Sefat Emet (A Rough Digest)

This blogpost tracking Hasidic thought in the commentary to the Torah, the Sefas Emes (Sefat Emet) (english: Language of Truth) is going to be a running project that I will update and complete, volume by volume, more or less in tandem with the yearly cycle of the Scriptural readings read from the Pentateuch in the synagogue. As an amateur, I am hoping to build up the post by inviting from any of you additional material, things that I overlooked and also translations, which I will add as I see fit and with full attribution.

The author of the Sefas Emes was Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (1847-1905), but he is better known by his titular work. I will refer to the book in italics and to the “author” in regular font. Despite its renown, there is very little online in English about this Hasidic masterpiece, which is itself a body of oral commentary assembled over the years by his students and transcribed as such. What follows in this blogpost is a very rough attempt at a thematic digest of the commentary to each parshah (the portion of the week) from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Deuteronomy. For an intellectual biography, including the relation of the Sefas Emes to Kotzk, see Arthur Green’s introduction to The Language of Truth, which is Green’s anthology-translation of and commentary to selected passages.

Before getting to my own digest of Scriptural readings, I want to offer a little by way of summary.

Light is the core experience in the Sefas Emet. As Green notes and others recognize, the Sefas Emes is work of acosmic mystical monism. For the Sefas Emes, there is God and only God: Ein Sof, all light (kulo ohr), source-root (shoresh), point (nekudah), inwardness (pni’miut), and animating life-force (ḥiyyut) of the world. All creaturely things in the world and the world itself are garments (malbush, libush), material and physical distillations, a material and physical contraction (tzimtzum) in which the light of the Ein Sof is garbed.

That existence of the external physical world of creatures is ambiguous in the Sefas Emes. On the one hand, all things contain a spark of the holy; in all beings, a divine glow deep in the inside of things; there is throughout the commentary a deep and universal care for all creatures and creaturely existence. On the other hand, the holy light is concealed in the gross, external husk of thick matter; this world, the physical body is a “dark” and sad place, a pit and a prison. After the sin of Adam and after the sin of the Golden Calf and after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, this world, for Israel the world of exile (Galut) is a mix of good and evil powers. The main thing is perfection, to reveal the hidden light and inner form (tzurah) or image or figure (tziur) in “man” and in the world of the holiness of God. Every deed, word, or thought is directed towards that telos; nothing else matters.

In relation to the external, material, physical world there are three key intentional acts: birur, bitul, and tikkun. Birur, is the task of “man,” the task of Israel who is the quintessential distillment of “man,” to select out, sift through, and clarify this hidden light. The act of birur is an act of purification accomplished through the powers of thought (makhshava), speech (dibbur), and deed (ma’aseh) as these are reflected through acts of Torah study, prayer, and the practice of mitzvot more generally. Bitul means “nullification.” Once the inner light is separated, one nullifies the exterior body. Holiness depends upon the intentional act of bitul. One nullifies something low for the sake of something higher. Primarily, bitul is the nullification for the sake of God of every place and time and nefesh, every creaturely thing and human will and object of thought that is not God. One nullifies the body for the sake of the soul (neshama), just as the nations are supposed to nullify their autonomous existence for the sake of Israel, who nullify their own existence for the sake of God. The highest bitul is the nullification of the self for the sake of God. The fundamental ambiguity is that, in this world, all things matter and, at the same time, nothing really matters. The “truth” is that everything is God and God is everything, which means that everything is good or for the good, even evil. The language of truth (sefat emet) is caught up in the world of lies (alma d’shikra) in which that truth is obscured. Tikkun refers to the repair of the world, to the repair of the body to transform the world and the body into receiving vessels of divine light.

By way of critique:

[1] The theodicy problem is especially pronounced in a body of thought in which the only thing that is real and that really matters is God. To say that everything is good and for the good is to negate the very notion that there is such a thing as radical evil and radical suffering in this world. Evil is no longer evil if it is good, not radically evil if it can be transformed into an instrument or vessel of good. To say that everything is God is to demand a fundamental negation of creaturely and human value. I do not understand how it accounts for the real reality of radical human suffering in this world.

[2] Scholars of religion will point out that the sacred has a negative component that is, by definition, hedged in by taboo and restriction. Holiness is a contagious quality that seeps into and dominates the world from which it separates. To say that everything is holy is to subject the entire world and everything in it to the most strict kind of strictness (ḥumrah). The Tzadik or the holy community needs to separate from the world, from the evil inclination (Yetzer Ha’ra), from the demonic sphere of the Other Side (Sitra Aḥra) in order to repair the world (tikun). But how can the righteous community repair that which has just been nullified? The withdrawal from the world for the sake of a perfect world nullifies the world as it is, not in part, but in the round.  

[3] Consider how this gets lived out in the communal life of Haredi Judaism. Yehudah Leib was the second rebbe of the large and, in Israel, politically powerful Ger Hasidic community. Aboout this, there is this here by way of background. In Haredi society, the normative community form is based on exclusive devotion to Torah study, separation, and increasing levels of ascetic withdrawal from secular society, including stringent gender segregation as per this piece by Benjamin Brown here at Tablet. A skeptical reading would suggest that what Brown calls radical kedusha or holiness norms, going back to Kotzk and the Sefas Emes, do not lend themselves to a life lived in a larger social form outside a strict communal enclave. The Sefas Emes is itself already marked by a basic foreignness to the social and natural world. The world has existence of value only in relation to a divine emanation; it has no existence or value independent of God. The world is nullified and null once the holy spark has been sifted out from it and returned or raised to its source-root.

There is, with all that, an ungentle baroque beauty to what is an immersive world built upon acts of rough negation and the chiaroscuro vision of bright light and dark bodies. I would not want to pass over without commenting upon what I think stands out as an aesthetic consistency basic to the heart and soul of this type of mysticism in its ambivalence to physical existence and material reality

What follows are only my own rough digests of the Sefas Emet, which is itself composed of digests. The teachings are themselves ordered by year, as if recorded over the course of several years and presented more or less as such. This makes for a text that is incredibly repetitive, returning as it does to a common set of themes year after year, saying variations of the same basic things. At the same time, each parsha seems to start from and end to a certain point as if by way of conclusion. As I read it, the commentary is more than the miscellany of mystical-ḥasidic teachings. I’m not going to note every Scriptural and midrashic allusion so much as attend to the rough but consistent through-line or narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end. You will find below a digest of the holidays appended after the digest of the Torah commentary.

For the review of Torah readings and holidays, see below:


Key themes that thread throughout the entire commentary on Genesis: Shabbat, light (or), hidden light (ohr nistar), hiddenness (hester), life-force (ḥiyut), galut and redemption, Torah, tzadik, the total community of Israel (klal Yisrael)

The fundamental tension: the “truth” that is the absolute reality of God concealed IN the world of creation is ABOVE AND AGAINST this world, the world of “lies,” nature, and the body; but also FOR THEIR SAKE. Holiness is the removal from the world in order to repair the world, to make it holy. The ultimate goal is redemption, the redemption of Israel and the repair of creation and its creatures. This demands powerful acts of sifting (birur) and negating (bitul) of exterior things for the sake of the soul (neshama), Shabbat, the revelation of light without the garment (libush) of body, nature, and time. The Tzadik is a bodhisattva figure who frees himself from the Yetzer Ha’Ra (evil inclincation) and Sitra Aḥra (the demonic other side) by separating out the good from and evil. He nullifies the self, nuillifies himself for the sake of God, and then comes back to repair the world.


The focus of this parsha is creation and Shabbat as its quintessence.

But already in this first opening parsha, the Sfas Emes is looking to Shabbat, linked as it is to the notion of the hidden light (ohr ha’ganuz) created on the first day of creation before the sun and the moon. God set apart on the first day the hidden light because its light is too bright for the world to contain. Less touched upon are Adam and Eve, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, all of which will appear later in the Sefas Emes. Shabbat is Gan Eden (the garden of Eden). God is Ein Sof. Torah is the Tree of Life, composed of fruits and shells, leaves, trunk, and roots. While the supernal Torah is all light, the Torah of ordinary Jews is itself a garment that allows them to draw deeds closer to God. We learn in this parsha that the purpose of “man” is to repair lower worlds, to repair and perfect the body so that it can receive soul (neshama) and, then, an additional soul (nehsma yeteira) on Shabbat. In creating the world, the intention of God when creating the world is to stream light into the world, to nullify the world. The kind of theology reflected in the Sefas Emes highlights not so much the wisdom of God so much as power, i.e. the power and the will of God inside and over against the world. On one level, Shabbat is the intermediary link between God and this world. Higher still, Shabbat is the world to come, above nature and the six days of creation. Shabbat is without garment and all-light (kulo ohr), revealing the inner form (tzura ha-pni’mit) of the world. On Shabbat, the upper world descends into the lower world. But God is the purpose of nature. The main thing is to draw oneself and all things and creatures close up to God, to sift out the divine light hidden in the world and to negate and nullify the physical dross material, including the body, including the six days of creation, the work of Creation, which itself is a garment. Binding all Creation to its root, on Shabbat as in God, there is no garment, nothing is separate, everything is one. Reflecting the blessing and sanctification of speech and thought, Shabbat is a clear speculum through which to see hidden light.


In parshat Breishit, the focus was on Shabbat. Here in parshat Noaḥ, the focus is on the tzadik who extends illumination of light into world.

