Chayav Inish L’bsumei (#2)
A synopsis of the Maamar found in Torah Or
In Likutei Torah, Vayikra 4c, the Tzemach Tzedek makes an editorial comment to the Alter Rebbe’s ma’amar there, in which the present ma’amar (“Chayav Inish L’bsumei…”) is referred to simply as d’rush Purim, “the Purim discourse.”
The Rebbe, in Likutei Sichos (sicha of Vayikra 5730, published in Vol. 7, p. 27, note 55), points out that the reason this ma’amar is called “the Purim discourse,” despite the fact that numerous other ma’amarim also deal with Purim, is that the subject of this particular ma’amar (namely, the requirement that on Purim, one drink to the point that one no longer knows the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai”) expresses the central theme of Purim.
THE HOLIDAY of Purim, celebrating the miraculous salvation of the entire Jewish people from annihilation in the times of the ancient Persian Empire, is such a joyous occasion that, as the Talmud teaches (Megilla 7b), “A person is obligated to become so inebriated on Purim that they cannot distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman’ [the evil schemer behind the plot to annihilate the Jews] and ‘blessed be Mordechai’ [the holy saint and leader of the Jews of that time].”
Yet this is truly puzzling, for why is Purim considered even more joyous than the major Jewish holidays known as Yom Tov? Yom Tov holidays (e.g., Passover, Shavuos and Succos) are actually mandated by the Torah (i.e., they are not of Rabbinic origin as Purim is), and even greater miracles happened on those holidays than on Purim. On Passover, for example, G-d split the Sea for us; on Shavuos, we received the Torah. Furthermore, Yom Tov is endowed with a greater degree of sanctity than Purim: on Yom Tov we are not allowed to engage in the category of activity known as m’lacha (commonly translated “work” but actually a highly technical term), whereas no such prohibition exists on Purim. (Interestingly, Mordechai sought to legislate such a prohibition, but his proposal was not accepted. Nevertheless, it is proper not to conduct business on Purim.) To be sure, there is a requirement to celebrate Yom Tov with joy, but nothing approaching the degree described above. In fact, as Maimonides writes in his compendium of Jewish law (Laws of Yom Tov 6:20), it is forbidden to drink to excess on Yom Tov.
The above will be understood after a discussion of the teaching (Shavuos 39a, interpreting Esther 9:23) that although the Jews accepted upon themselves the commitment to observe the Torah when it was originally given at Mount Sinai, it was only later, during the events of historic Purim, that they fully ratified this commitment. The Talmud elaborates (Shabbos 8a) that there was an element of coercion at Mount Sinai, as though G-d had (allegorically speaking) suspended the dome of an uprooted mountain over their heads and threatened, “If you accept the Torah, fine; if not, this will be your grave.” Although the Jews did accept the Torah willingly at that time, it was not until the events of Purim that their commitment was considered one hundred percent voluntary. Yet this too needs explanation. On Purim, the Jews were faced with genocide, and consequently fasted and prayed to G-d, sincerely repented and reaffirmed their dedication to G-d’s Torah. Inasmuch as this resulted under pressure of impending death, why was the commitment of Purim any more “voluntary” than that of Mount Sinai?
For the answer, we must in turn examine the nature of the Torah itself, and of its being given to the Jews at Mount Sinai. To do this, we must clarify the following two points:
First, there is a teaching that it is said of souls ascending to their Heavenly reward (P’sachim 50a), “Happy is he who arrives here with his Torah study in hand [talmudo b’yado].” This Hebrew expression specifically connotes study of practical Jewish law (halacha); yet it requires some explanation why study of practical law is the most important requirement for admission to Heaven, where the souls engage not in detailed legal investigation, but abstract mystical revelations.
Second, another Talmudic teaching (Sanhedrin 99a; see Tanya ch. 1) has it that anyone who could have spent some time in Torah study but did not do so is a fitting object of the verse (Numbers 15:31), “He has despised the word of G-d … that soul shall be utterly cut off.” However, this seems astonishing when one considers that, under Jewish law, a person who finds it impossible to engage in much Torah study satisfies their obligation with only one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening. If it is “technically” all right to get by on such a small amount of study, why should someone who may very well study much more than that, but who merely neglected a single opportunity for study, be considered so culpable as to deserve to be “utterly cut off”?
The explanation of all this is as follows:
The Torah is called (I Samuel 24:14; see Rashi’s commentary to Makkos 10b) m’shal hakadmoni, “the parable of the Ancient One,” or “the parable of the Predecessor [i.e., G-d].” Similarly, King Solomon said (Proverbs 1:6), “To understand a parable and a figure.” A parable is a device for conveying a concept which, because of its depth or because it is wholly outside the hearer’s experience, cannot be directly related. By reformulating the idea as a parable, the hearer can extrapolate and arrive at some understanding of what is meant. G-d is certainly inaccessible to human understanding – in fact, to any understanding, even that of the loftiest angels – and He composed the Torah, in a sense, as a great parable by which His creatures could gain some conception of Him.
Specifically, the expression “Predecessor of the world” refers to that aspect of G-d which totally transcends all relation to the universe. As explained elsewhere, G-d relates to the universe on various levels: on the one hand, He is immanent within creation (memaleh kol almin) and invests each particular creature and entity with just the right amount of spiritual life force to bring that thing into being in its unique form. On the other hand, it is equally true that G-d Himself is above relating to each specific item individually, and instead pervades and encompasses everything equally; in that sense, we speak of Him as transcendent over creation (sovev kol almin). Both of these concepts, however, relate G-d to creation. They are obviously not truly descriptive of G-d as He is in Himself, as it were, for that is a level that cannot be described in terms of its relation – whether immanent or transcendent – to the world. It is this level of G-d Himself – the blessed Or Ein Sof (“Light of the Infinite One”) Itself – that is meant by the “Predecessor of the world,” the level which precedes any relation at all to the universe. This is the level, otherwise utterly inaccessible, to which the Torah is the “Parable of the Predecessor.”
In fact, there are countless degrees of understanding of G-d, depending on the spiritual level and capacity of the one attempting the understanding. For us relatively lowly people, for example, the Torah may serve as a “parable” to the way G-d is manifest in Heaven; to the spiritual beings of Heaven, however, that very level – which we needed a parable to comprehend – is itself nothing but a parable to a still higher degree of G-dly understanding. Since G-d is infinite, there is no limit to how high this reaches. (This is what is meant, according to the Kabbalistic master Rabbi Yitzchok Luria (known as the ARI, of blessed memory) in Likutei HaShas, by the Talmud’s comment (B’rachos 64a), “The righteous have no rest, neither in this world or the next, as it is written (Psalms 84:8), ‘They shall go from strength to strength.’” That is, the righteous do not remain static; instead they are constantly ascending to ever higher levels of G-dly comprehension.) This concept is what is meant by the statement about King Solomon (I Kings 5:12) that he “spoke three thousand parables”: Solomon’s wisdom was so great that, for each concept in Torah, he was able to understand its meaning on fully three thousand successively higher levels.
