For Torah Study: The Sfat Emet on Shemot
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, known as the Sfat Emet (“Language of Truth”), was a Hasidic rabbi in the late 1800s. He served the community of Ger. He was one of the great lights of his generation. Here is a piece of his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, translated by R’ Arthur Green.
“In a flame of fire from the midst of that bush.” (Ex. 3:2) The Midrash says that this is to show [that] “there is no place devoid of the divine presence—not even a thornbush.” This is the purpose of exile: that Israel make visible His kingdom, which is indeed everywhere. The true meaning of the word galut (exile) is hitgalut (revelation), that the glory of God’s kingdom be revealed in every place. This task is completed by the souls of Israel in this world, as the Midrash says in the verse “I am asleep but my heart wakes. The sound of my beloved knocking: ‘Open for me!'” (Song of Songs 5:2)
The Blessed Holy One has chosen us and given us the Torah. Torah is beyond time; just as for the Holy one, past and future are all one. In that case, the choosing of Israel and their attachment to God that happened when Torah was given were already revealed to God “beforehand” as well. This powerful attachment to Torah—even though it was still hidden and unrealized by Israel—was still “the sound of my beloved knocking: ‘Open for me!'” calling them to make this attachment real by opening “as wide as the eye of a needle.”
Holiness can be revealed in this world only through the opening that Israel make. When we said: “We shall do and we shall listen” (Ex. 24:7), we were making real the light of Torah, to which we were already attached somewhere deep within ourselves. Now that we have accepted the Torah, this is even clearer. The sound of Torah pounds in Israel’s hearts. Even though exile hides it, we need only long that it be revealed. Thus it was in the galut (exile) of Egypt that “the Holy One nigleh (was revealed) upon them and redeemed them.” [—Haggadah.]
It is out of this that Scripture says: “As in the days when you came out of Egypt, I will show you wonders.” (Micah 7:15)
The pounding of my own heart,
the sound of Torah
the voice of my Beloved —
Help me to learn again that they are all one voice! –Rabbi Arthur Green
Questions for consideration:
What is the Sfat Emet saying about the true purpose of exile?
What do you make of the idea that the souls of Israel are able to reveal God’s presence in the world? Is this our ability alone?
Who is the beloved knocking?
The Sfat Emet is making a pun on galut (exile) and galui (revealed.) What might be revealed to us in our exile?
How are we in exile now? And how does the Sfat Emet think we can end that exile? (Hint: it has to do with yearning.)
What does this teaching from the Sfat Emet offer us, as a way of relating anew to the story of the bush which burned but was not consumed?