Briefly noted in the previous parsha, we see more completely now, in a commentary on Noah, how Israel is already separated from the nations. The idea of the nullification (bitul) of self before God is now more fully emergent as a notion. God looks and sees good, which is Torah and heaven (shamayim) and the Tabernacle and Temple.  The parsha introduces as well to the image (tzelem), spirit (ruaḥ) and soul (neshama). God wanted Adam to eat from the Tree of Life, but eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil mixed up the order of creation. The Generation of the Flood are nullified. They are compared to animals. They removed the image (tzelem) of God from the human person. In the ark, God protects Noah from the wicked and from the demonic powers of the Sitra Achra. God destroys the world and gives the life-force (ḥiyut) anew to all creatures. For its part, the Generation of Dispersion (i.e. the generation of the Tower of Babel ruined the unity of speech by depending on its own wisdom instead of relying on God. They were the opposite of Israel, who build the Tabernacle and Temple to self-nullify before God. Noah is a tzadik to nature. Abraham is a tzadik above time, place, and nature. If the Generation of Babel, the world, as it were, lost the power of speech, Israel now receives the power of speech (prayer). Abraham had the power to save his generation, whereas Noah did not. Noah lacked the power to bring others to God. What we begin to see clearly now is that the power of nature is above nature. Israel not subject to time and place. Revealed on Shabbat, the power of the soul (neshama) and the rule of Heaven are freedom. The parsha of Noah reveals that nature is slavery.

Lech Lecha

Above nature and leaving nature behind, the focus in this parsha is on Abraham and Israel, on the body and the soul.

“Lech lecha” is leaving nature. Abraham repairs Adams’ sin and brings this world to teshuva.  Abraham represents the nullification (bitul) of self, drawing close, cleaving to God who is the master of this burning/glowing palace (birah doleket). In this parsha, we learn about forgetting the vanities of this world, and remembering to cleave to the upper world, which is Israel’s special desire for God. In this parsha, God is crystalizing into the image of a king. The burning palace is nullified. Abraham is ḥesed, the essence of nature and above nature. Including Abraham, the patriarchs constitute god’s chariot. They are the actualization of the potential divine root concealed in the world. The parsha turns to the soul power that is the act of circumcision, which along with trials undergone, draw Abraham above nature. The covenant of circumcision binds “man” with the non-body that is the soul. It reveals inner holiness. Its work is to prepare the body to be illumined by the light of the soul (neshama). The removal of the foreskin draws down divine power. It is the quintessential act of casting off the body-garment and cleaving to the inner form. It frees the inner form from garment of externality and physicality to cleave to inner form.


The focus of this parsha is the power of Abraham and Israel formed around a bodily act.

There is more on and a lot about circumcision, removing the foreskin, revealing the point of light. Abraham above nature, which is a main component theme to the Akedah, an act that sets Abraham above nature because Abraham is above nature. In this parsha, work and deed are established over ḥesed. But the act relates only to the material garb of the body, whereas the point and the life-force are hidden in nature. Circumcision is the act that reveals the image (tzelem) of God. God’s pleasure in human action below draws that which is above. We come again to the idea of nullification (bitul) Power of Israel is shown to be greater than angels. The Akeidah teaches that Israel cannot exist without trial (nisayon) and miracle (nes). Before circumcision God appears to Abraham as ḥesed. But it is Abraham’s act that connects body and soul. The gates of prophecy open. Circumcision shows holiness in the body, not just soul. Before sin, Adam’s body shone. Now it needs repair, which establish work and deed over grace. Perhaps because he cannot bear the thought, the Sefas Emes suggests that Akeidah was only in thought. One cannot bear a trial like the Akeidah unless one above nature.  The acts of circumcision and Akeidah and good deeds allow Abraham to receive light, which makes it possible for Israel to receive Torah. Mitzvot illumine and sift out and separate light from out of the dark world. They repair the Tree of Knowledge. God is revealed in the image of man by way of preparation of “man” below. The Sefas Emes is invested in the power of imagination bound up with faith. Circumcision opens the revelation of hidden light Adam’s sin damaged the imagination, the image, the tziur of “man.” The image (tzelem) of God is even bodily. The act of circumcision stimulates the power of visions, allowing Abraham to see angels in human garments, something that the optical eye cannot see.

Hayyei Sarah

The focus in this parsha is the perfection of the patriarchs and the act-thought of nullification (bitul) and blessing.

There is a brief nod at the start of the parsha to Sara, who was perfect all her days; her ascent higher and higher was natural to her. The elevation of the tzadik demands more work. It brings all of creation to the divine root, elevating nature beyond nature. A theodicy is taking shape here. There is no fear; all is good, everything is subject to self-repair and faith, all is garbed and from God, and one should not be sad.  With little mention of Isaac and no mention of Rebecca, Eliezer is the faithful servant of Abraham, a paradigm of self-nullification. Eliezer nullifies his own will for the will of the tzadik, Abraham. The patriarchs are the paradigm of perfection; they are the divine chariot; their bodies shine. The hesed of Abraham fills world. Hesed is clothed in Din. The patriarchs are pillars of the world and beyond our ken. The patriarchs are vessels that receive divine influx (shefa) into the world. For its part, Shabbat is special to Israel. On Shabbat, there is no Sitra Aḥra and blessing is revealed. The six days of creation are the preparation (hachana) of the body for, Shabbat, for the soul. The sifting-clarifying of the self during the six days makes it so that inside and outside match on Shabbat. The soul rises to root and brings body with it, which means that the body needs to nullify itself for the soul, like the six days of creation are nullified for Shabbat –so as to draw the blessing of Shabbat back into the six day work week. The last words of the commentary have to do with blessing and the realization that all is good.


The focus in this parsha is this world, lies and truth, earth and blessing.

Jacob goes out into world, into the world of lies, and raises sparks there, to do tikkunum in the world for the sake of the world and to raise the animating sparks in all things to God. The point is to bring to God things that are far from holiness. Like Jacob, Shabbat extends inner divine illuminations out to the external world, expanding the inner hidden point which is in all things and which is the essence of the divine life force (ḥiyut). There is a part of Abraham in every Jew, revealed through trials-suffering and self-nullification, the nullification of all wills for will of God. Whereas the wicked want all things to belong to them, the tzadikim do not possess and by this they come to possess. Everything belongs to God. Esau goes out hunting. Isaac digs wells to find hidden lights. Jacob leaves home for the world. Jacob is the man of truth who lies and repairs lies on the basis of truth. There is no other way to come to truth. Lies, this world of lies has no permanent or enduring reality. A point of truth nullifies a lot of lies, but that requires the help of heaven so one does not cleave to the will of the lie, God forbid. About the blessing that Jacob stole, it was not Isaac’s to give. Jacob received Abraham’s blessing, the covenant-blessing, whereas Esau’s intended blessngg, which Jacob took by deceit, only involved this worldly goods. Isaac wanted to turn Esau to teshuva, but the intent was never actualized. There is divinity even in dew and in the fat of land. Every place is full of God’s glory. At the Temple, all these physical goods (crop, livestock) were brought back to divine the source. The parsha ends with God’s renewal of creation everyday, with the smell of the field and the smell of sacrifices.


The focus in this parsha is Jacob out in world, exile, and the illumination drawn by Jacob.

Jacob is the man of truth. Jacob is involved in this world which is a mix of body and spirit. Jacob goes from Beersheva (Shabbat) out to Haran (dark place, this world, exile, a mix of good and evil). Jacob goes any place without fear. He does so to draw light from every place where God’s kavod (glory) and the divine life-force are hidden. Jacob can sense its presence. There is interesting material in this parsha and the life-force in all things, even in stones and in physical places. “God is in this place.” The power of sifting-clarification is the power to make all things good, even the Yetzer (stone). Us too today. In the war of God against the Yetzer and exile, and dangerus places, there is faith in God. Exile is a dream. A dream at night in a dark place, Jacob’s ladder is a vision of body and soul, of the form (tziur) of “man,” uncovered when the foreskin is removed, in the image of God. God renews Creation everyday, steps and levels up the supernal root, that which draws Torah down to earth, in every place, with the body-nefesh at the bottom of the ladder on earth and angel-ruḥot flying up and down its rungs, the soul seated at the top of the ladder. God contracts into place (the Temple), into world. There are secrets of Torah in every act of Creation revealed by tzadikim. The evening prayer is the aspect of nefesh (animating spirit) that illumines the body at night. When the body is repaired, it repairs the image of God in man. The Land of Israel and the Temple contain all places, Shabbat contains all times, Jacob, in the image of God, contains all souls. The actions of Israel awaken the power of angels in all things. The human soul is greater than the angels, but the human body is not. Jacob is higher than the six days of creation. Mitzvot create angels to fight the Sitra Aḥra. That’s why there are many mitzvot.


The focus in this parsha is work, mitzvot in the world, tikkun in this world by way of struggle and strife (milḥamot) with the Sita Aḥra, the Yetzer.

There is a lot on the struggle between Jacob and angels and the yetzer by way of which God and Isael renew this world and raise the divine life-force hidden in it. Angels are the principle of desire (Yetzr) and work. Angels are the life force in all things whose power is awakened by Israel to raise everything to God. Proud Esau has everything he needs whereas it is God who sustains the tzadik who receives God’s blessing. The human soul is greater than the angel which is the life-force of creatures. Jacob is higher than all that. Mitzvot create angels to vanquish Sitra Ahra. Jacob perfects the whole world. Jacob returns to the Land of Israel unafraid of Esau who has no control over him. Jacob want to draw in Esau but Esau is unable to nullify his will to Jacob. Jacob gets God’s name (Israel) in life. Jacob is the physical garb, Israel the spiritual garb. Jacob returns to the Land of Israel which is the aspect of Shabbat in this world. Jacob is kept safe by the promise of God and protected by the prayer that actualizes the potential divinity in all places, times, and neshafot. There is no tikun, no repair of the body without strife and hidenness. Nefesh refers to action and to the body, the nefesh in body needs protection. Ruaḥ is the perfection of speech in prayer and in Torah study. Soul (neshama) is perfection of thought. God is far (hidden) and near (in this world). Jacob cleaves to the root of unity, to Shabbat which is perfect rest with no admixture. Israel nullifies the six days of creation for Shabbat. Torah is truth, which Jacob plants in Israel, now the Sefas Emes says, without lie, only to say that truth includes everything, even lies. The dust dusted up in the forever struggle (war) with the Sitra Aḥra and Yetzer ascends all the way up to the divine throne.


In this parsha, there is a strong emphasis on “place” and faith (emunah) in divine providence over against exile (galut), which itself contains sparks of holiness, etc.