Now, the Torah itself, that great “parable” to the lofty spiritual level of the Or Ein Sof, is said to “come from [G-d’s] wisdom” (Zohar II, 121a). G-d manifests Himself in the universe in ten principal ways, which we identify by analogy to ten principal attributes of the human personality. Of these ten Divine “attributes,” known as the ten s'firos, the highest spiritual level is called chochma (usually translated “wisdom”) – just as in a person, the very pinnacle of the personality is the intellect. The Kabbalistic teaching quoted above, that the Torah comes from wisdom, refers to this level. G-d’s very “Self,” as it were – the Or Ein Sof – manifests itself only within the sefira of chochma (the reason for this has been discussed elsewhere; see, e.g., the synopsis of the discourse L’havin Inyan Lechem Mishne on the Torah portion B’shalach); chochma, in turn, is the spiritual source of the Torah. The unending succession of “parables” which may be found in the Torah’s infinite depths, each level hinting at the one above it, all lead, ultimately, to the supreme parable of all: the spiritual level of chochma in which the “Predecessor of the world,” the Or Ein Sof, is manifest. In this sense is the Torah the “Parable of the Predecessor,” through which we are enabled to gain some conception of this supremely exalted level.
(Here we should parenthetically explain something which will sharpen our understanding of the above, as well as prove relevant for our discussion later:
The ten s’firos are, as mentioned, G-d’s manifestation in the universe, but He Himself utterly transcends all ten. In order for the s'firos, and through them, all spiritual and physical aspects of the universe, to come into being out of the Infinite One Himself, there had to be some mediating level in between—the gap, so to speak, between G-d and creation (even the creation of the ten s’firos) would simply be unbridgeable otherwise. This intermediate level is known as kesser, “crown”; if the ten s’firos are analogous to the human personality, wherein the highest level is intellect, kesser may be compared to a crown, which sits atop the head and encompasses from above, transcends, even the highest aspects of the person. The sublime spiritual level of kesser, then, receives the G-dly life force directly from G-d Himself (something even the highest sefira could not withstand), and passes it on to the s’firos.
Now, any intermediary necessarily has two aspects: the lower, or outer, aspect that relates to the recipient, and the higher, or inner, aspect that relates to the source. An intermediary between levels A and B functions because it has aspects in common with both: its inner aspect is more like A; its outer aspect is more like B; the intermediary as a whole can therefore forge a link between these disparate levels.
The same is true of kesser, which, in addition to its analogy to a crown, is also compared to the function of “will.” A person’s will transcends even their intellect, as witnessed by the fact that when one wants something, one wants it—whether the intellect approves or not. The more superficial, or “outer,” aspect of kesser is called ratzon, “wanting,” or simply “will”; the “inner” aspect is referred to as ta’anug, “pleasure” or “delight.” In a person, this reflects the fact that kesser is the level that mediates between the body (including even its most sublime faculties like intellect) and the soul itself. The outer aspect, “will”—what one wants—finds common ground with intellect, whereas the inner aspect, “pleasure” is something that relates more to the very soul. (There’s no conceivable “reason” why one prefers chocolate over vanilla, for example. That one person takes pleasure in chocolate while another gets pleasure from vanilla is, as it were, an innate characteristic of their respective souls. It is only because of this inherent quality that the person finds themselves “wanting” chocolate, leading, in turn, to thoughts of how to obtain the desired object, and so on.)
Spiritually, the so-called “outer” aspect of kesser is the level that relates to the ten s’firos and creation. It is known as ratzon ha-elyon, the supernal will, or the Will of G-d. One may think of it as the very highest level, the original first step, toward creation (G-d’s will to create the universe was the first step from which all else followed). Indeed, the supernal ratzon is the same spiritual level as that referred to above as sovev kol almin, the transcendent aspect of G-d over creation, just as kesser, the “crown,” transcends and surrounds from without.
Yet, as mentioned, even this exalted level relates G-d to creation. G-d Himself cannot be “categorized” that way; He is utterly beyond being even the “source” of creation. By contrast, G-d as He is in Himself is referred to as the Ein Sof, the Infinite One. If we can imagine such a thing, the so-called “lowest” aspect of the Ein Sof is the innermost aspect of kesser: the spiritual level of ta’anug, Divine “pleasure.” Thus, ta’anug and ratzon together, the two aspects of kesser, function as the intermediary between G-d—the Ein Sof—and creation.
(Of course, all the above can only be understood allegorically. It goes without saying that G-d does not possess human qualities like “will” and “pleasure;” these terms are used by the Kabbalah merely in order to give us something to grasp onto in our attempt to comprehend G-d. The human faculties of ta’anug and ratzon (as well, indeed, as all human faculties, including those represented by the ten s’firos) were created by G-d in their particular form specifically so that we could relate to His own holy “faculties” by Torah-guided analogy to them. This is the inner meaning of the verse (Genesis 1:26) “Let us make Man in Our image.”)
It is, then, specifically the inner aspect of kesser, i.e., ta’anug, which is meant by the “Ancient One” and the “Predecessor” in the expression “Parable of the Predecessor or Ancient One.” For it is ta’anug that is beyond categorization even as the source of creation; rather, it is that aspect of G-d known as Kadmono shel Olam, the Predecessor of the World—i.e., beyond any relation to the world whatsoever, even as the One Who “transcends” the world.
(The Kabbalah refers to this aspect of G-d as Atik Yomin, “Ancient of Days” (see Daniel 7:9), which connotes the idea of being separate and apart (ne’etak) from “the days of the world” (y’mos olam, as in the phrase in our liturgy, hamisnasei mimos olam – “[G-d] Who is exalted above the days of the world”). The expression Atik Yomin also hints at the fact that the Heavenly level of ta’anug derives from the Kabbalistic level known as Adam Kadmon, the “Original Man”—which, however, is beyond the scope of this discussion.)
To apply all this to our topic, it is the level of ta’anug that the righteous experience in the hereafter, where they “delight” (ta’anug) in G-d’s pure light (tzachtzachus). The question is, in view of the utter inaccessibility of this spiritual level, which is, after all, Kadmono shel Olam, the Predecessor of the World—beyond any relation to the world whatsoever—how can the souls of the righteous possibly experience it? How can they be exposed to such potent G-dliness and not be overwhelmed, ceasing to exist? The answer is that the Torah is the key. Torah is the m’shal hakadmoni, the “parable” to the spiritual level of Kadmono shel Olam, by means of which one can attain an understanding of the referent, the concept represented by the parable.
That is what our sages meant when they taught “Happy is he who arrives [in the hereafter] with his Torah study in hand.” The Torah one studied in life is absolutely necessary, essential, for experiencing the hereafter, since it is utterly impossible to relate to the potent revelations of that world except through the “parable” provided by Torah. If one has not understood all aspects of the parable, one just cannot benefit from the corresponding aspects of the referent revealed in the hereafter—it’s as simple as that. Thus, “Happy is he who arrives [in the hereafter] with his Torah study in hand.”
We are now also in a position to understand why, although one who truly cannot engage in any more Torah study satisfies their minimum obligation with only one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening, this concept is irrelevant for someone who did have the opportunity to study more, but neglected to do so—even if, quantitatively, the amount the second person actually studied (even without the neglected portion) was far more than “one chapter in the morning and one chapter in the evening.” Instead, that neglectful person’s “soul shall be utterly cut off” because they “despised the word of G-d.” Why this double standard?
The explanation lies in what we now understand about the spiritual nature and function of the Torah as the “Parable of the Predecessor.”
If a concept is not especially profound, it may be conveyed to another person directly, with no need of a parable. If the idea is more difficult, it may require embodying the concept in a parable in order that the student grasp its meaning. And, some things are so profound that they require many levels of parable before the student can understand them: one needs the first parable to understand some logically necessary prerequisite before one can move on to the next level, itself only attainable through another parable, etc.
