Signs of Distinction

The Megillah describes the outcome of the Purim story with one brief phrase:1 “And the Jews experienced light and joy, gladness and honor.” Our Sages2 associate each of these terms with a mitzvah: ‘Light’ refers to Torah study, ‘joy’ to celebration of the festivals, ‘gladness’ to circumcision, and ‘honor’ to tefillin.

What is the connection of these mitzvos to the Purim miracle? All four serve as signs of the Jews’ ties to G‑d.3 Haman had decreed that these mitzvos not be observed because he could not bear the Jews’ proud display of their connection with G‑d. And so, with the Purim miracle and the effacement of Haman and his decrees, “the Jews experienced light and joy, gladness and honor,” i.e., they were again able to observe these mitzvos without obstruction.

Obviously, when a sign is used to distinguish one entity from another, it must be unique to the chosen entity. Similarly, the signs which distinguish Jews from other nations should be associated exclusively with the Jews. Yet we find that the four mitzvos which serve to identify the Jewish people have parallels (albeit in a different mode of expression) among the nations.

With regard to the study of Torah, non-Jews also recognize the awesomeness of its wisdom, as reflected in the verse:4 “It is your wisdom and your understanding before the eyes of all the nations.”

Festivals also exist among non-Jews. And non-Jews often practice circumcision for health reasons. Even tefillin is not totally unique to the Jews. Our Sages relate5 that by wearing tefillin, the Jews let “all the nations of the world see that G‑d’s Name is called upon [them].”6 Nevertheless, just as the Jews wear tefillin as a sign that they are G‑d’s people, so too other peoples wear emblems or symbols to distinguish themselves.

Thus it is difficult to understand: Since G‑d wanted signs to mark the Jews as unique, why didn’t He choose things with which non-Jews have no connection? Why did He choose identifying marks for which parallels exist among the gentiles?

When Distinctions are Necessary

These questions can be resolved as follows: It is necessary to make a distinction between two entities only when they resemble each other in some manner. If there is no point of congruence, there is no need for a sign.

Thus the signs that “separate between Israel and the nations”7 are not intended to separate the souls of the Jewish people from the souls of the gentiles. With regard to this, there is no need for a sign; the distinction is apparent, as explained in Tanya.8

When are these signs necessary? To distinguish a Jew’s body from that of a non-Jew. There are no apparent differences between them. For this reason, it is necessary to have signs indicating that a Jewish body is entirely different from that of a non-Jew. A Jewish body is holy.9

Since these signs are intended to draw attention to the holiness of a Jewish body, they must have parallels among the gentile nations, yet be practiced by Jews in an entirely unique manner. This demonstrates that even with regard to the physical activities in which a resemblance exists both a Jew and a non-Jew eat, sleep, and do business, for example the Jew acts in a unique way. Even his material activities are conducted in a holy manner, reflecting the directive:10 “Know Him in all your ways.”

For a Jew, holiness is not an acquired trait, or something which augments his nature; it is his essence. Accordingly, every aspect of a Jew’s conduct even those physical activities in which he appears similar to a non-Jew must be carried out in a holy fashion.

One Torah, and Not Two

When our Sages identify Torah study with light, they use the feminine term orah. This invites a question: Generally, the Torah is associated with the masculine term for light, or. Why is the feminine form used here?

The Alter Rebbe explains11 that the word orah refers to the Oral Law, Torah Shebaal Peh. The Oral Law “receives” from the Written Law, and accordingly the feminine form is appropriate.

The difference between the Oral Law and the Written Law can be explained as follows: The Written Law is above our comprehension.12 As such, we accept it with faith rather than via an intellectual approach. Everyone accepts that the Written Law was given to Moshe on Mount Sinai.

The Oral Law, by contrast, employs mortal reasoning to explain concepts that the Written Law states in seminal form. Moreover, through comparisons and analysis of the sources, the Oral Law discloses commandments which are not explicitly mentioned in the Written Law. Through the various principles of exegesis, many laws can be derived from a single point in the Written Law.