The Sefas Emes has a lot to say about Joseph, who will be compared to Shabbat. The clarification-purification (birur) of the good from evil, principally from the Yetzer, or evil inclination, The peirush starts with Jacob who sits and settles into this-world in peace after the long struggle with Yetzer and demonic shells (klippot). Jacob brings the holiness of Shabbat to the six days of creation. The in-a-way secular task of the twelve tribes is to attach all things in this world to the divine life-force (ḥiyut) in all things. The tzadik must repair this world but first must repair self, removing contact with this world. Being above nature, Jacob cannot draw holiness into this world. Enter Joseph, an intermediary figure, who is identified with the type of tzadik who comes back to repair the world from which he has freed himself, who draws holiness to the twelve tribes and to the world. Now we have two types of tzadik, those like Jacob who acts for the sake of Heaven, others like Joseph who act for this world. The relation of the tzadik to this world plays out in a set of three. [1] Jacob is above nature and is fire, whereas Joseph connects with tribes and with nature and is flame. [2] Joseph is a tzadik for the sake of Heaven (Shabbat), also above nature, whereas the brothers want to settle in this world; they are tzadikim for the sake of the world (the repair of nature, the six days of work). [3] Joseph represents truth, Judah faith. Adam’s sin turned this world into a mix of good and evil. Israel acts to clarify-purify (birur) God’s name in world. There is no birur, no sift-clarifying needed on Shabbat, because Shabbat is already all good. The work of Israel in exile is the work of clarification-purification, to illumine hidden illuminations in wicked people and their places. Shabbat is special for Israel. The name “Jacob” is body and “Israel” soul, whereas the name “Yeshurun is the settling of the body and soul into a unity.  The brothers are angry with Joseph. They represent nature and must nullify and bow before Joseph who is above nature so as to bind the lower and the upper. At the same time, Joseph is angry at Jacob because Jacob wants to settle in place without going out into world. There is a lot in this parsha about repairing the body-garment, and about Shabbat and circumcision as that which distinguishes Israel from the nations.


The focus of this parsha is theodicy.

This parsha is focused upon the dark place of the pit, prison, and exile into which Joseph is thrown. It underscores again the principle of faith (emunah). It starts with Sitra Aḥra and Hester (hiddenness). The power of the Sitra Aḥra is only in exile, of Shefa (divine flow) within Hester. The Sefas Emes returns to the idea of nullification, to nullify all action for the inner point (nekudah), to find the point of Shabbat even in the six days of creation. Joseph power was concealed from the twelve tribes. Joseph nullifies his own will for will of God. Pharaoh’s dream is about the mix of good and evil in world, the existence of darkness in world, lying thoughts that have nothing real and substantial (mamash) in them. Evil and exile have no reality, being just a shadow or dream. Joseph breaks the shells and represents inwardness, finds good in evil. Egypt is the prototype of exile in which everything good is hidden, in hester. Joseph in Egypt is preparing Galut-Mitzrayim (exile of Egypt), which prepares for Torah and the repair (tikkun) of speech. It’s only in Egypt that Joseph learns all the seventy languages of the nations. Preparation (hachanah) is the key term here. The body prepares to receive soul. Joseph and Israel and Torah reveal the inner soul light even in Egypt. The human soul is the candle of God. Darkness itself was created so that Israel can illuminate hidden illuminations. The Sitra Aḥra is drawn to holiness, the Yetzer is cancelled by Torah, which means the separation of good from the Yetzer in this world to strengthen the good, Israel from the nations. There are a few mentions of Hanukah, the renewal and time of the Temple and the nullification of the kingship of Greece. The special providence of Israel is above time, is Shabbat, while Joseph rules and sustains this world.  It is a marvel to the Sefas Emes that Israel can receive and “feel” the light of inwardness in this world. The tzadik repairs the nefesh and body and changes dark to light, testifies before God in all the seventy languages of the world. The patriarchs are again revealed as God’s chariot. Joseph is a little chariot connecting soul and body. God mounts nefesh onto the body and prepares it to receive the image (tziur) of soul. For his part, the tzadik is the image of the image. Israel above time draws holiness into time, nature and the body, whereas the Yetzer darkens the soul. Israel and Torah illumine the power of soul from above time and redeems the soul not so much “in time” as “from time.”


Judah and nullification (bitul) are the focus of this parsha in the Sfas Emes. I think it is the highpoint of the commentary on Genesis. It is where we recognize the truth about the oneness of God, that there is nothing but God. It involves a social vision that subordinates what we would call the secular to the spiritual.

A quintessential figure of faith (emunah), Judah represents the shame of the tribes for not seeing the hidden holiness of Joseph. He represents the nullification of the self, of his own will for the will of God by sifting-clarifying the ḥiyut and illumination in the hester. We see here in the Sefas Emes the social critique of contemporary Jewish society: the shame of the brothers anticipates what will be the shame of all Israel at the future messianic redemption for having been solely concerned with this worldly vanities. The root of Galut is redemption which empowers Galut. Israel becomes a great nation only in Egypt. No fear. The tzadik must go down with all Israel (Klal Yisrael). The revelation of Joseph before his brothers is the revelation of the hidden holiness and the divine life-force hidden in all things. Judah now recognizes that all is from God, that Jacob is above nature, that Joseph is involved in this world, that God is everything. Judah nullifies himself, his own will towards Joseph in order to transmit Torah to the larger public. Joseph, identified in Kabbalah with pillar-foundation-phallus, reflects the inward covenant of circumcision, the guarding of the covenant of circumcision in every narrow place and exile. Judah represents the external covenant of mouth-speech. Combining all souls of Israel, Joseph and Judah prepare the way for Jacob who brings Shechina to Egypt. Each tribe is its own channel connecting all things to the divine root. But they nullify the separate channels for the sake of unity. Judah submits everything to God helps the lowly. The tribes unite at the Temple in Jerusalem. The truth, the truth of the sefat emet, thelanguage of truth, is thatGod is all in the world, whereas Judah is the faith that comes to this truth, that that there is nothing (!!) but God and God is all, that in the person is the soul of the living God. (For a translation of the relevant source, see Green pp.67-8). God is with us in Galut which is no longer narrow (tzar). As I read it, in the Sefas Emes, exile is the necessary but insufficient condition for holiness. Actualization of Torah is first only in Galut. Every person sometimes feels/senses in their nefesh the illumination of holiness, even in exile, wanting to serve God, above all other wills


The last parsha of Genesis and the conclusion of the Sefas Emes on Genesis that sums up the commentary so far, giving it its coherence. It constitutes the consolation of all Israel (klal Yisrael) and pays attention to the Shema, the “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” as an expression of faith in exile.

Jacob and the children of Israel are the clear focus of the parsha. The emphasis on the inwardness of all things carries forward, the creation of all things with the divine life-force, that there is revelation only through hester and galut. After the high point revealed to Judah in the previous parsha, i.e. the language of truth about the allness of God, Va’Yehi is a decrescendo that brings the Sefas Emes back more firmly into this world of lies. The assembly of all-Israel (klal Yisrael) on Shabbat is the preparation for the revelation of Torah in the book of Exodus. As Arthur Green notes, truth (emet), represented by Jacob, is silent, and is given language (safa) by the tribes, again being the truth that God is everything and everywhere, even in the hiddenness of Hester. Va’Yehi is a messianic tiding that all languages and the nations they represent will be repaired one day. But with death of Jacob, the truth is closed. Joseph assures the tribes that all is for the good and that tikun is only through galut, that if we could only grasp that the holy life force is hidden even in Egypt, that there would be no galut. Power of a person of Israel to awaken the divine life-force depends upon subjugating the body to soul. Torah protects. Torah protects the life force from the Sitra Aḥra. Truth awakens life force even in the meitzar (straits) of Mitzrayim (Egypt), in its prison. In Galut, Israel cannot gather as one. Truth is hidden in exile. Renewal of nefesh everyday is a small if not complete redemption. In exile, we are reminded that on Shabbat there is no barrier between Israel and God, that Israel clarifies-separates God’s kingdom among nations. The Shema preoccupies the closing thoughts of the commentary on Genesis. In exile, the future tikun is sefat emet, the repair of language. The everyday recitation of Shema everyday is the testimony of Israel to the divine oneness, clarified before all the nations, the language of truth extended into the world of lies. Torah is truth garbed in corporeality and mitzvot in this world. The repair of speech is the coming to the truth which is concealed in world of lies, revealed through the power of the divine impression (roshem) in the animating spirits (nepashot) of Isael, the illumination of divine nefesh in nefashot of Israel. The name Israel carrries the name of Jacob, the witnessing of God via klal Yisrael, in their collecting and gathering (kibbutz and asifa).


The Sefas Emes connects the dots between Genesis and Exodus: the entire purpose of Creation is the Egyptian Exile and the Redemption of Israel from Egypt. In this theodicy, there is no knowledge of God without the suffering of exile. The book of Exodus is about the Kingdom of Heaven: the revelation of the power and kingship of God and the liberation from exile, which stands for the liberation from nature, from being subject to the corporeal body. God’s power is hidden at Creation and revealed at the Redemption from Egypt. Israel’s purpose is to repair Creation, to draw light and Shabbat into this world, to bring even the nations along with all creatures close to God. The book of Exodus begins with exile and concludes with the Tabernacle, or Mishkan in world. But the true place of Israel is the world to come. Moses brings Torah from Heaven, whereas the patriarchs are the chariot of the Shechinah who raise earth to heaven. In this world, the Mishkan or Tabernacle is a speculum. More than I think I saw in the commentary to Genesis is the importance of seeing in the repair of the image (tziur) of the world, the repair and revelation of the image of the human person, the revelation of the image of God


The focus of this parsha is about suffering and transformation, Israel in Egypt and God with Israel, and purging fire.