Now, not all people are equal in their capacity to understand Torah. This does not reflect on the person’s “worth” or virtue, for all Jews are equally dear to G-d, and someone who understands as much Torah as they personally can is considered just as meritorious as someone else who, endowed with greater capacity, understands much more. Rather, for His own inscrutable reasons, G-d created some people tall and some short; some smart and some dull; some strong and some weak, etc. In the case of Torah, one’s capacity for understanding has to do with the spiritual root of his or her soul.
The point is that, since G-d does not ask the impossible of us, we can take it for granted that a person who legitimately (that is, they are not just deluding themselves) cannot possibly study any more than a chapter every morning and evening, is in that situation because that is the limit of their capacity anyway; they are not losing out by missing something they could otherwise have acquired. G-d would not have “prevented” them from learning if they could have absorbed any more. Thus, this category of person—someone whose Jewish legal obligation for Torah study is genuinely satisfied by such a small quantity of learning—needs no more than that amount to derive the full benefit of his or her place in Heaven: their soul’s place in the hereafter is commensurate with its spiritual capacity, and those daily chapters provide all the “parable” they personally need to appreciate the revelations destined for them.
(Alternatively, it is possible that the person does have more capacity for Torah understanding, but G-d really has prevented them (by financial constraint, illness, exile in Siberia, or other insurmountable obstacle) from achieving their potential. In such a case, G-d sees to it that the person not lose out in the hereafter, by bypassing the normal channels, as it were, and filling in what the person is missing.)
On the other hand, greater capacity for Torah study is a sign of a greater capacity soul, one destined for greater revelations in the hereafter. To be able to experience these, that person must prepare by studying the amount of Torah necessary to serve as a “parable” for all those revelations. Studying less will leave one short, and they will miss out on whatever revelations of G-dliness they would have been granted had they only taken the trouble to prepare for the experience. By neglecting even one bit of Torah study, they have forfeited the opportunity to relate to G-d to that extent. That is the meaning of the statement that their soul will be “utterly cut off”: that soul will have no possibility of connecting with G-d to the extent it lacks the Torah needed to do so. Since we are talking about someone who could have engaged in study, but chose not to do so, it is appropriate to say that they thereby “despised the word of G-d.”
To summarize, then, we have seen that the Torah is a precious and miraculous gift bestowed by G-d upon the Jewish people. It is nothing less than the means by which we mortal Jews can nevertheless bridge the unbridgeable gap between Creator and creation; it is the key, the “parable,” through which we can connect with the Ancient One, the Predecessor of the World—the Ein Sof Himself.
The Jews merited this invaluable gift as a result of the Egyptian exile and of their willingness, upon redemption, to put G-d’s will before their own. This attitude was exemplified by their response (Exodus 24:7) to the prospect of receiving the Torah, “We will do [whatever the Torah says] and we will understand [it].” The significance of this declaration was that the Jews put “we will do” before “we will understand,” implying that they were committed to the Torah on a level independent of whether they understood or agreed with it. If it was good enough for G-d, so to speak, it was good enough for the Jews, and they would live by it, period. Nevertheless, within that context of unconditional acceptance and commitment to Torah observance, the Jews would make every effort to understand the Torah as well, since that, too, is what G-d wants. But under no circumstances would “we will do” be dependent on “we will understand”; the Jews’ commitment to the Torah was a given.
This reflects the bitul, or self-nullification, of the Jews before G-d. It is impossible for there to be a genuine manifestation of G-dliness, a revelation of the Or Ein Sof—the “Light of the Infinite One”—absent this quality of bitul. If one takes the attitude that one is “something” in one’s own right (but G-d “also” exists), one is essentially rejecting G-d’s unity. In reality, there is no true existence but G-d. If one truly internalizes this concept, one will naturally put aside all one’s own desires in deference to G-d’s will, as though, in fact, there is but one will: G-d’s. That is what is meant by the command (Deuteronomy 13:5) “And you shall serve Him” – i.e., as a servant who simply carries out their master’s will and has none of their own. It is only where this bitul exists that the Or Ein Sof will be manifest, which is why, in fact, the Or Ein Sof is expressed exclusively within the sefira of chochma, as alluded to earlier (see Tanya, gloss to chapter 35)—for this sefira alone is characterized by bitul, as explained elsewhere.
And this concept brings out a deeper meaning of the phrase, “we will do and we will understand” (na’aseh v’nishmah): the word nishmah, “we will understand,” literally means, “we will hear,” in the sense of one who says, “I hear you; I hear what you are saying.” Hearing is not an active sense, one does not actively hear things, but passively detects whatever sound reaches the ear. In the same way, one cannot actively cause oneself to understand something. The thing to be understood is outside the person, it either “penetrates” or it doesn’t; one either “gets it” or not. One cannot simply “read” or “study” the Torah as though it were a book or a subject area and thereby “acquire” its spiritual benefits. In order to “hear,” understand, Torah—nishmah— one must first come into a state of total bitul, absolute deference and nullity before G-d—na’aseh—or the awesome spiritual light of Torah, the Or Ein Sof it contains, will not be revealed to one’s understanding. Na’aseh precedes nishmah because na’aseh is literally a prerequisite to nishmah.
When the Jews were enslaved in Egypt, they were subjected to the debasing influence of that immoral, idolatrous culture, and sank to a very low level of spirituality. On redemption, the Jews were still in that state (see Torah Or, discourse beginning Zachor Eis Asher Asa L’cha Amalek); G-d rescued them just in time, as it were, to prevent what spiritual spark they still retained from going out altogether. If so, how did the Jews succeed in reaching the exemplary level of bitul implied by the declaration na’aseh v’nishmah? They could not have achieved this on their own so soon after leaving Egypt.
And in fact, they didn’t. G-d, in His gracious love for the Jewish People, helped us out, so to speak, He “pulled us up” so that we could move forward on our own. This was accomplished by G-d’s open revelation to the Jews at the Decalogue. In the face of this direct manifestation of G-dliness, the Jews were utterly overwhelmed by spirituality and the natural, inextinguishable love of a Jewish soul for G-d brought to the fore. Then the Jews wanted nothing but to be united with G-d Himself, so much so that, as our sages teach (Shabbos 88b), their souls literally left them and returned to Him with each word G-d spoke. This was the bitul needed for receiving the Torah.
And this is what is meant by the teaching that G-d “suspended a mountain over their heads” and forced them to accept the Torah. The Jews were compelled to accept the Torah not so much by fear as by love: the inconceivable love of G-d for the Jews and His direct revelation to us on Mount Sinai literally overwhelmed us, reviving that surviving Jewish spark and igniting it into its natural state, a roaring flame; “forcing” us automatically into the state of utter nullity that allowed the Or Ein Sof to manifest itself within us.
For “mountain” is used in Jewish mysticism as a symbol of G-d’s love for the Jews, as we find regarding Abraham (the embodiment of G-d’s attribute of chesed and love), who was called “mountain”; and regarding Aharon (who also represented G-d’s loving chesed), whose Hebrew name contains the word har, “mountain.” The symbolism of G-d’s “mountain” above the Jews is that He revealed His overwhelming love for us, as explained above, and the characterization of this mountain as “like a dome” alludes to the all-encompassing nature of the love—like a dome surrounding us from all sides. In other words, G-d’s love for us literally encompassed us from all sides and automatically, inevitably, brought out our natural love for Him in return. (The verse (Song of Songs 2:6; 8:3), “[G-d’s] right hand [another symbol of love] embraces me” can also be interpreted in this sense.)
