Latest update: March 12th, 2015
The articles in this column are transcriptions and adaptations of shiurim by Rav Joseph Ber Soloveitchik, zt”l. The Rav’s unique perspective on Chumash permeated many of the shiurim and lectures he presented at various venues over a 40 plus year period. His words add an important perspective that makes the Chumash in particular, and our tradition in general, vibrant and relevant to our generation.
Sippur, as in sippur yetzias Mitzrayim, comes from the same root as sofer, scribe. A scribe is not a simple writer. Sofer is used throughout Tanach to indicate a position of importance, e.g. sofrei hamelech in Megillas Esther, Ezra HaSofer. In Talmudic parlance, sofer means a talmid chacham, a scholar, who must be capable of writing.
The definition of sippur goes beyond simple oral story telling. It includes the ability to tell a story by writing it. The word sefer, book, derives from the same root, l’saper, to tell a story.
The Gemara says that Megillas Esther refers to itself first as an igeres, letter, and later as a sefer, a book. A letter has a short-term purpose. It can be written on anything, it may be incomplete yet it still conveys the gist of the story. In contrast, a sefer has permanence and transmits the story to future generations. It requires parchment and if even one letter is missing it is halachically voided. Hashem commanded Moshe to document the eternal conflict between God and Amalek in the sefer and transmit it to Joshua. This message could only be transmitted through a sefer.
A kabbalistic principle says that Hashem created the world through acts of kesiva, writing.
Chazal say the writing and inscription for the Tablets were created at twilight prior to the onset of Shabbos The Sefer Hayetzira maintains that the world was created through 3 sefarim (forms of the word saper): b’sfor, b’sippur u’besefer, through counting, relating a story and through the book. We know from the Torah that Hashem wrote the luchos, but how does the Sefer Hayetzira know that the world was created through these three forms of the word saper?
According to the Kuzari, when the Torah repeatedly mentions “Vayomer Elokim,” it is referring to the act of sippur by Hashem. The result of this sippur was the sefer, all of creation. It was the word of God that created the world and is embedded in nature and continues to drive it. At the same time, nature must obey the will of Hashem. According to the Baal Shem Tov, the word of God, the Vayomer Elokim that created everything, is as real and ongoing today as it was at the time of creation. As we say in Kiddush on Rosh Hashanah, “U’devarchah emes v’kayam la’ad” – and Your words are true and everlasting.
Chazal recognized the importance of recording events for subsequent generations to identify with, understand and appreciate what moved the author so many years before. Ours is a living history. When we read the stories of the patriarchs and the twelve tribes, we feel as if we are participating in the events unfolding before us. We cry with Joseph when he is sold into slavery and rejoice with him when he is elevated to viceroy of Egypt. We travel with Abraham as he leaves Charan for the unknown land of Canaan and our hearts skip a beat as Yaakov narrowly departs with the blessings before Esau returns. We span generations in an instant through the written word and identify with our ancestors. Educators must bring to life the stories of the Torah and motivate students to experience the story as a participant.
Unfortunately, with today’s generation gap, children can’t understand or relate to their parents’ experiences. For many Jews today, the Lech Lecha of their parents, their life experiences, their Judaism, is irrelevant. In order for us to inject meaning into the stories that we write during our lives, we must do more than simply put words on paper. We have to create a climate for our children to appreciate the events that shaped Jewish history.
Today we have unprecedented access to various texts, but too often they are simply words on paper. We lack the involvement and participation in the events we study. The great scribe does not write on parchment or paper. He writes on the hearts of people and influences their lives.
He transmits a living Torah she’be’al peh and associated living experience to the next generation, ensuring the flame of Torah burns eternally. These scholars were called sofrim because they transmitted our traditions and Torah. Their greatest accomplishment was to keep Torah alive for subsequent generations, creating living sefarim.
One need not write tomes during his life to earn the title of sofer. We have no recorded writings from the Baal Shem Tov. Yet his Torah was spread throughout the world by his living sefarim, his many students. Moshe Rabbeinu was called safra rabba d’Yisrael, the great scribe of Israel. We find that Moshe wrote a sefer Torah towards the end of his life. Yet he earned the title because of the Torah he taught and inscribed into the hearts and souls of bnei Yisrael so that they might be the scribes for the next generation. Just as the original word of God continues to drive nature, Torah is as alive for us today as it was thousands of years ago. Our uniqueness lies in our ability to transmit Torah from generation to generation, despite great difficulties, without diluting the message.