The exile and redemption from Egypt are paradigmatic for all future exiles and for the future redemption of Israel, which is why the exodus from Egypt is recalled everyday in Jewish liturgy. The parsha connects the book of Genesis and Exodus, that the purpose of Creation is the Exodus from Egypt and the revelation of the Kingdom of God. The purpose of Israel is to repair all places. Israel goes to Egypt, a dark place to draw out sparks of holiness, to find light from the glory of God’s name, to disseminate light of holiness.  Moses wants redemption by way of love (ḥesed), but God wants redemption by way of judgment (din). There is no Redemption without suffering, without Egyptian Exile, without a prior slavery of the soul to the body. It is here in this parsha that the Sefas Emes is most insistent, that there is no knowledge about the omnipresence of God without suffering. The burning bush is the hidden ecstasy in exile, the knowing or seeing that there is no place in the world without Shekinah. There are two types of fire. The redemption from Egypt is the fire that burns. In contrast, the fire revealed to Moses in the bush and the fire at Sinai are the inner illumination of divine light. They are the speculum that illuminates without burning. The purpose of exile and redemption is to actualize this inner potential light. The fire of Torah transforms body. Israel in Egypt descends into core of the furnace, but the soul (nehsama) of Israel has source in fire from above.


The focus of this parsha is faith and truth, the power of God in nature and freedom over nature.

Faith is the notion that the Kingdom of Heaven and the glory of God’s Name are in this world of mixture and hiddenness. The truth, this truth, is concealed at the moment of exile.  Moses  does not understand why Israel has to suffer so badly. In the theodicy reflected in this parsha and the one before, all human action touches on the supernal divine root that is above human conception. Everything is predetermined. Do not question God. Amplifying the theme from the previous parsha, the purpose of exile, of suffering, is to clarify the divinity in all things. Moses comes to see all this, sees the unity of God’s name through a clear speculum, the speculum that shines or illumines that there is only God who in the world is garbed. The hiddenness of the concealment (hester) is revealed from within the hiddenness. Reflecting the will of God, power is given to those to whom God wants to give power. The purpose of the Egyptian exile is to reveal the holy four-letter name of God. In Genesis, the name Shaddai manifests the power of God in nature via the point of the animating force (ḥiyyut) hidden in everything. This is the work of the patriarchs in Genesis. The Tetragrammaton is now revealed to be the essence of animation (ḥiyyut), freedom, without concealment and darkness. Exile transforms into freedom, which is freedom from the demonic Other Side or Sitra Aḥra. So, while Moses himself cannot stand the suffering of Israel, God knows that suffering is at the root of redemption into which mercy is mixed. Exile and evil are for the good, for the complete redemption, for the revelation of Torah and of God’s holy name, for the repair of the world, or nature. God’s power is shown in the world. In this power is seen the power of Moses and Torah against the Sitra Aḥra. Torah is help from heaven to illumine and repair darkness of nature, repairing the world. While the materiality of the world conceals holiness, God does miracles for Israel to overcome nature. In this, serving God is freedom from nature. Exile is essential to what one might want to call this gnosis.


The focus of this parsah is faith and truth, the renewal of Israel, the renewal of the world, and mitzvot.

The glory of God is in the world of mixture and concealment. The 10 plagues remove the shells and hiddenness from the 10 commandments. There is no renewal in (external) nature, only in inwardness.  Faith illuminates in the human heart. We come to truth by way of faith. Even Pharoah is forced to listen. God gives power to Pharoah, who manifests the Sitra Aḥra, in order reward righteous saints (tzadikim) who overcome Sitra Aḥra and clarify the Kingdom of Heaven. On the one hand, God forces Pharoah to redeem Israel, not because they merit it.  On the other hand, God nullifies nature for the sake of Israel because Israel does Gods’ will. The renewal of Israel is the renewal of world, Torah and mitzvot (especially tefillin, tzizit, circumcision, and Shabbat) the divine garment of glory given to Israel. God contracts God’s glory and conceals it in these garments or garb of Torah and mitzvot. From the human perspective, one should nullify the self and leave nature, garbed entirely in the light of the mitzvot just as God contracts self for the sake of Israel. The mitzvot leave an engraved impression in the human animating spirt (nefesh). Israel leaving Egypt, in becoming free from nature, breaks and nullifies nature.  Remembering the exodus from Egypt every day, the human person must renew the way of his own service of God everyday just as God renews the world every day and leads it into a new order.


A first highpoint of the Sefas Emes on Exodus, the focus of this parsha is the song and perfection, and elevated bodies purified of materiality, angelic being, angelic food (manna).

God’s throne, the providence of God, is hidden at Creation and now revealed at the redemption from Egypt. “I am God who took you out from Egypt, etc.” not “I am God who created you.” The power of song is the power of God’s animating power (ḥiyyut) in all creatures, every day, to awaken the creatures to their inner animation. Israel has faith because of the splitting of the Red Sea, expressed in son which purifies the spirit (nefesh)(?) before prayer. And yet, Moses needs to scream, to cry out at the Red Sea because it is only the power of prayer that draws one near to God. The splitting of the Red Sea reveals the Kingdom of God, arousing Israel to cleave to the root of the miracle, which is God. Israel does not merit miracle at Sea. Only God can save. The miracle at the Sea is an act of ḥesed. The Song of Sea (which is so central in Jewish liturgy) manifests the Kingdom of God. Israel cannot sing the song while under the kingdom of flesh and blood. Now in this parsha, the body is drawn after the form (tzura) of animating spirit (nefesh) which is drawn after the image (tzelem) of God even as form settles into matter. Faith is the nullification of human wisdom. Freedom is freedom from limits (mitzrayim) and from the body.  Elevated bodies are raised above their physical garb and bodily dross, like angels. Israel testifies to what the eye now sees, i.e. change in nature. Manna has no physical waste matter or dregs. Shabbat and manna come from side of holiness, without contradiction and limit of the body. Eating angelic food (manna), bodies are purified of materiality and are now ready to receive Torah. In this generation, Israel is now free to observe Torah exclusively, without having to worry about derekh eretz (earning a material living). Freedom is Shabbat and Torah, which are all light. The Song of the Sea is paradigmatic for all generations (indeed for the Hasidic project as a whole).


The focus of this parsha is human action and power, namely the power of Israel, and the Yoke and Kingdom of Heaven. After the previous parshah, this one is anti-climactic. Strangely, there is not a lot of material on the Sinai theophany itself.

The parsha opens with Shabbat, being all light and the essence of Torah, with the good inclination repairing the evil inclination, with reference to the 10 commandments and renewal and new animation, to the animating spirit (nefesh), and to the work of Creation, which includes the revelation of Torah at Sinai starts what Shabbat, all light, essence of Torah. In ways that are new in this parsha, it is now within human power to do God’s will.  Action merits hearing the divine voice, which is above speech (dibbur). Israel awakens divine voice. This is the power of Israel, which adds power, as it were, to God by way of action, in big deeds and little deeds. This power is predicated on accepting the Yoke of Heaven, which is predicated upon the nullification of human will which makes it possible to cleave to what is above comprehension. Amalek tries to destroy Israel and is pushed back; Jethro represents the Side of Holiness among the nations and is drawn near to God. Ultimately, Israel’s place is not in this world. They are children of the Place (makom), i.e. God, a nation of priests sent to repair the world.  Israel chooses to accept the Yoke of Heaven, the Kingdom of Heaven and then receives mitzvot and Torah. Torah protects from Sitra Aḥra. We see here the additional soul of Israel revealed at Sinai, the power of soul (neshama), the power of God, the power of Torah, the power of Israel in the face of the world and worldly vanities, and derekh eretz (making a living). And while there is no Torah without labor and service during the six days of Creation, Torah is, for all that, freedom from all these worldly things. Not of this world, Israel belongs to the world to come.


The focus of this parsha is mitzvot and the power of judgment, the clarification of truth in the lie.

All mitzvot, even the so-called rational laws are for God and intended only for Israel. This is an anti-rationalist move. The so-called rational mitzvot are not universal. In this world of lies, Israel draws truth from above to below. The Sefas Emes on this parsha includes a lot of commentary on the “we will hear and do” (naaseh v’nishma) being the special virtue of Israel. The way of Torah in the world is one of self-nullification and nullification of matter, self-repair by way of judgment (din) and teshuva and shame in in relation to God’s goodness to Israel. The mitzvot are higher than higher and all Torah are names of God garbed in practical judgments. Judges who judge in truth are God’s partner, representing the power of Israel to conjoin judgment and righteousness and sweeten divine decrees. Mishpatim are for Israel, not the nations. The 10 commandments, which are the aspect of the Tree of Life, represent a providence above nature with no connection to anything foreign. Judgments are the aspect of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, being the garbs or garments whose purpose is to repair the body by separating out and clarifying good and evil. Observing mitzvot merits Torah, truth, and Shabbat, which are for the sake of repairing the body, clarifying the mixture to which the human being is subject.


The focus of this parsha is faith and truth, human will and desire to be vessels for God, concluding with the unity and unification of Israel and of action, speech, and thought in the world of action.

The adoration of the Mishkan is not just symbolic or “spiritual,” but includes a reverence for the Temples in Jerusalem where God’s inspiration was felt actively. All depends on human will, the nullification of self. The gifts brought by the people draw out the hidden potential will of the animating spirit (nefesh) of Israel and its desire for their Creator, and makes this will and desire actual in the world. Faith that God will help, faith that the animating power of everything is from God all depends upon the will and preparation of the individual human person. Faith requires clarification to be realized in truth, which is the aspect of the speculum that shines or illumines. Faith merits seeing the truth, apprehending the truth about the omnipresence of God in the world, the revelation of inner animating force in all things. Make me a Mishkan and I will dwell inside you. The already familiar idea-couplet that everything is for God and that the holy spark of God is in everything is now focused around the image of God as place. The figure (tziur) of the heavenly Mishkan revealed to Moses is reflected in the earthly Mishkan. This corresponds to inner image (tziur) of the human being. Moses is the perfected human image. Moses is all Torah. How to draw close to his level? One level below Moses, the Mishkan manifests the desire of the human nefesh for its Creator. Even after the sin of the Calf, all Israel retains the inner desire to draw near to God. On the one hand, this desire needs to be drawn out from potential and actualized by separating from the world and from nature. On the other hand, the work of the Mishkan unites the collective of Israel which draws down the Shekhinah into the world. The Mishkan unites action, just as the power of Torah unites speech, and the power of God unites thought. The souls (neshamot) of Israel are sent by God into the world of action to show by the work of their hands the holiness in all the worlds. After the sin of the Golden Calf, the assumption is that a transgression might extinguish a mitzvah, which relates to the animating spirit (nefesh); but it cannot extinguish Torah, which corresponds to the spirit (ruaḥ) which is above nefesh and cannot be damaged by sin. While the tzadikim, perhaps meaning those at the level of Moses who are pure Torah and above nature and commit everything to Torah, simple people like the Sefas Emes give an offering and a portion to God in all worldly actions.