Thus the Oral Law is given over to our understanding. And yet a Jew also approaches the Oral Law with faith; he does not decide a law merely on the basis of his own intellect. Even when he has firm support for his conclusion, if there is the slightest contradiction in the works of the Rishonim or Achronim, whose decisions were universally accepted among the Jewish people, he follows the approach presented by the Sages:13 “If this is the halachah, we will accept it, (although) with regard to its rationale, there is [the possibility of] refutation.”

One could debate the validity of this approach. When it comes to the Written Law a domain not subject to man’s intellect no one would object to such an attitude. But when it comes to the Oral Law, which involves an intellectual approach, one might object. Seemingly the Halachic authorities which delivered a ruling in previous generations based their decisions on their intellectual conception of the matter. If a person has a different conception of the matter, and it appears to him that he can refute the earlier arguments, why should he follow the old rulings?

The answer is that even with regard to the Oral Law, a Jew’s fundamental approach is one of faith and fear of heaven, as our Sages comment:14 “Whenever a person’s fear of sin comes before his wisdom, his wisdom will endure.” With regard to the Oral Law, a person must use his wisdom, for that is the key to this realm of Torah. But for his wisdom to be “maintained,” his fear of sin must be given precedence; it should serve as the basis for his wisdom.

This was the difference between the Tzaddukim and the Perushim15 in the era of the Second Beis HaMikdash. With regard to the Written Law, everyone agreed that it had to be accepted whether one understood it or not, for it was given to Moshe on Mount Sinai. The differences arose over the Oral Law. The Tzaddukim argued that since the Oral Law is given over to mortal intellect, they could interpret it as they saw fit, without considering the Oral Tradition received by the Sages.

The Perushim, by contrast, maintained that just as G‑d gave Moshe the Written Law, He gave him the Oral Law.16 The only difference is that one was given verbally, and the other was written down. The Written Law is not enclothed in mortal reason, while the Oral Law has been so enclothed. But the rational structure of the Oral Law is merely a garment. It is the same Torah, given by the same G‑d, who transcends all rational limits. Therefore it too should be approached with faith.

For this reason, it is orah, the Oral Law, which distinguishes Jews from non-Jews.17 For the Jews are able to perceive holiness even within the Oral Law, which is enclothed in mortal intellect, and their approach is governed by faith and not reason.

Happiness With Depth

Similar concepts apply with regard to the second sign, festivals. Although non-Jews also have festivals, a Jewish festival is a totally different matter; it is permeated by holiness.

A festival is a time to gather together and celebrate, to eat choice foods, drink wine, and engage in other forms of material pleasure. But while involved in these activities, a Jew’s approach is spiritual. Among non-Jews, such activities lead to frivolity, while among Jews the approach is totally different.18 The Jews also celebrate and drink, but this does not lead to frivolity; it leads to increased fear of G‑d. Even on Purim, when there is a mitzvah to drink until “one can no longer distinguish between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai,’ ”19 the intent is that the drinking should add to one’s fear of G‑d and the holiness of one’s conduct. Even when a Jew has transcended the limits of knowledge, he appreciates albeit not intellectually that “ ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’ ”

Sources of Satisfaction

Similar concepts apply to “gladness,” which is identified with circumcision. Although there are other nations who perform circumcision, the Jewish approach is different. Our Sages associate circumcision with the verse:20 “I rejoice (שש) at Your word, like one who finds great spoil” a phrase uttered by King David, who was referring to the mitzvah of circumcision.

This indicates that:

a) Circumcision brings about a very high level of rejoicing, for the rejoicing associated with the word ששון (“gladness”) is higher than that associated with the word שמחה (“happiness”);21

b) The mitzvah of circumcision bears a resemblance to taking spoil from an enemy.

