found:
"min'alehcha "= your " lock up "; your constraint;
"ya'mehcha = your good days, a reference to: the days of your youth;
"dov'echa "= the days of your suffering, a reference to your old age.
B"H we can now understand ArtScroll's translation:
"May your borders be sealed like iron and copper, and like the days of
your prime, so may your old age be." Finally, the Rashi to which the
Sfas Emes sent us says: -- "Your old age will not be yemei hara'ah (the
This is all straightforward and non-contentious. You may even be
wondering: what can the Sfas Emes say to add to this discussion? Read on
Quoting the Chidushei Harim, the Sfas Emes adds two new ideas. First, he
reads the "lock up " (min'alecha) as applying not to geographic borders,
but rather to human borders; i.e., to ourselves. Such a reading --
emphasizing the need for controlling ourelves if we want to grow -- comes
as no surprise in the Sfas Emes.
Second, the Sfas Emes shows us a connection between the first and the last
half of the pasuk. For, if you read the pasuk out loud, you will see that
the two halves seem to be totally independent, bearing no relationhip to
each other. The Sfas Emes comes to remedy this seeming incongruity. He
does this by pointing to a link between the pasuk's two halves -- a link
Reading the pasuk's two halves in the form of a causal connection makes
a colossal difference for our understanding of what the pasuk (and the
Sfas Emes) are telling us. And taking us a step further in this approach,
the Sfas Emes gives us a sense of what drives this causality. He tells us
that to the degree that a person holds on to his or her strengths and good
character traits ("kochos " and "midos") in their youth, the person will
retain these assets to help him handle old age.
The danger that concerns the Sfas Emes here is serious - namely a young
person's possible lack of focus. Hence, the Sfas Emes' emphasis on the
need, when a person is young, to lock up (control; discipline) the gifts
that he or she has from HaShem lest they get lost in dissipation
The discussion of youth leads the Sfas Emes logically to a discussion of
old age. Chazal, who are the Sfas Emes' starting point on this topic, had
a well-developed attitude toward old age. Their approach comes out clearly
in their reactions to a well-known pasuk in Koheles (12:1):
"U' zechor es bor'echa bi'mei be'churo'sehcha ahd ahsher lo yavo'u
yemei 'hara'a; ve'higiu shanim ahsher tomar ein li bahem cheifetz."
(Art Scroll: "So remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before
the evil days come, and the years arrive of which you will say 'I have no
pleasure in them.'"
Medrash Raba on that pasuk comments:
"yemei hara'a" -- "Eilu yemei hazikna" ("the evil days ": This refers to
"the years no pleasure in them"); "Eilu ha' yisurim" ("This refers to
the painful ailments of old age")
The Sfas Emes continues on old age. He follows the approach just cited,
which views old age in extremely negative terms. As part of this mind-
set, he prefers youth to old age. Thus, "ha'bachrus ikar ha'koach" ("When
a person is young, he is at his maximum strength.") The Sfas Emes does
quote a Zohar which says that old age is not necessarily bad. But --
sorry to say for most of us -- the Zohar reserves that favorable
possibility for people of great virtue (Tzadikim).
Further, nothing is for free in this Beis Din. Thus, "od yenuvun
beseiva." (Tehilin, 91:16) (ArtScroll: "They will still be fruitful in old
age "). But -- the Sfas Emes hastens to add -- that depends on their
having been "shesulim beveis HaShem". (Tehilin, 92: 15
ArtScroll: "Planted in the house of HaShem').
Continuing, the Sfas Emes tells us that if a person is aware of HaShem --
with all that such awareness implies -- in his youth, he will not have a
hard time when he is old.
I find this last statement extremely disappointing. Why? Because it has
the Sfas Emes taking us back to the principle with which we started:
namely, "ke'yamecha dov'ehcha ". (The quality of a person's life when he
is old depends on how he conducted himself when he was young). The Sfas
Emes has not advanced this discussion nor changed its parameters.
We can now sum up on this ma'amar. The Sfas Emes' choice of texts on old
age to include (as well as the texts he chose not to include) leave us
with an overall picture of his attitude to old age. Clearly this is not
a typical upbeat Sfas Emes ma'amar. Indeed, this ma'amar sounds so
pessemistic that it might qualify as remarkably "downbeat".
Thus, as the discussion of the pesukim from Koheles make emphatically
clear, for most people, old age is a bad time. The Sfas Emes'
perspective on old age is so negative that he does not mention some
conditions that might alter a totally negative view. Thus, he says
nothing about old age as a repository of experience (and in some cases,
perhaps even of wisdom). Similarly, the Sfas Emes does not speak of the
honor and respect that the Torah mandates for our elders.
Another feature involves the non-peshats that we have seen the Sfas Emes
deploy in other contexts. Those other contexts were typically situations
that were apparently unwelcome; but in which the Sfas Emes' bold,
innovative readings sometime enabled him to view with a more positive
perspective. Why has the Sfas Emes not used innovative readings of the
text to rescue us here? Perhaps he said nothing because in the
context of old age, there was nothing to say.
A fair question now: why is the Sfas Emes so negative about old age? An
answer comes readily to mind. Perhaps the Sfas Emes' view of old age was
simply a reflection of the reality of old age. And as an Ish Ha'emes, the
Sfas Emes had to tell it the way it is.
A Post Script
For the reasons presented above, I described this Sfas Emes ma'amar
as "downbeat". But an alternative interpretation is possible on whether
this ma'amar is more accurately considered upbeat or downbeat. In an
alternative view, the Sfas Emes is always upbeat; for he recognizes the
reality that Hashem is in control and we can do nothing on our own. These
two interpretations look like polar opposites; but I think they can be
reconciled. How? By recognizing that the "upbeat" view may reflect the
attitude of tzadikim like the Sfas Emes; while a "downbeat"
perspective is the way that "ordinary" people react to the condiitons
discussd in the text above.
Here is a crucial comment from a thoughtful member of the chabura:
I read the essay on Zos Habracha, and compared it to the original, very closely. Although one could take the approach that you have in the essay, I believe that a more straightforward reading would place more emphasis on the positive - how it is possible to stay fresh as one ages.