This idea of G-d’s stimulating the Jews’ love for Him by first bestowing His own overwhelming love upon us, is hinted at in the verse (Malachi 1:2), “I have loved you, says G-d.” It is possible to understand the phrase, ahavti eschem, “I have loved you,” as though “I have loved” were a transitive verb, that is, as though it meant, “I have caused you to love,” or “I have ‘enlovened’ you.” This refers to what we have just been discussing: by G-d manifesting Himself to us at Mount Sinai—by first bestowing upon us the “mountain” of His overwhelming love for us—He awakened our own love for Him in response. (See also the interpretation of “I have loved you, says G-d” given in Torah Or, discourse beginning V’Asisa Vigdei Kodesh.)
(As an interesting aside, this provides an answer to a famous question concerning one of the blessings recited at a marriage ceremony. The text of the blessing in question praises G-d who “sanctifies His nation, Israel, though chuppah [literally, the marriage canopy spread over the bride and groom] and kiddushin [marriage].” It is asked, Why is the marriage canopy mentioned before marriage itself (especially in light of the implication of chuppah as the consummation of the marriage)? Surely, the proper sequence ought to have been, “through kiddushin and chuppah,” not the other way around. However, “chuppah” symbolizes the same transcendent, encompassing (makif) level as the “mountain” suspended like a dome over the Jews at Mount Sinai. The giving of the Torah is often compared to the “wedding” of G-d and the Jews. Just as at that original wedding, it was necessary to first experience the canopy, the mountain above our heads, before we could achieve bitul and genuine commitment to G-d, so in all Jewish weddings (which also symbolize G-d’s wedding to the Jews), do we mention the canopy before the marriage itself.)
Finally, then, this is how we are to understand the concept of the Jews’ recommitment to Torah (renewing our vows, so to speak) during the historic Purim episode. G-d’s suspending a mountain over our heads and “forcing” us to accept the Torah was not, as we have explained, compulsion on pain of death, but instead compulsion by love. It was a result of G-d’s open revelation to the Jews at Mount Sinai, on the order of “His right hand embraces me.” By contrast, the situation in the time of the Purim story was radically different, as hinted in the verse (Ecclesiastes 3:5), “a time to refrain from embracing.”
G-d’s conduct toward the Jews at the time of the Purim episode was in a manner known as hester panim, “concealment.” G-d hid Himself behind the “mask” of natural events and did not show Himself at all (which is one reason we wear masks on Purim—to show that things are not as they outwardly appear; G-d is behind it all). This concealment of G-d’s providence is so much a part of the Purim incident that our sages teach (Chullin 139b), “Where [can we find an allusion to] Esther in the Torah [i.e., the Pentateuch]? As it is written (Deuteronomy 31:18), “And I will strongly conceal (haster astir) My face on that day.” In keeping with this “pose,” as it were, G-d allowed the wicked Haman to gain the upper hand and decree annihilation upon the Jewish People (G-d forbid)—this could hardly be called an open revelation of Divine love!
Nevertheless, even under those dire circumstances, the Jews sincerely repented and recommitted themselves wholeheartedly to G-d and His Torah. This was considered a superior commitment, in a sense, to that of the Jews at Mount Sinai, for the Jews’ commitment on Purim was not “forced,” by love or any other overwhelming factor, but was fully voluntary. The Jews could not even see the guiding hand of G-d in their lives, but they still chose allegiance to Him over all else—and were willing to sacrifice their very lives for His sake. That is why the commitment of Purim “completed,” in a sense, the commitment of Mount Sinai, expressing as it did our own genuine, unreserved dedication (as opposed to something “imposed” upon us from without) to G-d and the Torah.
To fully understand all the above, we need to consider the Jewish quality of bitul:
Mordechai, the saintly leader of the Jewish People during the Purim era, was called (Esther 2:5) Ish Y’hudi. Today, the Hebrew word Y’hudi simply means “Jew,” so that Ish Y’hudi would mean, “a Jewish man,” but in Biblical times—when the Book of Esther was written—this was not necessarily the case. The word Y’hudi could also have referred to Mordechai’s tribal lineage, in which case it would be translated, “a man of [the tribe of] Judah.” Likewise, the word Y’hudi is found in the plural, as it is written (Esther 3:13), “to destroy, kill, and annihilate all the Y’hudim [G-d forbid].” Yet clearly, in neither case is tribal affiliation meant, since Mordechai himself was of the tribe of Benjamin, not Judah (see Esther 2:5); and as for the Jewish People as a whole, obviously, the entire nation was targeted by Haman, not only those of one tribe. If, however, the word Y’hudi is used to mean Jew, then, since other words were available in those days, the question becomes: Why did the Bible choose the word Y’hudim to characterize the Jews? To be sure, we take this usage for granted nowadays, but how did it get started?
The answer lies in the literal meaning of the word, as we find (Genesis 29:35) with reference to our Matriarch Leah naming her son “Judah” [Y’huda in Hebrew]: “This time, I will acknowledge [or “thank”] G-d.” The name Y’huda, as well as the word Y’hudi, comes from the word hoda’ah, which means “acknowledgment” (and, by extension, “thanks”). This is an essential characteristic of bitul: the recognition and sincere acknowledgment that although, from our limited mortal perspective, the world is “something” and G-d is like “nothingness,” the truth is just the opposite—it is G-d Who is the only true existence, and the world, ourselves included, that is like “nothing.” The word Y’hudim was applied to the Jews precisely because it sums up our essential quality of bitul before G-d; the Jews are thus literally the nation of those who acknowledge, who concede, the reality of G-d’s unity and omnipresence and our own insignificance in deference to Him. Mordechai was described as Ish Y’hudi because, as the Jewish leader, he personified this characteristic: he was the very “man of hoda’ah” and the source from which all other Jews derived this spiritual trait. Even today, each and every Jewish person has this uniquely Jewish quality of bitul, at least in potential; we are all Y’hudim.
(Note: It is characteristic of Torah that it contains potent spiritual content, and is beneficial for our souls independent of whether or not we understand it, although, of course, understanding is the ideal. Certainly, the Alter Rebbe was mindful of this in composing these ma’amarim, and included every point for profound spiritual reasons. Nevertheless, at least superficially, the following indented section is not critical to the flow of this ma’amar, and may be skipped (and, preferably, revisited for later study) if one finds it difficult.)
The above is reflected in a dispute among classic Torah commentators. Our sages teach (Chullin 139b), “Where [can we find an allusion to] Mordechai in the Torah [i.e., the Pentateuch]? As it is written [Exodus 30:23, in connection with the spices to be offered in the Sanctuary], mar dror [‘pure myrrh’].” The Aramaic translator Onkelos renders this, meira dachya, and it is identified by Maimonides (Hilchos K’lei HaMikdash 1:3) and several other commentaries with the moshk [“musk”] referred to in the Talmud (B’rachos 43a). The blood of this animal, when congealed within the hump in its neck, was made into a spice called mar.
This symbolizes the spiritual goal of transforming “bitter into sweet,” i.e., evil into good. Blood represents the physical, animal life of the body and its capacity to lust after worldly desires. When one refines one’s character and transforms one’s worldly desires into yearning for G-d exclusively, one has made “blood” into sweet “spice,” suitable for offering on the altar of the Sanctuary.
Along these lines, one can understand a dispute among the Halachic (Jewish legal) authorities with respect to the spice, mar. Rabbeinu Yona permits it even for eating, whereas other authorities forbid it as food, on the ground that only its aroma has been transformed but its physical substance remains unkosher. Rabbeinu Yona, however, rules that it has been transformed completely into good (see Tur, Orach Chaim 216).
