By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Vayeitzei, 5632
The parsha begins: “Vayeitzei Ya’akov miBe’eir Sheva, vayeileich Charana.” (ArtScroll: “Jacob departed from Beersheba, and went toward Haran.”) ArtScroll is presenting the pshat — the simple/plain/surface reading — of this posuk. I urge you to take a good look at this pshat reading. Why? Because once you have seen the Sfas Emes’s non-pshat interpretation of this posuk, you will likely never again understand this posuk exclusively in a pshat mode (or, for that matter, in a drash mode — i.e., a la Rashi) the same way.
The Sfas Emes starts by telling us that in its deeper meaning, Ya’akov Avinu’s departure was voluntary (“beratzon”). But how could that be? Why would Ya’akov leave the kedusha (sanctity) of Eretz Yisroel for the profanity of a land outside Eretz Yisroel? The Sfas Emes answersthis question by explaining that “bevadai” (certainly) Ya’akov undertook this drastic action on our behalf. How so? To prepare us and to counsel us for our departure from Eretz Yisroel. That is, to show us how to grow spiritually even in galus. Further, Ya’akov Avinu went to his destination in order to extend the greatness of HaShem’s Presence even to a place where His Presence was hidden. Indeed, it was hidden to such a degree that to an uninformed observer, HaShem was invisible.
The posuk tells us that the starting place from which Ya’akov Avinu embarked on his perilous journey was Be’eir Sheva. The Sfas Emes tells us that in some ways, Be’eir Sheva and Shabbos resemble each other.. How does he see the similarity? One remez (hint) is the name: “Be’eir SHeVa.” Moreover, not only are Shabbos and Sheva spelled (almost) the same way, but the two words also share one meaning: seven.
More important than the allusions that these words convey is the similarity in function. Thus, the word “be’eir” means a “well,”; that is, a source from which one can draw water. Water is a classic metaphor for ruchniyus (spirituality). So, too, can Shabbos provide us with the ruchniyus we need to live our lives as ovdei HaShem besimcha (“those who serve HaShem with joy”) even during the weekdays. Concluding on this point, the Sfas Emes re-emphasizes that, before leaving on his journey into golus, Ya’akov Avinu had attached himself closely to the world’s penimiyus (inner reality); i.e., to the vibrancy emanating from HaShem.
Continuing, the Sfas Emes refers us to the first paragraph of Medrash Rabba on Parshas Vayeitzei. The Medrash, in turn, quotes a posuk which applies to someone in Ya’akov Avinu’s situation, namely, embarking on a dangerous journey. The posuk quoted is from Mishlei (3:23): “Ahz teileich labetach darkecha . . .” (ArtScroll: “Then will you walk on your way securely . . .”). The Sfas Emes notes that the letters of “ahz,” the posuk’s first word, have a numerical value — i. e., a gematria — of eight.
To understand what is special about the number eight, we need a brief digression. We can view a cube as a prototype of things — i.e., of objects -in the world of Nature . Further, note that a cube has six sides- and with its internal point- seven points. Accordingly, we view the number seven as an allusion to the world of nature (teva). And since the number eight is higher than the number seven, we take the number eight as a symbol of things that are above nature (“lema’ala min hateva”). Hence, the number eight indicates special kedusha (holiness).
Good. We now know that the number eight — and hence, the numerical value of the word “ahz” — signifies special kedusha. But what does the “kedusha” actually mean? Apparently, the Sfas Emes assumes that know the answer to that question; for he does not pause to explain the concept of holiness. But some of us may need help to understand what this often-used word (and key concept) mean. Fortunately, help is at hand, from the peirush of the Malbim in Parshas Kedoshim. The Malbim explains that kedusha means: “lema’ala min hateva” — behavior that transcends nature. Thus, it is “natural” to speak “lashon hara”, or to take what is not ours, or to engage in illicit relationships. To refrain from such behavior requires that we conduct ourselves in a manner higher than nature. Thus, the posuk in Mishlei — “ahz teileich labetach darkecha”- is telling us that to handle the world’s spiritual dangers, we need to live in a way that bespeaks “ahz” — i.e. lema’ala min hateva.
Thus, the Sfas Emes has taught us how to read the first pasuk of this parsha as a manual for living in golus. He has told us that if we cling to our awareness that HaShem’s Presence pervades all reality, we can attain a state of kedusha in ma’asim gashmiyim (worldly activities). How does a person cling to that vision? He/she starts by immersing himself in kedusha. Thus, we saw that Ya’akov Avinu’s point of departure was Be’eir Sheva. And now we are aware of the connotations of both words, both of “Be’eir” and of “Sheva”. Finally, the Sfas Emes emphasizes, that to survive in golus, a person must be prepared to subordinate his/her will to the will of HaShem. Not always easily done …
A take-home lesson? The Sfas Emes has already given it, loud and clear: Before going to Charan, a person must start from Be’eir Sheva. That is, before entering dangerous territory — and all of life involves dangerous territory — a person would be well-advised to immerse himself in kedusha. For the Sfas Emes’s poverty-stricken chassidim, kollel was not an option. Hence, the Sfas Emes’s focus on Shabbos. For us, the mussar haskeil points to a spell in kollel in one’s youth (and when one is older — i.e., before he embarks on a different kind of journey), with plenty of kevi’as itim laTorah (a fixed learning schedule) in between.
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.