Sippur yetzias Mitzrayim is more than telling a story. “Vehigadta l’vincha” (Shemos 13:8) requires a father to write the book that will become his son as a carefully written sefer, not as an igeres. The obligation to be the scribe of this book extends well beyond the Seder night; it encompasses all of life. In every generation the Jew must view himself as if he just left Egypt. He must feel that he has participated in the entire, collective Jewish experience and must inscribe this knowledge into the book that is his child. Sippur yetzias Mitzrayim represents the book of Jewish existence that a father must pass to his child.
There were many great scholars who were not able to permanently inscribe the sefarim that was their children. They were only able to write an igeres, a short-term note, that their children quickly discarded when they left home. Yet there are simple parents who succeeded in making a permanent inscription into their children’s personality. They were able to write on the hearts of their children their Seder, their feelings on Tisha B’Av, the beauty of their Shabbos, the solemnity of their Yom Kippur and their blessing of their children before Kol Nidrei in a way that made a lasting impression on the child, an impression that stayed with him throughout many years of separation and struggle. Why should the scholar fail where the simple person succeeds?
Chazal say that there are ten synonyms for prophecy, one of which is the word masa. There are two explanations why masa refers to prophecy. The first is that the prophet would raise his voice when presenting the message of God to the people. The second is the Rambam’s (Moreh Nvuchim) that masa is used to indicate that prophecy was a heavy load for the prophet to bear.
The essence of each prophecy is that it is a truth entrusted to that specific prophet. He is the only one privileged to know this truth communicated to him by Hashem. It is also a burden that does not let him rest. To relieve it, he must unburden himself and share it with others The Rambam says that the prophet may not hold back his prophecy, even under threat of physical harm. When the Jew has a prophecy or Torah to transmit, he must view it as a burden to transmit it with great care and exactness as a sefer to the next generation and not as an igeres.
Jewish parents sacrifice for their child to the point of self-negation. How can they refrain from transmitting to their children the beauty of Shabbos, Yom Tov, Tanach, Torah she’be’al peh or the great Jewish personalities? Not transmitting it to his child must be because he himself feels unfettered by the responsibility. To be a successful scribe, one must feel the burden to transmit, the masa d’var Hashem. Like the prophet of old, he can’t control himself; he must impart the message to his child.
This is the mitzvah of sippur yetzias Mitzrayim, of “Vehigadta l’vincha.” To inscribe your child as a sefer, not an igeres, and attain a level of prophecy in your lifetime. Perhaps the greatest characteristic of knesses Yisrael is the ability to engage in sippur yetzias Mitzrayim not just on Pesach night. It is our ability for each generation to turn the successive generation into its carefully written sefer.
Pesach night is a symbol for this intergenerational transmission process. The great rabbis assembled in Bnei Brak and were involved in sippur yetzias Mitzrayim all night till dawn. Which night was it? That night extended beyond the night of Pesach. The “night” refers to the long and dark exile period that we have endured for two thousand years filled with pogroms, blood libels, crusades, inquisitions and holocaust. Not only were Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Yehoshua at that table, but gedolei Yisrael who lived through the storms drenched in Jewish blood and misery throughout the ages were there as well. Yet despite all these difficulties, gedolei Yisrael recognized their mission to be the scribes of their generation, not in terms of writing books but to engrave a love of Torah in the heart of each Jew to be an intergenerational sefer and not a fleeting igeres.
They made use of Hashem’s method, the sippur b’sefer, writing on the book of creation, to ensure the continuity of faith in Hashem and the eternity of the Jewish people. The Torah remains alive to us today because of them. If not for their efforts, we would not be able to sit at our Seder table and discuss the Exodus on the night of Pesach. Jews are called the am hasefer, the people of the book, not because they are avid readers, but because each and every Jew is a living book that has been authored by the previous generations.
How long must we function as sofrim, as scribes? Until we see that the next generation is ready to shoulder the load and assume its role in this never-ending chain. Until the students knock on their teachers’ door and say, “Our teachers, the time to recite the morning Shema has arrived,” that they are ready to assume the leadership role. The essence of sippur yetzias Mitzrayim is to create the living books, the sefarim, that will ensure the continuity of Torah and Judaism. It isn’t limited to the night of Pesach. It is an eternal mission.
About the Author: Rabbi Joshua Rapps attended the Rav's shiur at RIETS from 1977 through 1981 and is a musmach of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan. He and his wife Tzipporah live in Edison, N.J. Rabbi Rapps can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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