This dispute can be understood according to Chassidus as being the same as that mentioned in the Talmud (Yoma 86b) concerning the effect of repentance. One opinion is that when a person repents, their intentional sins are considered as though they had been committed unintentionally; the other opinion holds that a penitent’s intentional sins are actually transformed into merits. All of this revolves around the same theme: the degree to which evil is transformed into good.
As explained elsewhere, the effect of repentance depends on the quality of the repentance itself. If a person has repented in the manner known as t’shuva me’ahava, “repentance motivated by love [for G-d],” their intentional sins are so thoroughly transformed as to count as merits. (This is the degree of repentance referred to in the well-known teaching (B’rachos 34b, Sanhedrin 99a, Zohar I: 39, 129b, II:106b, Vayikra 16b), “In the place penitents stand, [even] complete saints [tzaddikim g’murim] cannot stand.”) This corresponds to the opinion that mar is kosher (even as food); in both cases, the evil has been fully transformed into actual good.
On the other hand, if one’s repentance was of a relatively inferior quality, not motivated by ahava rabba, “great love” of G-d, their intentional sins, although forgiven, are only considered unintentional. This corresponds to the opinion that mar, despite its aroma having been transformed, is not kosher for eating because its transformation only went so far, it was inadequate to convert even the physical substance into good.
Mordechai, whose name is alluded to by the phrase meira dachya—pure myrrh—was the very source of bitul. His spiritual root was in the Heavenly sefira of chochma (specifically, that aspect of chochma known as yesod abba) which, as stated earlier, is characterized by bitul. Indeed, as explained elsewhere, the “nothingness” quality of chochma is alluded to by the fact that this word can be read, koach ma, “an indefinable force,” or “the force of ma [‘what’—i.e., something so inaccessible to our comprehension that it can only be referred to as ‘what’].” Accordingly, Mordechai was the saintly leader who channeled this capacity for bitul into the entire Jewish People, and it was he who was therefore described as Ish Y’hudi, the “man of hoda’ah,” the embodiment of bitul in deference to G-d.
Haman, by contrast, personified the very opposite of bitul. He represented arrogance, conceit, self-importance (gasus ha-ruach), as exemplified by his thinking (Esther 6:6), “To whom would the king wish to do honor more than to myself?” This quality of Haman’s reflected his own spiritual root: he was a descendant of the nation of Amalek, of whom it is written (Numbers 24:20), “Amalek was the first of the nations.” The “nations” are the seven nations native to the land of Canaan (the Canaanites, the Hittites, etc.); each symbolized one of seven major character flaws (lust, murder, etc.). Amalek represented arrogance, the first among them all, for arrogance (the feeling of pride and self-importance) is the source of all others. Thus, Haman, the personification of pride and arrogance, sought to wipe out all the Y’hudim—the people embodying utterly selfless dedication, absolute nullity, bitul, to G-d.
Had the Jews renounced their allegiance to G-d (Heaven forbid), that would have satisfied Haman, for it was specifically the Y’hudim, the people of hoda’ah and bitul, he could not abide. Yet they did not chose to save themselves at the expense of their religion; they would not even consider that. Instead, the Jews remained steadfast, prepared to give up their very lives for the unity of G-d. This was the ultimate bitul.
In fact, every Jewish person, even in our times, and even the most superficial among us, possesses this unique capacity for true bitul, even to the point of actual self-sacrifice. No Jew would separate themselves from G-d’s blessed unity under any circumstances whatsoever. (Indeed, it has been our sorrowful experience throughout the generations that many of our brothers and sisters have willingly accepted martyrdom (may G-d avenge their blood) rather than do so.)
In that case, a question naturally arises: how is it possible for any Jew to sin at all? If a Jew cannot tolerate any separation from G-d even at the pain of death (G-d forbid), surely we should be able to resist any temptation at all that may arise in the course of everyday life—when threat of death is not a concern.
However, unfortunately, a person’s impulse to evil (yetzer hara) makes full use of our capacity for self-delusion. A person can delude themself into believing that they can commit some sin or other and still remain fully attached to G-d. Yet in truth, by definition, even the so-called “smallest” transgression of G-d’s will separates one from Him, and if the person truly realized that, they would in fact never sin, even in contexts not calling for martyrdom.
Martyrdom is unique, though, in that it is virtually impossible for a person to delude themself into thinking that if they convert to another religion, they remain attached to the G-d of Israel. Therefore, if confronted with such a choice (G-d forbid), the Jews have always chosen martyrdom—even those who, one would think, are not religious and do not care about connection to G-d. This is because the Jewish attachment to G-d and capacity for self-sacrifice in the name of His unity stems from a level that transcends reason. No matter what the person believes or what “rationale” they have for a less than fully-committed religious life, the challenge of martyrdom sweeps past all that and touches something at the very core of the Jewish soul: the hidden love (ahava m’suteres) of a Jewish soul for G-d.
That is why no reason is given by the Torah for self-sacrifice. We are told (Deuteronomy 30:20) “to love G-d, your L-rd…because He is [the source of] your life.” If a person understands that all he or she loves in life, even life itself, comes from G-d, they will naturally love G-d at least as much as they love life. This reason for loving G-d does not extend to self-sacrifice: after all, that entails giving up one’s life, so one cannot be motivated to do it because one loves life!
Considering this point in greater depth we find that loving G-d as the source of life is really a love of G-d as He manifests Himself in the universe—the life one experiences—not G-d as He is in Himself. As explained earlier, G-d relates to the universe as immanent within creation (memaleh kol almin), in which sense He invests each particular creature and entity with its “custom-tailored” amount of spiritual life force, and as transcendent over creation (sovev kol almin). Both of these concepts, however, relate G-d to creation, and any love one has for Him that stems from love of life, love of the world, is really directed at these levels.
By contrast, the attachment of a Jew to G-d, that dedication that would compel self-sacrifice—forfeiting one’s life—if necessary, is an attachment to G-d as He transcends memaleh and sovev. For G-d Himself is certainly not defined by the fact that the universe is His creation. Rather, the universe and all its contents are as utter nothingness before G-d, as we recite in our liturgy “You are He [who existed] before the world was created; and You are He [unchanged] after the world was created.” Creation did not even cause a change in G-d’s unity, since creation is literally nonexistent from G-d’s perspective. (It is only because we limited mortals are unable to perceive that G-d is everywhere and everything that it appears otherwise to us.) Self-sacrifice stems from the refusal to cut oneself off from G-d’s very Essence and Being, as it were; G-d as He cannot be described in relation to the universe. For the Jewish soul itself is attached to G-d on this level, and our bond with G-d is thus a natural characteristic of the Jewish soul and transcends all reason. It is this which every Jew possesses and which accounts for our capacity for martyrdom throughout history: an unreasoning, unthinking, bitul to G-d that supercedes and preempts, once it is accessed, any ideas the person might previously have harbored about their relationship with G-d. Likewise, it was this capacity, and this supra-rational attachment to G-d’s very Self, that led the Jews of the Purim story to spurn the idea of renouncing Judaism, even if it meant annihilation.
That is why the Book of Esther refers to (2:20) “the word of Mordechai” being carried out: it was Mordechai, as discussed above, who was the source of Jewish bitul, the channel through which this quality flowed to the Jewish souls, the Ish Y’hudi.
We can now appreciate a nuance in the verse (Esther 9:23), “And the Jews undertook [kibel] to do what they had begun [heicheilu].” As stated at the beginning of this discourse, the Jews of Purim finalized or ratified in their day what the Jews had begun at Mount Sinai. The wording of the present verse sheds additional light on this, because the word kibel connotes receiving a complete thing, bestowed upon them from above. Even the awesome revelations granted the Jews at Mount Sinai at the giving of the Torah were only the beginning, as expressed by the word heicheilu, compared to the fuller and more complete revelation the Jews merited on Purim.