The focus of this very bright parsha is the lamp (ner) of mitzvah and the light of Torah, the illumination of darkness and the luminous purification of the entire physical body.

Israel illumines the world by their good actions, but the power is not theirs. Human power and human existence depend upon and draw off from the power of God. The Torah given to Israel by Moses stays inside them forever, all Israel having an innate power to awaken inwardness, the power of which is the inner power of animating force (ḥiyyut) of God. The mitzvot are the power of actualization, the lamp of the soul, while Torah is itself all light. To perform a mitzvah is to light a lamp before God. Performing mitzvot draws human action to the lamp of the mitzvah and to its ultimate source in the light of Torah. The lamp of mitzvah is to receive the Torah light. The mitzvah lamp illumines the world and draws light to the soul (neshama) by nullifying physical darkness. Israel contains its own portion of Amalek, which needs to remembered. Do not sin; hate evil. Israel is compared to pleasant olive oil, which needs to be purified or clarified. Israel should not intermix with the nations, but stand for the nullification of everything for the sake of the root. There is a good animating-spirit (nefesh) and a hidden light in every one in Israel. The work of Aaron in the Mishkan is the clarification of action, the burning off physical desire. Priestly garments and tefillin and tzitzit repair all the limbs of the physical body, which is itself the garb of the soul (neshama), referred to here as the “garment of man.” Before sin of Golden Calf, all Israel was like Moses. That aspect of Moses is a higher rung, the light above all human comprehension, just as thought is the inner part of action that needs to be purified like oil by mitzvot. God wants to give merit to Israel and creates a lowly dark world, not a perfect world, in order for Israel to repair it by action and connect spiritual with the corporeality.  Essence of human service is to draw action towards light of Torah, which no transgression can extinguish and which stands forever.  Mitzvot repair the limbs of the body and prepares them to be a receiving vessel. The power of soul (neshama) purifies the body, spreading throughout the entire body while still being separate. There are different grades of soul: some receive light, others are light. Moses is the Sar or Prince of Torah, the aspect of speech, who brings down Torah from heaven which illumines the body. Aaron is the aspect of clean body purified of physical dregs.

Ki Tisa

The focus of this parsha is Shabbat, which now has to be protected and hidden or stored away after the sin of the Golden Calf.

The two crowns of Torah received at Sinai are action (naaseh) and understanding (nishma). After the sin of the Golden Calf, Moses restores the crowns to Israel on Shabbat. Mishkan is repair. The aspect of the Mishkan is all the work of the six days of Creation. In every individual thing (devar) is a hidden and concealed aspect of Shabbat. All actions and all things during week are directed towards only towards Shabbat. Israel has no other will or desire in the world apart from Shabbat. Only to Israel is God’s glory on Shabbat revealed, depending on help from Heaven and restoring the world to its state before Adam’s sin. Mishkan is repair of the damage wrought by the worship of the Calf. After Calf, the Mishkan reflects the necessary contraction (tzimtzum) to receive the illumination that only Israel can receive via the nefesh or animating spirit. But Israel still has Shabbat, which is untouched by sin. Before Calf, Israel’s repair was perfect. Now divine judgment gives away to mercy. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Shabbat is a gift hidden and for Israel, hidden and protected from the Other Side. Israel is the partner of Shabbat. God’s glory is now revealed in the world only on Shabbat and only to Israel, in every generation. Israel testifies to God and God testifies to Israel. Holiness of Israel is forever. Sin which inhibits unification and unity of truth creates an iron screen between the world and God. Shabbat illumines and removes the screen. Shabbat is the world to come, the nullification this world and of the body, the removal of garments and corporeality. But there is also the need to protect this repair and measure of good lest it be damaged. After the sin of the Calf, the letters can’t attach to tablets. Torah teaches how to separate from corporeality. Mitzvot purify the materiality of body, while Torah makes a person free. The tablets of the law are free/engraved. The tablets of the law are divine. Its trace in the heart of all Israel, in its naaseh v’nishma, now needs to be reawakened in Torah study. A gift from Heaven and above nature, the tablets and letters are akin to body and soul. The purpose is to remember the creation of world and the purpose of creation, which is the repair of the animating spirit (nefesh).


The focus of this parsha is the Mishkan, the nullification of materiality and the power of spiritual seeing, blessing in the world.

After the sin of the Golden Calf, the generosity of the people is what draws out the hidden love, desire, cleaving, makes them actual, and, in so doing, and draws Shekhinah below. The Mishkan is abiding love, which sin cannot extinguish. Moses tells the people to stop bringing gifts to the Mishkan. He sees in the Mishkan all the work, all the work of Creation. The Mishkan is the repair or tikkun of Creation, a work of expiation that repairs the sin of the Golden Calf. The Mishkan is the power of the community (kehila) in whom God dwells, in which the gathering of all powers and qualities are brought to the sanctuary, to the inner point, which is Shabbat. The individual particular being (prat) and the universal whole (klal) need each other. When nature is repaired, blessing rests on world from its source. An additional soul descends into the world on Shabbat, which is itself above all creation. Israel’s love for God is not broken by sin, which is the meaning of the gifts brought to the Mishkan, the meaning of the gathering together of all worldly particulars (kibbutz ha’pratim), all lower beings nullified and cleaving to the divine power in all things, the animating force and soul, which is klal Yisrael, in all things. The Mishkan, Shabbat, and Israel are forms (tzurot): Shabbat is the form of all days (time), Israel is the form of all spirits (nefashot), the Mishkan is the form of the world (space). Human service transforms and nullifies materiality into spiritual form. Each and every thing (devar) has its root above. A person should struggle to leave nature and conceive and see the root of the form that is in it. A person should guard one’s eye from looking at material things for the sake of seeing spirituality, seeing with the eye of illuminating mind, receiving (seeing) the face of the Shekhinah.  The Mishkan is a figure (tziur) connecting higher and lower worlds, and in which lower beings can see the inner, spiritual form (tzurah) of the world. Israel was created to repair the world of separation by making public the glory of God, to clarify material dregs and be ready for world to come. Purify matter and turn it into form. Creatures serve the human being who cleaves to God and raises the creatures to cleave to the divine inner root by way of service of the Mishkan. 


If, for the Sefas Emes, the Mishkan is a speculum, then this parsha brings into focus the figure (tziur) of God in the world.

The commentary returns to the distinction between illuminating light and burning light. The Mishkan clarifies burning light by way of separation and the burning of corporeal dregs. In tandem, Shabbat is the light that illumines without burning, the aspect of unconditional and endless love. The six days of Creation awaken love that is in the power of fire. Shabbat reveals holiness. The corporeal world depends on the power of God in it. Torah and mitzvot purify Israel to receive divinity. That is why God drew Israel out of Egypt, to receive divinity. On this basis, the world stands.  The Mishkan is “testimony” (edut) that God forgives Israel after the sin of the Golden Calf and that Shekhinah is in Israel. The Mishkan is a hint that mitzvot bring Shekhinah down to earth. Every mitzvah is the receiving of Kingdom, doing God’s will. After the sin of Golden Calf, Israel falls into the aspect of separation. The Mishkan gathers Israel back together, each person to the place that is unique to them. The Mishkan renews the work of Creation. The particulars are brought into the Klal. The Mishkan is a clear, illuminating speculum that clarifies below the glory of God’s Kingdom! God wants a dwelling and palace in the world below, and this is by way of the testimony of Israel by which the Shekhinah is revealed in the world. Israel is God’s witness in time and in space and in sprit (nefesh). Israel, especially the tzadikm transcend the Klal to teach about the Klal itself, Shabbat and the Mishkan transcend time and space to teach about time and space itself. All Creation testifies to the Creator. The Mishkan testifies that Shekhinah rests in the hearts of Israel, which depends upon the repair of action, a blessing for the entire world: spirit, time, and place. The Mishkan is in the image of Creation, is in the image of the King, as it were. The 613 mitzvot and the Mishkan draw out the image from potential to actual, the figure of God in revelation, to repair the human figure (tziur), draw into it illuminating holiness.


After Exodus, the Sefas Emes on Leviticus dives more deeply into the human, setting Torah-Tree-of-Life inside the burning holiness of the Tabernacle-Temple. What I am picking out in my digest of the commentary is an overriding focus on the human creature that is Israel and the human powers and the spiritual form and image that are unique to human beings and to Torah that are drawn out from the ritual act. The Sefas Emes is in this respect “iconic” in that it is modelled on an image of the perfect form of human being that does not die. As befits any study on ritual, running throughout the Sefas Emes on Leviticus is the consistent attention to special times (Shabbat and holidays), special places (The Land of Israel, the Mishkan-Temple), and special souls (the animating angelic nefesh and the power of the extra soul or neshama of Klal Yisrael, the collective body of the people Israel. Holiness is something one “feels” with the skin, as it were. There is a hot quality felt by the body in relation to the animating soul, or nefesh. Particular to holiness is the ethos of separation, the clarification (birur) of good from evil, God and Israel from the world and nations. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Israel needs the Mishkan-Temple. The ultimate purpose is purity, pure life, Tree of Life, signaled by the nullification (bitul) of all creaturely things and all human wills for the sake of God.


