By Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff
Sfas-Emes, Zechuso Tagein Aleinu, Toldos, 5631
The Sfas Emes takes us back to the subject — and the reality — of “hester.” That is, HaShem is at all times present, but is “hiding” behind nature and chitzoniyus (superficial appearances). Last week, in Parshas Chayei Sara, the Sfas Emes discussed hester in the context of zeman (time); i.e., in viewing history and current events. This week, the Sfas Emes discusses hester in more general terms. He also focuses on the responsibility that hester brings with it for us, namely, the task of penetrating the Hester to be aware of HaShem’s Presence — despite the hester.
Where in Parshas Toldos does the Sfas Emes find the issue of hester? He finds it in Bereishis, 26:18-22. Avraham Avinu had dug wells to give people access to water. Chazal see these wells, not only as real-life wells, but also as a metaphor for Avraham Avinu’s activity in giving people access to HaShem, Whose Presence is manifest in the water of the wells.
After Avraham was niftar, the Plishtim — the original Palestinians — filled in the wells with earth. Again, viewing this real-world experience in metaphoric terms, we see this action of the Plishtim as blocking access to HaShem. I.e., they actively tried to block access to HaShem. Now came Yitzchok Avinu. He removed the earth that the Plishtim had used to close the channels to — and from — HaShem. Thus, the Sfas Emes sees Yitzchok’s removal of the earth to reach the water in the wells as an act of penetrating the hester to renew contact with HaShem.
Why does the Sfas Emes return so often to the theme of hester? In his constant reference to HaShem’s being hidden, the Sfas Emes may be addressing his own personal question of: where is HaShem? And out of his personal experience with this problem, the Sfas Emes drew a crucial insight. As he has often told us: the purpose of Creation is to give us the challenging task of penetrating the Hester; and thus to finding HaShem in nature (ma’aseh breishis). That is, our key responsibility is to make ourselves aware that despite appearences to the contrary, all existence comes from HaShem.
After Yitzchok Avinu encountered strife and hatred from the Plishtim in the matter of the wells, he dug a new well, over which there was no conflict. Accordingly, Yitzchok called that well “Rechovos,” a name which connotes expansiveness and repose. The name Rechovos evokes for the Sfas Emes a posuk in Mishlei (1:20): “Chochmos bachutz barona, baRECHOVOS titein kolah.” (ArtScroll: “Wisdom sings out in the streets; it gives forth its voice in the squares.”) The message is clear: Once we remove the outer shell which hides HaShem, an awareness of His Presence will expand and permeate the world.
Continuing with this theme, the Sfas Emes tells us that the agent for this permeation is Torah Shebe’al Peh (the Oral Law). How does this process work ? The Sfas Emes explains. By extending HaShem’s accessibility to all our activities, Torah Shebe’al Peh enables us to experience HaShem’s Presence more thoroughly in our daily lives. Thus the posuk in Mishlei is telling us that by giving forth its voice (an allusion to Torah Shebe’al Peh ), wisdom — Torah — expands its domain.
The Sfas Emes continues. This specification of our role in life — to expand awareness of HaShem’s Presence — helps answer a puzzling question. Why — and how — did Yitzchok Avinu misjudge his son Esav?
A posuk (Bereishis 24:62) tells us: “Vayeitzei Yitzchok lasuach basadeh.” (That is: Yitzchok went out (ArtScroll: “to supplicate;” Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan: to “medidate”) in the field.) As you see, translation of the word “lasuach” is not obvious. The Sfas Emes sees this word as related to the word ‘sicha’ — spoken words. Thus, he reads ‘lasuach’ as; “to speak.” Why did Yitzchok Avinu go out “to speak” in the field? The Sfas Emes answers: To expand awareness of HaShem in the world. Thus, the Sfas Emes sees Yitzchok Avinu as being engaged in kiruv (outreach).
Further, the Torah tells us (Bereishis, 25:27) that Esav, too, was known to be an “ish sadeh” (a person of the field). But for Yitzchok Avinu, the sole reason for going out ‘to the field’ was kiruv. Yitzchok thought that Esav, too, was engaged in kiruv. Thus Yitzchok Avinu misperceived his son Esav, viewing him as “a chip off the block.” “Like father, like son.”
Finally, Esav played on his father’s misperception. He did this by asking Yitzchok Avinu questions that implied that he, too, was concerned to extend awareness of HaShem’s Presence. Thus he asked his father: How does one give ma’aseir (tithe) from salt? How does one give ma’aseir from straw? The former question conveyed the impression that he (Esav) wanted to extend our awareness of HaShem even to the inanimate world (salt); and the latter question, even to the relatively unimportant part of the world (the chaff).
Three suggested take-home lessons from this Sfas Emes. Bear in mind:
1. The sheer evil of the Plishtim, expending resources to block access to HaShem.
2. The Sfas Emes’s novel interpretation of why Yitzchok favored Esav; i.e., ish sadeh.
3. The fact that hester is not something that happens accidentally or that we bring upon ourselves. The Sfas Emes is telling us that HaShem built hester into creation — to give us the challenge of seeing Him despite the hester!
Text Copyright © 2004 by Rabbi Dr. Nosson Chayim Leff and Torah.org.