This is consistent with the spiritual principle that G-d wants us to take the initiative in our relationship with Him. We are to try to approach G-d on our own (known in Aramaic as is’arusa d’l’sata, arousal from below), rather than wait to first be inspired from above (is’arusa d’l’eila). When we do so, G-d responds with revelations we would not have been able to achieve otherwise. If G-d has to “wake us up” from a state of spiritual insensitivity by inspiring us first, the revelations are not as lofty as those we draw down through our own initiative. (See the adaptation of the discourse, Isha Ki Sazria on the Torah portion Tazria.) Since the Jews of Purim took the initiative and, despite the prevailing “concealment” of G-dliness, returned to G-d on their own, as explained above, the holiness they received was superior even to that of the Decalogue, which was bestowed only after G-d aroused the Jews to love Him through the “mountain” over their heads—and which was therefore called heicheilu, a mere beginning, compared to the superior revelations of Purim.
(This is hinted as well in the verse (Esther 9:26), “and what [ma] they had seen of the matter and what [ma] had befallen them.” For “ma” alludes to that exalted spiritual level discussed earlier, the very source of the Torah, which comes from chochma—koach ma. Ma may be contrasted with another spiritual level known as ban. Ban represents G-d’s directing His creative spiritual energy into the world, concealing His overwhelming unity in order that a physical world, seemingly independent of Him, could be created. Ma, on the other hand, represents just the opposite: bitul, the acknowledgment of G-d’s unity and that nothing does exist but Him. While it is true that at Mount Sinai, the Jews reached the level of bitul that enabled them to put na’aseh, “we will do,” before nishma, “we will understand,” this bitul was stimulated, aroused, by G-d first. It must therefore be associated with the spiritual level of ban, whose function is to descend into the world (although, to be sure, that descent is for the purpose of subsequent ascent). This does not mean that the Jews did not really achieve bitul at Mount Sinai, for ban, too, has a quality of bitul to it, but since G-d had to initiate the process, it was a lesser order of bitul than that associated with ma.
(Alternatively, one can associate even the Jews’ bitul at Sinai with ma, but it was the “ban aspect of ma,” while the bitul of Purim stemmed from the “ma aspect of ma.”)
At any rate, the revelation of G-dliness bestowed upon the Jews at Purim was superior even to that of Mount Sinai, because on Purim the Jews initiated the process themselves. As in all such cases of is’arusa d’l’sata, however, even though the initiative came from below, nothing ever really happens without G-d so willing it. Thus, we may speak of G-d having previously “laid the groundwork” for the Jews’ initiative itself. We can now interpret our verse with respect to both of these concepts:
On one level, “what [ma] they had seen of the matter” hints at the sublime prior stage, the enabling Divine groundwork, as it were, to the Jews’ bitul on Purim. Then, “what [ma] had befallen them” is a reference to the fact that the Jews’ bitul was, as stated, of the superior order of ma.
And on the second level, we can take the first part of the verse, “what [ma] they had seen of the matter,” as itself referring to the Jews’ superior level of bitul, achieved on their own initiative, on Purim. And It was because of this initiative, the Jewish is’arusa d’l’sata, that the revelation of Purim was of a superior order to that of Sinai; the G-dliness revealed on Purim stemmed from the sublime level of ma, the final completion of the acceptance of the Torah, the Predecessor of the World.)
Armed with the above insights, we are finally in a position to understand the questions posed at the very beginning.
It was asked, Why is the joy associated with Purim greater than that of the major Yom Tov holidays? Yom Tov is a joyous occasion, to be sure; in fact, we are Biblically commanded to rejoice at these times. Nevertheless, we are expected to “outdo ourselves” on Purim, to the point we no longer know the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordechai.” Moreover, the sanctity of Yom Tov requires refraining from m’lacha. If Purim is superior to Yom Tov, how is it that we are permitted to perform m’lacha then?
The Zohar states (T’ruma, 137b) that we recite the psalm beginning “Rejoice, O righteous ones, in G-d” on Shabbos and Yom Tov because this theme is especially appropriate then. The meaning of this lies in the fact that the word for “G-d” in this verse is the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable, four-letter Divine name. The Tetragrammaton is spelled with the four Hebrew letters yud and hey and vav and hey, and is pronounced (outside the context of prayer or communal Torah-reading) as an amalgam of these letters: “Havaye.” (When praying or reading the Torah in synagogue, it is pronounced Ado-noy.)
Chassidus explains that the Divine name Havaye represents G-d channeling His creative energy into the universe; it signifies, not G-d as He is in Himself, but G-d as Creator. Each of the four letters of the name Havaye symbolize one general stage in the progressive transmission of G-dly life-force into the universe. (See, e.g., the adaptations of the discourses L’va’er Inyan HaMasa’os Bamidbar (on the Torah portion Masei); Be’etzem Hayom Hazeh Nimol Avrohom (on the portion Lech-L’cha); and Ha’azinu (on the Torah portion of the same name).)
The verse “Rejoice, O righteous ones, in Havaye” hints that the righteous [tzaddikim] should infuse joy into “Havaye,” i.e., into the ordered universe [seder ha-hishtalshelus] brought into being through this Divine name. That is, they should draw holiness from the lofty spiritual plane which transcends seder ha-hishtalshelus, and invest it within seder ha-hishtalshelus. A similar interpretation can be applied to the verse (Isaiah 61:10), “I will greatly rejoice [sos asis] in Havaye.”
Now, on Shabbos and Yom Tov, this additional Divine revelation from above seder ha-hishtalshelus is limited in extent, since, although transcendent, it nevertheless has a connection with the limited, fixed order of creation. It is not at all comparable to revelation of G-d’s very Essence and Being, so to speak, utterly beyond relation to seder ha-hishtalshelus. This is expressed by the various limits and specific dimensions associated with our celebration of these occasions. For example, the Biblical command (Deuteronomy 16:14), “And you shall rejoice in your holiday” was fulfilled, in the times of the Holy Temple, by bringing the shalmei simcha, the joyous sacrifices offered up on the holidays, as our sages teach (P’sachim 109a), “‘Joy’ [such as that required on Yom Yov] cannot be had except with meat.” Now that the Temple no longer stands (may it be rebuilt immediately!), we express the requisite holiday joy in other ways, as our sages likewise teach (P’sachim 109a), “‘Joy’ cannot be had except with wine.” And the amounts are specifically prescribed: according to Jewish law, one fulfills one’s obligation of holiday joy with a r’vi’is (a unit of measure, approximately 3.5 ounces) of wine.
All this is because the heavenly “excess” of Divine revelation elicited into seder ha-hishtalshelus on Shabbos and Yom Tov invests itself within the highest levels of seder ha-hishtalshelus, namely the “intellectual” s’firos of chochma and bina. (That is appropriate; recall that chochma is the sefira that serves as a vessel for the manifestation of higher G-dly revelations.) Correspondingly, in our physical world as well, the practical expressions of these spiritual concepts are contained within rationally comprehensible, measurable quantities; they are guided by da’as, sensible standards.