This focus of this parsha: the angelic being of Israel, ritual offerings, perfection of the animating nefesh and repair of the body

What is human? Inside the apparatus of the commentary, Israel are angels (really, mamash). The Sefas Emes is concerned already in the first parsha with the perfection of the human animating spirit (shleimut ha’nefesh). He is preoccupied more by the repair (tikkun) of sin than by sin itself, about which relatively little is said. The Sefas Emes teaches that each individual Jew has a repair special to them, and that the individual person was sent to the world to clarify that tikkun by drawing the body after the nefesh. This speaks to the capacity of the Jewish nefesh to come near to God, to clarify the Kingdom of Heaven, and to apprehend God’s glory. Israel are angels at Sinai receiving divine power in Torah. They themselves were Torah (really, mamash). The Sefas Emes bases this idea on the notion that God Torah, and Israel are one. But the people at Sinai cannot stay at this level of perfection. They sin and fall from this rung. Moses and the offerings then raise the level of Israel, drawing the nefesh of Israel to God. While this perfection of the animating nefesh depends upon repair of the body, action is required to draw the soul (neshama) to help nefesh overcome the body. The offerings at the Tabernacle-Temple are self-sacrifice (mesirat nefesh) to God. Nefesh is illumined and completed according to the service of a person, drawing the power of the neshama or soul to the body so as to empower the nefesh over the body, which is brought into the klal or spiritual collective of life.


This focus of this parsha: peace, love, heart, fire ecstasy, burning

This might be the key parsha for understanding how the Sefas Emes understood ritual action and the human heart at their highest intensity. In the next parsha, with the story of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, we are shown what can go wrong with this intensity. Recalling the miracle in and above nature, the days before Passover renew love and will in the hearts of all Israel. This commentary to this parsha is especially warm. The offering that seems to matter most for the Sefas Emes are the peace offerings which signal peace in the world, hidden miracles in the world, of nature, and God’s governing. Peace is the connection between creaturely life on earth with the supernal upper root. God’s name is peace. Peace offerings are special for all Israel (not just for priests). Everyone who studies this parsha is as if they brought the offering itself, enjoying that connection and peace. The offerings at the Tabernacle-Temple bring external action near to Torah, which is the inner aspect of the divine. The inner aspect of the offerings is fire, the inner aspect of Torah is for its own sake (l’shma). Being the special place that connects the upper and lower worlds, the Tabernacle-Temple is ready to receive fire from heaven by preparing fire below. The fire of ecstasy burns off distracting thoughts, waste, sin and yetzer; transforms that which is evil into good. There is fire above, fire below, and the place of Israel in both; there is illumining fire and burning fire, the bright light of Torah which is Moses and the softer lamp of mitzvah, which is Aaron. The essence of Torah is God engraving divinity in the nefesh of Israel, which allows Israel to return and draw close (l’hitkarev) to God, which is the purpose of the offerings (korbanot). The essence of offerings is to awaken love hidden in the nefashot of Israel, which they received when they received Torah at Sinai. No sin can douse Torah light. The altar in the Tabernacle-Temple is burning heart, the ecstasy of holiness. In the soul of every Jew the Sefas Emes finds the hidden, fiery point aflame with love of God.


This focus of this parsha: the power of human illuminating action, with an emphasis on Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who drew too close to God unconstrained by the power of commandedness.

The Sefas Emes starts this parsha on a familiar theme: illuminating the hidden inner point, which is now identified as the aspect of the speculum of Moses. The service of Israel brings illumination into action (really, mamash). One does God’s will even without understanding it, and one performs that action without wanting reward. The eighth day of the priestly inauguration service represents leaving nature, the priests leaving nature to stand before God and the world to come Then one can see in every action the glory of God which is the hidden point, especially in the Temple, the clarification that is the illumination of Shechinah in lower world, the holiness in all things. But the human deed is dependent upon God’s will alone. Therein lies the power of the divine command that animates all things. The power of human action is from side of God’s command, or the power of commandedness (koaḥ tzivui), a phrase which we are encountering here in the Sefas Emes for the first time, and which is meant to limit and contain ecstasy. Nadav and Avihu thought they could repair and lead Israel like before the sin of the Golden Calf, like angels. They were great righteous men (tzadkikim) but their action lacked commandedness. In this parsha, the Sefas Emes builds upon the ethos of separation: separating evil from the holy and being holy, the connection between that holiness and power of the soul-neshama. And the separation of kosher food. Israel is chosen and needs special food, which adds power to the service of God. On one hand, the Sefas Emes says that there is nothing innate about kosher versus unkosher food. But then he says that impure food is too coarse and physical, that one cannot draw out the life force (hiyyut) from the forbidden species, that treif food enslaves the soul to the body. Israel is free and this freedom requires a separation from corporeality.  Mosses and Aaron are breasts that nourish Israel. They separate types of food to eat in holiness and purity. Reflected here are two types of contraction (tzimtzum). The first is negative prohibitions against forbidden foods and forbidden sexual relations; these limit pleasure and separate the nefesh from corporeality; they merit revelation of holiness, the aspect of Moses that draws down holiness. The second contraction is God contracting out of love of Israel so Israel can receive holiness in this world, which is the aspect of Aaron. The level of Moses is above nature; the level Aaron is Tabernacle-Temple which prepares the lower world to receive the power of soul to repair body, the soul which hovers over the body in the grave.


This focus of this parsha: physical-spiritual form, the two-worldly nature of human being; and sin and repair

The contents of this parsha and the commentary to it are very physical. For the Sefas Emes, this means that the human person Israel inherits two worlds, that the human being is itself a two-worldly creature including above and below. Human being is microcosm, all world contained in that which is human, lower and upper. When the Bavli says that God is the artist who creates form within form, the reference is to the human nefesh, whereas the body is the garb of nefesh. Human form is form of the entire world, of Eden (140!!!) (136).  The form (tzura) of the body can receive the form (tzura) of nefesh.  But the true portion of Israel is the world to come. The human soul-nefesh is sent to the depths below in order to rise and fall. The human person was created to be attached to form (tzura) and cleave to the root, a conception that has a tactile quality. To feel holiness requires the tikkun or repair of the body, the skin itself. After Adam’s sin, the human person is cloaked in a garment of skin, which is a mask or screen that needs to be removed in order to see the light concealed in the dark. The skin afflictions that are the subject in this section of Leviticus come from this screen or mask, this garment of skin. The priest, who is the aspect of peace, heals the skin affliction. The perfect human being can then rejoice in the lowliness which is healed. The impurity (tuma) is drawn outside. The affliction of leprosy (tzara’at) is an affliction of love, its repair and removal, like the removal of the foreskin at circumcision, is meant to clarify awareness (da’at). Again, it is ritual whose function is to clean out waste and purify the person, nullifying everything for the sake of God.


This focus of this parsha: wicked speech versus the healing power of words of Torah

There is something fearsome to the commentary on this parsha, focused on the power human speech (lit: tongue) as a warning to guard against evil speech (lashon ha’ra), to guard the tongue from evil. Sensitive to the phenomenon of human suffering, the Sefas Emes asserts the basic theodicy which is that self-abnegation leads to tikkun or repair of sin. Even paths that lead to distance, to being sent out, ultimately lead to wholeness; and there are times that inwardness needs to be closed up. But words of Torah opens the heart at right time, which is their power. God’s way is not like the ways of a human being. With God, the blow or wounding is the healing itself. Mouth and language open the power of soul-neshama in the human person. About the two birds in the healing ritual for tza’arat, associated with the sin of wicked speech: the one slaughtered is to separate the human person from the sin of idle talk, whereas the one let free prepares the mouth for words of Torah. One who desires that life should guard one’s mouth, while the bird that is let free represents pure speech, which belongs to the human essence. Just like the letters in Hebrew flip, the affliction (nega) is thus transformed into joy (oneg). The human form is itself the form of Eden, a “living soul” or speaking spirit.

Aḥarei Mot:

This focus of this parsha: living in mitzvot and perfecting the life force and human form/tziur/tzelem

In this parsha, the Sefas Emes returns briefly to the example of Nadav and Abihu. They are tzadikim and Israel merits Yom Kippur thanks to them and their self-soul sacrifice. But the Sefas Emes has already taught that there was something missing in their act and that the entire episode is a trial not to enter Holy of Holies. The primary focus in this parsha is that to accept the Yoke of Heaven is the purpose of mitzvot. Every action carries a mitzvah particular to it whose performance draws the life-force (hiyyut) to all things. All thoughts, then, should be preparation to receive the will of the Omnipresent (Makom), all actions have inwardness. In contrast are Egypt and the Canaanites whose actions are purely external. The Sefas Emes picks upon the famous rabbinic dictum, “If I am not for myself, etc.” which refers to the need to repair human nefesh, tikkun of self and all creation. It all depends on me. Tikkun, doing mitzvot and living in them, inside them, Israel must sanctify all actions to cleave them to the root of the life force (ḥiyyut), adding to holiness at every moment, level by level. In this parsha, there is a lot on the verse “you shall live by/in them” and also “a rose among thorns.” For its part, we now are given (for the first time in the commentary?) to see the Land of Israel, which cannot tolerate the impurity of the Canaanite nations. Israel is a rose among the nations. Torah gives life also in this world. The Sefas Emes returns again to “form.” Nothing in the world is not included in the supernal image (tziur). All creation is in the image (tzelem) of God. The mitzvot repair that tzelem, and Israel is itself destined to wear the garb of that spiritual image (tziur). Everything perfected by mitzvot is part of the essence (ikar) of creation, perfecting the form/tziur/tzelem of the human person. The performance of mitzvot merits the wearing of the first garment, the garment of light first given to the human creature; and then one won’t die. Torah is the Tree of Life. Israel is chosen to cling to the Tree of Life. Then, death won’t rule.


