Sefat Emet (Leviticus + Shavuot)

[Am updating my long Sefat Emet digest with a digest of Leviticus + Shavuot] [You can see the whole digest here, still in progress, from Genesis and Hanukah]]

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.


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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