On Purim, by contrast, the spirituality elicited by the Jews was of a far superior order. It was, as explained above, merited by the Jews’ self-sacrificing commitment to G-d, a commitment that surpassed all “reason,” all sense, all da’as. The Jews thereby brought upon themselves a corresponding revelation far beyond intellectual comprehension, far beyond expression in terms of G-d’s “immanence” or “transcendence” in the world (memale kol almin or sovev kol almin), but of G-d’s very Essence and Being, His very “Self,” as it were—a manifestation of G-dliness that, like the Jews’ commitment, surpassed all da’as.
That is why we celebrate Purim with a joy that also surpasses all reason, all da’as, as expressed in the requirement that we drink wine, but more than merely a r’vi’is: we are to drink “ad d’lo yada,” until one does not know [yada, a form of the word da’as] the difference between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” On the level of G-d’s very Self, there is in fact no distinction between what we experience as “bad” and “good,” darkness or light, as it is written (Psalms 139:12), “Even darkness is not dark for You,” and (Job 35:7), “If you are righteous, what do you [thereby] give Him,” since to G-d Himself, it’s all the same. This is the supremely rarified level of G-dliness we “tap into” on Purim.
This also explains why m’lacha is permitted on Purim.
The true meaning of Shabbos as a day of “rest” from “work” (m’lacha) is that, just as G-d, Who ceased creating on the seventh day, thereby allowed all the spiritual energies He had poured into creation to rise up and return to their Divine source, so do we and the universe at large experience a spiritual elevation up to our G-dly Source on Shabbos. (See, e.g., the adaptation of the discourse L’havin Inyan Lechem Mishne on the Torah portion B’shalach.)
This is applicable, however, only insofar as it concerns the G-dly energies invested within creation. These rise up to the higher level of their Divine source when the added spirituality of Shabbos or Yom Tov is manifest in the world. But this implies that “higher” and “lower” are valid concepts, and this implication is only true to a point: there is, as we have explained, a level of spirituality beyond which “higher” and “lower” (and all such distinctions) are meaningless to G-d. The spiritual ascent that takes place on Shabbos and Yom Tov is the elevation of G-dliness that had been invested within the created universe—seder ha-hishtalshelus—up to its source; we therefore refrain from creative activity (m’lacha) because the G-dly creative forces have risen above this realm. All this does not apply, however, to G-dly revelations of the order transcending hishtalshelus, of the order of G-d’s very Self—the revelations bestowed on us on Purim. At that level, there is no “higher” or “lower” to begin with. Refraining from m‘lacha would not symbolize anything meaningful under those circumstances, and there is no spiritual benefit in doing so.
(The Midrash (B’reishis Rabba, ch.12) relates that a certain heretic once challenged Rabbi Yehoshua (according to some versions, it was Rabbi Akiva): The Torah says that G-d rested on Shabbos, yet apparently, He doesn’t; does He not send down rain on Shabbos, sprout grasses, etc.? Rabbi Yehoshua answered by comparing the entire universe to a r’shus hayachid, a place characterized by Jewish law as a “private domain.” Just as one may carry objects (an otherwise forbidden activity) within a private domain on Shabbos, so may G-d do what He does, since the entire universe is but His own “private domain.”
This answer appears inadequate, though: it is only the single m’lacha of carrying that is permitted within a private domain; all other m’lachos, including threshing, planting and the like, are forbidden even in a r’shus hayachid. How, then, did this answer the heretic’s question?
What Rabbi Yehoshua meant, however, was along the lines we have just said. Refraining from m’lacha (no matter which) is only appropriate with respect to the Divine energies invested within seder ha-hishtalshelus. For G-d Himself, however, utterly beyond the concept of the created universe, all is one single “domain,” without distinction between higher or lower or anything else. On that level, there is no meaning to elevation of life-force or refraining from m’lacha, and G-d’s own activities (allegorically speaking) are no contradiction to Shabbos.
We are now confronted with an apparent difficulty: If, indeed, it is spiritually unnecessary, even inappropriate, to refrain from m’lacha on Purim (although, as mentioned above, it would still not be proper to conduct one’s business affairs then), why did Mordechai seek to proclaim Purim a Yom Tov, complete with proscription of m’lacha?
Also, in many places we find an equivalence between Purim and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which is referred to in the Torah as Yom ha-Kippurim—a phrase that can be interpreted as “the day that is like Purim.” On Yom Kippur, the sacrificial service included drawing lots (to determine which goat was to be sacrificed for what purpose); similarly, Purim itself (which means “lots,” as in “lottery”) is so named to commemorate the lots drawn by Haman (to determine when to annihilate the Jews, G-d forbid). This equivalence is further underscored by the teaching (Midrash Shmuel 9:2; see also Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer 46; also Jerusalem Talmud, Ta’anis 2:2, Rosh Hashana 19b), that, in Messianic times, all the holidays will be nullified except Purim and Yom Kippur. Now, Yom Kippur is more stringent in its prohibition of m’lacha than any other Yom Tov. How is this consistent with the fact that m’lacha is actually permitted on Purim?
The answer is that, while it is true that Purim brings a higher Divine revelation than does Yom Tov, there is nevertheless a certain respect in which the sanctity of Yom Tov is superior to that of Purim.
This will be understood by first explaining why, in times of exile, most miracles and Divine wonders are “hidden” within the natural order of things (as was the case with the Purim story), whereas in the times of the Temple, openly supernatural miracles were the rule.
We mentioned above that G-d manifests Himself in the universe in ten principal ways, known as the ten s’firos. These ten spiritual levels are divisible into the three highest, the “intellectual” attributes of chochma, bina and da’as mentioned above, and the lower attributes, referred to as the “emotional” attributes, or middos. All are present (as explained in detail elsewhere) in each of the four broad categories of successively lower Divine manifestation, known as the realms of Atzilus, B’riah, Y’tzirah and Asiyah. While the Holy Temple stood, the middos of Atzilus were openly revealed, actually perceptible in the world. This unimaginable degree of G-dly revelation allowed for open miracles and wonders that transcended the limits of the natural order.
The Temple’s destruction and the consequent state of exile meant a departure of the middos of Atzilus from open manifestation within the world. Under those circumstances, G-d’s conduct of the universe could no longer be accomplished through these attributes, since they were no longer openly present. Instead, the world had to be directed from a higher vantage point, as it were, a spiritual plane so lofty that it was unaffected by the worldly circumstance of the exile. However, as a consequence of this, miracles could no longer be perceived, since these higher spiritual levels were themselves too high for open revelation. G-d’s influence could now only be concealed within the seemingly natural flow of events.
It thus develops that each state of affairs has an advantage in one respect. In one sense, the miracles and Divine Providence “enclothed” [hislavshus] within nature actually stem from a loftier spiritual plane than revealed miracles, and are therefore superior. In another sense, though, there is clearly an advantage to being able to directly perceive G-dliness, the hand of G-d, as it were, in our affairs, as is the case with miracles that are openly revealed [hisgalus].
This parallels the distinction between the sanctity of Yom Tov and Purim. Jewish mysticism teaches that on weekdays, the spiritual life-force of the universe comes by way of investiture within the realm of Asiyah, while on Yom Tov, it flows from the next relatively higher realm of G-dly manifestation, that of B’riah. In other words, on Yom Tov, when the entire universe experiences an elevation in spirituality, as discussed above, we directly experience (in the manner of hisgalus) G-dly “transmissions” from the elevated plane of B’riah. This is the advantage of Yom Tov over Purim, when no perceptible increase in holiness is felt. In keeping with this, we refrain from m’lacha on Yom Tov, for this symbolizes this spiritual elevation. Even so, the increased holiness manifest on Yom Tov is still a feature of seder ha-hishtalshelus. The spirituality of Purim, though, stems, as explained, from that sublime level of G-dliness elicited by the Jews’ unconditional, supra-rational self-sacrifice; on Purim, the holiness derives from the Or Ein Sof, G-d’s very Self, far above the seder ha-hishtalshelus. This is Purim’s advantage. Accordingly, m’lacha is permitted on Purim. And since this level cannot be directly perceived within creation, G-d’s conduct at that time was likewise hidden (in the manner of hislavshus) within the natural order.