This focus of this parsha: holiness as separation and life, body perfection

The keyword is birur or clarification, associated with holiness, whereas nullification or bitul, associated with purity, will dominate the next parsha.  On the one hand, there is the separation, the sifting out of Israel from Egypt, and, on the other hand, the sanctification of this world. The commentary returns to the Tree of Life, to the notion that Torah is the Tree of Life that gives life, and holiness in all creation. But holiness is ultimately above nature and the world, adding more to it. Holy is when Israel is all one in a unity, separate from nations. When united, Israel has Tabernacle-Temple and God in their midst. In this parsha, the inner holiness of Israel stands along with the holiness of God, the oneness and holiness of God, Torah, and Israel. But Israel needs help from Heaven. During its time, that was the function of the Tabernacle, the Land of Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple, the Heichal and the Holy of Holies inside the Temple. Today that function belongs to the mitzvot, the purpose of which is to clarify, erect fences and hedges. During the six days of the week, light is garbed in tzimtum or contraction. On Shabbat, holiness is opened only for Israel, revealed as it is by the praises of Israel. Circumcision and special food also open the divine source and flow (shefa). The Land of Israel has its own hidden secrets and God tells how to open and find holiness. Very physical, there is a focus on repairing the body so it feels or senses holiness in speech, action, and thought. Holiness in the human being is compared to blood which circulates through all the limbs of the body. Mitzvot are the holiness special to Israel. Mitzvot repair limbs and illuminate the human image (tziur) which they wear as a garb without the bestial part. 


This focus of this parsha: purity, creation, the 10 utterances (ma’amarot) out of which the world was created.

The Sefas Emes shifts from the rung of holiness in the previous parsha to the rung of purity in this parsha. Purity is rooted in the hidden wisdom in Creation, which is revealed only by the power of Torah.  Words of God are like silver. Torah is found in all creation, like the silver found in the soil, beaten, and refined. All creation is created by the word of God, by ten sayings, which unfold level by level. These are the divine acts of saying or utterance (emor) that give purity to all things, that raise everything from impurity and externality to purity and inwardness. Pure utterances also bring purity to those human beings who engage in them, purging out the vanity of worldly action, and nullifying-canceling all other wills and willing so as to do God’s will alone. Purity demands the purification of the total human being in speech/words, action/deeds, and thought. This has especially to do with the life of Israel. When a Jew sacrifices themself, i.e. gives up the soul for God, the power of Exodus is aroused, arousing that holiness that is hidden in klal Israel. Israel becomes nothing less than a part of God when and only when Israel is unified as one. The act of mesirat nefesh, giving up one’s soul is what joins the Jew to the klal (collective). At Sinai, God gives purity to Israel. They fall in level, but can rise up by mitzvot and by repentance or teshuvah and cleave to source of purity, which is the source of life. The purity of Torah is such that they do not receive tumah or impurity, which is death itself. The Torah and pure sayings that are “planted” in Israel purify the ones who study them just like water purges and purifies the waste that is mixed into the physical world of nature and bodies.


This focus of this parsha: Sinai and Schmitta (sabbatical land-year), being slaves of God and sons of God, connecting earth and earthiness to Heaven, and the Land of Israel

This parsha is the one next to last in Leviticus, which is interesting because it roots ritual in a kind of materiality. Focusing in on the sabbatical year giving rest to the land, the Sefas Emes is particularly interested in land-earth and earthiness (artziyut). The connection between Sinai and schmitta-yovel connects heaven and earth with the Land of Israel as foundation. At creation, the earth is a chaos (tohu) and then there is light. 2000 generations of chaos pass before Torah at Sinai. The Land of Israel is ruled by the Canaanites, and then Israel.  Physical slavery to a human sovereign give way to the Kingdom of Heaven The mitzvah of schmitta given at Sinai repairs earth (aretz). As the foundation of earth, it is the Land of Israel that connects earth to its supernal root.In one central respect, Israel is a stranger, and the earth is God’s, but ruling all, God gives choice to human beings. At Sinai, Israel was prepared to nullify nature and become like angles. In this world now, Israel serves under two aspects: slave and son. On holidays, Israel goes free to receive the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. On Shavuot, Israel serves God under the aspect of son, whereas on the High Holidays they do so under the aspect of the slave and repentance. The serve God during the six day week like slave; inwardness is hidden, one doesn’t feel the animation in all things, but one believes nonetheless and does God’s will. On Shabbat, Israel serves God like a son, feels the inner animation, does not have to labor to draw near to God because his understanding (de’ah) is equal with the understanding of the father. Even after the sin of the Golden Calf, Israel has these special times to awaken power. The Land of Israel is the special place where Israel unites as one nation. The Land of Israel is given to Israel by God for the sake of schmitta, with Israel drawing the six years of work to the sabbatical year, which frees Israel from servitude to nature to serve God in joy and love.  Those who observe schmitta are like angels abstaining from worldly matters.


The focus in this parsha: following paths of ḥukkim (the so-called statutes, or mitzvot whose reason is not readily apparent; the study of Torah and nullification of understanding (de’ah).

The Sefat Emes includes in the commentary to this parsha the familiar idea of doing all for God’s sake, that the greatness of God fills the world, and that there is no place where the power of 10 utterances from Creation and 10 commandments from Sinai are not. Israel is God’s witness, repairing the body to transform it into a vessel to receive soul-neshama and raise the animating spirit (nefesh) to the supernal root. What we learn here is that following the paths of God’s statutes is the ultimate bitul or nullification of self, and that this bitul draws new power and new neshama from above. The Sefas Emes includes an individualistic note. If I am only for myself, etc. Every person has a tikkun particular to that person that no one else can fix for them. But one lives for the sake of the collective-klal, because otherwise, what am I? God gives ḥukkim so that the whole world would depend upon Torah, which binds the world to that which is above reason (sechel).  Follow “my statutes,” study Torah even without getting entire meaning of it all, because the entire world depends upon Torah, and clarification or birur of good from waste. One nullifies one’s own will for the statutes of God. A person trues to attain the straight and righteous path to the best of their understanding in order to nullify their own understanding for the sake of the statute. The purpose of all kinds of divine service is to merit God’s help because it’s not in one’s power to find the straight and righteous path. The ways and patterns are engraved by God in the human nefesh, against the yetzer; they require divine help.


The holiday commentaries are inserted into my digest in their order of appearance in the commentary, starting with the reading of the Torah cucle. Following Green in his anthology, The Language of Truth, I am setting these at the end of my own digest. While this pulls the holiday discussion out of the context of the larger commentary, this way the holidays can be read as constituting their own separate statement. Unlike Green, I’m not starting the holiday cycle with Rosh Ha’Shanah, but with their order of appearance in the Sefas Emes itself. That means that the holiday readings start with Hanukah in Genesis and end with Sukkot in Deuteronomy. Purim and Passover are placed in the middle of the holiday-digest. This ordering changes the total impression of the ritual calendar. It highlights the narrative arc that starts with light in the darkness of exile and concludes with the supreme joy that is the appearing before God at the Temple.


Already in Miketz (Genesis) The main theme in this very long and elaborate commentary to Hanukah is the transformation of darkness into light, finding light in the darkness of exile, etc. Hanukah is the renewal via miracle and song. The essence of miracle is overcoming the wicked who want to nullify Israel from Torah and mitzvot. The basic story line is that the Greeks want to “darken” and make Israel forget Torah and interiority. With the Septuagint, Yafet was supposed to nullify its own will for the sake of Israel. Because Torah, truly, belongs only to Israel. There is a lot on prayers of praise and thanksgiving (Hallel and Hodayot). Thanks are for the particular miracle, Hallel-praise for the totality of God’s acts. The Hanukah candle is situated on the left side the door across from the mezuzah on the right, the light of the candles at the left illumining words of Torah on right. The mezuzah stands for eternal life, lengthening of days. Hanukah candles mark the trace of the Temple even today when gentiles rule Israel. Even if one is subdued to Yetzer, looking at candles on the left illumine truth of Torah-mezuzah on right and helps with teshuva. There is on Hanukah a lot of broiler plate Sefas Emes that is in consonance with the thematization of light and corporeal darkness: the illumination of body so as to repair it and make it a vessel, and so on. Hanukah candles are a consolation in exile, a reminder of the menorah in Temple. They illumine great darkness. They are the forgetting of the vanities of this world, including Greek Wisdom (natural knowledge of the stars).  The power-potential of the Hanukah candle to nullify the body for the sake of the illumination of soul corresponds to the service of Israel in exile, which merits the building of the Temple as a place for the Shechinah. Torah awakens the power of soul which overpowers the body. All depends on thought and intention. Israel was created for Hallel and thanks. Israel is the mouth of the world and testifies to the overwhelming oneness of God.


Purim is paradigmatic. Against the reality of fate, the holidays give power, strength, hope and unity to Israel in exile in each and every generation. Against the heavenly decree against them, Israel is saved only by miracle and by the love or ḥesed of God, which are both above nature. That explains the enactment to drink until one does not know the difference between Mordechai and Haman, in order to teach that the day has nothing to do with the merit of our merit, to teach that at the level of miracle and holiness all is one. Purim is in the mirror image of Yom Kippur. Teshuva or reprentence sustains them both. On Yom Kippur Israel reaches above nature and time into the world of freedom by way of nullification (of the body, food, and drink), on Purim by way of food and drink, all by God’s help and not by means of our own action. Our sins empower the Sitra Aḥra. Only miracle and also the uniting of Israel, expressed in the giving of gifts on Purim, stands up against Amalek. When Israel is united, when Mordechai united Israel in exile in one bond, Amalek cannot rule over them, which is why Haman slandered Israel by calling Israel a dispersed and scattered people. “Man” should cleave to the point of the life-force (ḥiyyut) above the aspect of the animating-soul (nefesh) that is above knowledge and understanding and has no contact with anything foreign. The deeply negative takeaway in the Sefas Emes on Purim is that the violence threatened by Haman and Amalek and then their “erasure” are the preconditions to the reception and renewal of Torah, the love of Torah in Israel, and new illuminations of Torah.  This is forever and in every generation.


Passover is paradigmatic.

The Sefas Emes on Passover is tucked into the commentary on Leviticus where it takes up many, many pages. In this digest, I’m going to leave out and otherwise miss a lot of things. But comparing it to other things I’ve seen, this post should probably stand up in terms of getting across the basic idea.

A key theme is the aspect of redemption in all things great and small. Starting with the small and the very prosaic (“a little redemption) (קצת גאולה), the Sefas Emes on Passover revisits familiar topoi encountered in the commentary in its entirety, even as it attends lovingly to familiar details drawn from the Haggadah and from the psalms that conclude the Passover Seder in the Haggadah. According to the Sefas Emes, the entire Torah rests upon the Exodus from Egypt which explains why it is recalled everyday in Jewish prayer. The non-prosaic, or super-prosaic level to the commentary on Passover concerns the great theme of the Sefas Emes: the revelation of the great light, hidden in exile by the demonic Other Side Sitra Aḥra. If miracle belongs to the everyday, special attention is given to miracle at the Red Sea, viewed as the coronation in song of the Kingdom of God, as per remarks on parshat Be’Shalah in the commentary to Exodus (see above). Passover is not ultimately about freedom for the Sefas Emes. Passover is about the supra-natural power of God, the power of the image of God, the power of Israel, and the power of song.  

The three pilgrimage festivals.  The festivals pulled together create a sequence focused around the unique and only reality that is God. Passover represents self-distancing from the Evil Inclination and the Other Side, the prison of the body. This requires the strong hand of God, compared to the hand that draws out a baby from the mother’s womb. Passover merits the Torah of Shavuot, which is the freedom to leave nature and to cleave to the root of freedom and the world of freedom. This cleaving merits the gathering of the light of Torah into the inwardness of the human person on Sukkot/Shemini Atzeret, which is the revelation of nothing else but the divine image. Holiness draws the human being, draws Israel after holiness. The festival-holidays institute a special way to know the Creator, showing of the face and actual awareness (mamash) of God in the Temple. The holiday pattern removes the cover and concealment and reveals the light and power and the image of God, which we see on Sukkot.

Exile in Egypt. From bodily suffering one comes to feel the suffering of the animating spirit (nefesh). Suffering is necessary. All suffering is preparation for redemption and salvation. Exile in Egypt is paradigmatic. This too is a pattern for all the generations. Holiness in exile is covered and concealed by the Other Side. On Passover the mouth of Israel is opened. Only after God redeems Israel from Egypt can they receive in joy the Kingdom of Heaven.

Exodus from Egypt – Splitting of the Red Sea. The difference between Exodus from Egypt and the splitting of the Red Sea is the difference between redemption and salvation. Exodus from Egypt is the aspect of divine ḥesed, the parting of the Red Sea the aspect of strict judgment or din. In removing Israel from Egypt, the exodus from Egypt removes the holy spark from demonic shells, from waste material, and mixture. Exodus from Egypt was promised to Israel, whereas the salvation at the Red Sea is that additional level that completes redemption. Exodus from Egypt is not complete redemption, only the beginning of redemption, drawing after the actions of the patriarchs. The splitting of the Red Sea testifies that God is Creator of the heavens, earth, and sea (which together constitute the totality or klal of Creation). It is at the Red Sea where the handmaids see the future, all the salvations that God will do for Israel, including the future to come, which no prophet has ever seen. As for today, Jews are not really enslaved to nations; they can nullify all for the service to God. At the Red Sea God became King forever, but there is no king without a people.

Telling. Wine is a hint to inward redemption and revelation, inner opening. The telling of the story is renewed every year, and with it redemption. Telling of Exodus from Egypt and doing so in detail are praiseworthy because this action awakens “a little redemption” even today. Passover starts from humiliation and moves to praise, understood by the Sefas Emes to mean, in part, the transition from the humiliation of self to the praise of the Creator. What’s different? On this night, Israel enjoys the good of the hidden (i.e. the inwardness of din that is ḥesed). It does not matter to the wise son that he doesn’t understand the reason for any of this, whereas the wicked son sees no redemption now in our own time so he doesn’t see the point of it all. The divine efflux or shefa descends below, level by level, changes, gets mixed up in the mixture of the world. On this night, the eating of matzah renews the divine point that God put in the animating-spirits (nefashot) of Israel.  Matzah reflects the unchanging essence of the dough which afterwards changes, expands, leavens. This is compared to all Israel who have that point from God and which, on this night, they act to protect and preserve in its unchanging state. Matzah is the divine point that doesn’t change, just like Israel didn’t change in Egypt. The wise son understands that we’ve returned now in our own time to exile, and that this night is a preserving (leil shemurim) of the future redemption. Korech signifies that the bitterness of exile is not a separate matter. Exile is like death but is necessary for new animating power (ḥiyyut) and salvation for all generations, while the eating of haroset on this night sweetens the bitterness of exile.

Song and Power.  The commentary on Passover alludes so constantly to song that it is impossible to follow in such a short digest as I’m posting here. Song in the commentary is bound up with the salvation at the Red Sea and the reading of Psalms. Song is power. Song establishes God’s kingdom on earth, enthrones God at the Red Sea. Will and the desire of lower creatures is the power of Israel is the power of prayer and song to garb and crown and enthrone God in kingship. The power of the song at the Sea is special only to Israel when they gather at the Red Sea, when they gather every Shabbat and unite as a single band. On one hand, repairing the nefashot of Israel reveals the glory of God. When there’s a people there’s a King. On the other hand, the form (tzurot) of Israel changes when they show themselves at the Temple three times a year in the light of the face of the living King, where they see the face of God (mamash). The power of prayer ascends levels, passing  up through the worlds of angels and seraphs, and becoming a crown of God. God is ram v’nisa over nature, which cannot contain that glory. Israel by power of faith is also ram v’nisam but can only actualize the potential of testimony when they are made free. When perfected, perfected in song, in a state of repair, Israel reveals the glory of the Kingdom of Heaven in world. The essence of the power of Israel is in the mouth. The power of song comes from its cleaving to the root and its raising of creatures to the root, all for the good. Israel is the Shulamite. The kiss of the mouth is the power of the soul (neshama), the awakening of the soul in the human person. Salvation and song turn Israel into a new creature, like a newborn infant. For each single Jew, it would have been worth splitting the Red Sea. Israel is blessed like the sand at the sea, witness to God who created the heavens, earth, and sea. They are the klal of all creation.


The commentary to Shavuot in the Sefas Emes is the second part of the trilogy on the three ḥagim or pilgrimage festival (Passover, Shavuot, Sukkot). All three commentaries to these holidays are at once both self-standing and tied up with each other. Passover is freedom. But the root of freedom is on Shavuot when God wants to repair all creation at the giving of Torah. The counting of the Omer after Passover and the custom of all night Torah study (tikkun leil Shavuot) prepare, repair, and purify the heart to receive Torah. The two loaves of bread offered at the Temple hint to the greatness of Torah which gives life in this world and world to come.Leaving bodily garb and constraint at Sinai wrapped up in the seeing of voices and revealing on Shavuot the inner tziur (figure) of the human being created in image of God.

After preparing the, one enters the 50th gate on Shavuot. At root of all is now one, pure unity. That’s why Shavuot is designated in the Written Torah as the holiday of first fruits (bikkurim): the first (reishit) designates renewal and creation (breishit) and the power of Torah. At Sinai, all the world receives inner animation. The inner creation is drawn out from potential to actual, from the secret to revelation, adding power, the renewal to all creation all depending on Israel and the power of Torah. The miracle is that the physical, corporeal world can cleave to the holiness of Torah through submission to truth, the nullification of nature before Israel so that all creatures have their portion in Torah. On Shavuot, Torah descends like water into the lowly world and the animating spirits or nefashot of Israel rise like fire and rule over lowly body. Moses is the man of God, in his human aspect, very humble and low, in his divine aspect elevated above angels. Shechinah speaks through the throat of Moses.  God’s voice in Moses’ voice, his prophecy is God’s mouth.  Even the angels turn to Israel who in their unity at Sinai receive divinity. The oneness of God is mirrored in the unity of Israel, who unifies God’s name two times everyday, everybody according to their own power of reception. At Sinai every Israel felt illumination of Torah in their limbs. Israel sees that the inwardness in all things is good, and that good is mixed with evil only because of sin. Torah is like water in which one’s image is reflected.  Each Jew has a portion in Torah which allows a person to see their form. At Sinai, they see face to face, they see themselves in mirror (aspeklaria), each saw their own form (tzura). This seeing is bound up with act of soul-submission, submitting one’s very life and animating spirt (mesirat nefesh). As their souls leave them at Sinai, each saw by means of holy spirt the essence of their nefesh above. Israel wonders and trembles how in this lowly world they could see this, see their own form (tzura) engraved above. And then, Israel receiving Torah is like a soul (neshama) as it descends into this world. Torah restores them to life against their will because they cleaved with such great love to the world above.

Finally, in this world is the world of Oral Torah. The hidden good was all clarified at the giving of Torah at Sinai. But Oral Torah is that portion of God above hidden in all Israel. Reading the book of Ruth on Shavuot is to teach how the human deed becomes a book and scroll in the Torah of God, forcing the divinity of God to garb the divine light in letters of Torah. The strength of Oral Torah is called “oz.” Boaz (bo-oz) is Oz-Torah. The strength of Oral Torah, which is special to Israel, adds power and strength to Israel, adds to Torah and reveals secrets not apparent in Written Torah. The Sefas Emes praises Boaz for the faith he placed in the sages; they tell him that an Ammonite and a Moabite can’t enter Assembly of Israel, but an Ammonitess and a Moabitess can. In this world, one comes to truth by way of faith. The gathering of converts speaks to the gathering of all bodily action to nefesh, the future redemption depending on the power of Torah awakened on Shavuot, the grasping of which merits redemption speedily and in our day.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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1 Response to Sefat Emet (A Rough Digest)

  1. zjb says:

    Reblogged this on jewish philosophy place and commented:

    updated with a digest to the Sefat Emet on Exodus

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