(Actually, even on Purim, the concealment was not total. Although G-d did not openly reveal Himself, any reasonably perceptive person could recognize His hand in the amazing string of fortuitous “coincidences” that made up the Purim episode. This not-quite-totally-hidden revelation of the Or Ein Sof itself is bestowed upon each and every Jew on Purim.)
A similar idea may be found in the teaching of the ARI of blessed memory (see Torah Or, end of Sh’lach), to the effect that a talis possesses even greater holiness than the tzitzis attached to it. According to Jewish law, tzitzis are considered holy and may not be used for everyday purposes, whereas a talis has no such restriction. Yet the talis embodies a holiness of such a lofty degree that it cannot be contained within a physical item. This is what accounts for the fact that the physical talis is not itself holy and thus not restricted to mitzvah-related use. The physical tzitzis, by contrast, are endowed with sanctity, because it stems from a level that is able to be contained by a physical object.
Mordechai, in proposing that Purim be declared a Yom Tov, sought to endow Purim with both advantages. For Yom Kippur, which is indeed compared to Purim, has both qualities. Its holiness stems from a level that transcends seder ha-hishtalshelus; this is alluded to by the lots drawn on Yom Kippur. The symbolism of the lottery is that the items from which one of them will be selected are absolutely equivalent: there is no rational basis for distinguishing one from the other, and only by random lottery is a choice made. This is characteristic of Yom Kippur, when that aspect of G-dliness is manifest regarding which there is no difference at all between high, low, good, evil, etc. Our sins, even the most heinous (G-d forbid) can be utterly eradicated by sincere repentance on Yom Kippur, for to G-d Himself, even the worst transgressions are of no consequence and can be looked upon as actual merits if G-d so wills it. At the same time, Yom Kippur possesses openly revealed sanctity such that m’lacha is strictly forbidden.
However, Mordechai’s suggestion was not accepted by the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of Torah law. There were several reasons for this. One, Yom Kippur and its aspects are ordained by the Bible itself, and nothing, not even the seeming incompatibility of the two qualities we have been discussing, can detract from it. This cannot be said of Purim, which was Rabbinically ordained. Second, Yom Kippur is observed only after intense spiritual preparation during the preceding Ten Days of Repentance, and on the holiday itself we fast and otherwise live a totally otherworldly existence. We do not possess the ability to draw down the same level of holiness in a revealed manner on Purim. Finally, the events of Purim occurred during the period of exile, which, as noted above, by definition entails concealment of G-d’s providence in the manner of hislavshus, i.e., within the order of nature.
Still, one should not wonder how Mordechai could have thought it was at all possible to have “the best of both worlds.” For although, as explained above, it is not even meaningful to speak of prohibiting m’lacha on Purim, since its revelations stem from that level at which there are no distinctions—we nevertheless find that it is meaningful to prohibit m’lacha on Yom Kippur, which is spiritually comparable to Purim. This is because while the revelations of both days are too lofty for m’lacha, there is a difference between the nature of the “light” as it is in its heavenly source and as it is finally expressed within our worldly existence. The holiness of Yom Kippur must take the forms appropriate to each successively lower stage of spiritual manifestation before it finally ends up endowing the holiday of Yom Kippur as celebrated by us mortals. The light is just as lofty as we have said, but by the time it reaches us all the way down here, so to speak, it can be observed by refraining from m’lacha. After all, Yom Kippur is a Yom Tov, and in that respect, it is characterized by manifestations from the realm of B’riah. In the end, though, m’lacha was not prohibited on Purim, because then, we do not experience open revelations from B’riah, as already discussed.
Finally, in light of all the above, we can appreciate why the name of G-d is not mentioned in the entire Book of Esther. This does not indicate any lesser sanctity to the Megillah (as the Book of Esther is called); on the contrary, the Megillah of Esther is even holier than the other books of the Prophets, even though these are replete with Divine names—consistent with the teaching (Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah 1:5), that the [books of the other] Prophets will be nullified in the Future to Come, but Esther will not be nullified.
This paradox is explicated by the parable related in the Zohar (end of B’chukosai, 115b) concerning a bridegroom whose bride resided near a tannery (a vile-smelling place). Although he would not otherwise have gone there for worlds, he visited her there anyway out of love for his bride.
The Divine Presence (Sh’chinah) is identified with the sefira of malchus within the realm of Atzilus, and in times of exile, this G-dly attribute descended from on high and enclothed itself within the impure forces of this world, as it is taught (Megillah 29a, Bamidbar Rabba 7:10, Sifri, Masei 35:34), “[When the Jews] were exiled to Babylon, the Sh’chinah accompanied them.” In Jewish mysticism, the Sh’chinah is allegorically compared to G-d’s “Bride,” and the Divine attribute of chesed (kindness)—the highest of the “emotional attributes” of Atzilus—is, in this context, compared to her “Bridegroom.” As a general rule, G-dliness is transmitted to us through the various s’firos only as they are first “packaged” within the sefira of malchus. Thus, for Divine benevolence to reach us mortal Jews in exile, even the higher attribute of chesed—the Bridegroom—must descend to the level of the Sh’chinah, malchus, as it is found with us in the murky depths of this lowest world. This is what is alluded to by the Zohar’s parable: out of love for the Bride, which is here with us Jews in the vile “tannery” of worldly exile, even the Divine “Bridegroom” descends to this level. By definition, however, this condition of exile means that the holiness invested within is unable to shine forth openly, but is hidden away within the world.
The same can be said of the Megillah of Esther. Mystically, Esther herself represented malchus of Atzilus (as concealed within the highest level of B’riah). The Megillah contains no Divine names, not because it lacks the holiness they represent, but, on the contrary, because these names represent the various higher attributes—and, as just stated, these s’firos have descended into the very depths of exile to be with malchus, the Bride, and are thus utterly imperceptible. The apparent lack of holiness in the Megillah is thus far from indicative of Divine “disinterest,” so to speak; just the opposite, it is itself a potent expression of G-d’s love, His willingness to descend to wherever the Bride is.
This is why it is said that the Megillah contains even greater G-dly light than the books of the other Prophets, and why it will never be nullified. Although the form of the Megillah is that of a mere “story,” that is just its “Purim mask”: in reality, the Divine light hidden within that form is of an order far superior to any Divine name. A name is merely descriptive; it is not the actual thing. But on Purim, the Jews’ total devotion and self-sacrificing bitul brought down upon them a corresponding response from G-d’s actual Self, the Essence of the Blessed Ein Sof. Reading the Megillah, which we do twice every Purim (in the evening and the morning), is called k’riah in Hebrew, which also means “calling”—because by reading the Megillah, we call forth upon ourselves the revelation of this holy light.
Ó 2004. Please note that the foregoing is an informal synopsis by a private person, and that, therefore, errors are possible. Also, the Hebrew original contains much more than could possibly be presented here, and constitutes a much more direct transmission of the Alter Rebbe’s teachings. Furthermore, the synopsis may contain supplementary or explanatory material not in the original, and not marked as such in any way. Thus, for those with the ability to learn in the original, this synopsis should not be considered a substitute for the maamar. Good Shabbos, and Happy Purim!