These concepts can be explained within the context of the Rambam s explanation22 that circumcision weakens a person’s desire for material things.

Our material world with its pleasures and cravings is referred to23 as “the world of kelipah.” This is a Jew’s greatest enemy. When a Jew weakens his desire for material things and, more significantly, when he takes the satisfaction derived from such things and expresses it in a holy fashion, it is as if he is taking spoil from an enemy.

This is reflected in the interpretation of the verse:24 “All the fat [should be offered] to G‑d.” Fat is an analogy for “the choice parts,” and more particularly, for our ability to feel satisfaction and pleasure. Rather than being stimulated by worldly things, this potential should put at the service of G‑dliness. This involves “plundering” the domain of worldly matters, as it were. Therefore it brings tremendous joy.

On this basis, we can understand the difference between the Jewish approach to circumcision and the approach prevalent in the world at large. In the world at large, circumcision is looked upon as a source of discomfort and pain. Moreover, the fact that, afterwards, it reduces one’s physical desires, is not considered desirable. For people at large consider physical pleasures to be their source of satisfaction, and any reduction of these pleasures is painful. Why then do they perform circumcision? For health reasons; they want to prevent even greater pain and discomfort.

For a Jew, by contrast, circumcision is a source of pleasure; he “rejoices.” Minimizing his attraction of material things brings him happiness. For a Jew’s fundamental nature does not derive pleasure from material things; his pleasure comes from the spiritual. Material entities are “his enemy,”25 and taking spoil from this enemy brings him great happiness.

A Jewish Symbol

This motif also applies with regard to tefillin. As mentioned, tefillin serve as a sign indicating that the person wearing them belongs to G‑d, as it were, as reflected by the verse: “And all the nations of the world will see that G‑d’s Name is called upon [them].” Although other nations and tribes also use symbols to distinguish themselves, the Jewish approach is unique.

To explain: Tefillin are made up of three elements: the passages from the Torah written on parchment, the actual boxes, and the straps. All these are made from animal hides. Also, tefillin are placed on the left arm and on the head with the intent that we subjugate our hearts and minds, making them a vessel for the tefillin.

On the surface, what sense does it make for a man to tie leather boxes containing parchment to his arm and head? Is it just because they contain passages from the Torah? Wouldn’t it be more effective for him to “write” these passages within his heart and mind as indeed, one is obligated to concentrate on the tefillin while wearing them? What does the fact that they are written on parchment contribute?

Were the mitzvah of tefillin given to young children, it would be possible to understand the matter, for a child is not intellectually mature, and a physical sign is more significant for him. But children are not obligated to wear tefillin. When does one become obligated? At Bar Mitzvah,26 when one becomes intellectually mature. Then one must take the hide the most superficial and coarse aspect of an animal and make black (a color considered the opposite of “attractive”27) boxes and straps to tie on one’s head and arms.

The resolution of the matter is as follows. Tefillin is G‑d’s command. He ordered that we take parchment on which is written,28 “Hear Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is One,” and subjugate our minds and hearts to it.

This represents the difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish symbol. Non-Jews wear symbols proudly because they appreciate the refinement, beauty, or other “positive” qualities associated with the symbol itself.

Jews wear tefillin proudly. They are happy to distinguish themselves with these black leather boxes, because they were written and are worn with self-sacrifice, proclaiming “Hear Israel, G‑d is our G‑d, G‑d is one.”

Stepping Beyond Knowledge

As mentioned above, these four elements: the Torah, festivals, circumcision, and tefillin, distinguish Jewish bodies from those of other peoples. This is why Haman opposed these mitzvos so forcefully. He was not bothered to the same degree by the Jews’ involvement in spiritual matters. But when it came to matters involving material concerns (as these four mitzvos do), Haman protested the Jews’ claim to uniqueness.29

The underlying reason for this is that intellect is one of man’s powers, but it is not a person’s essence. Therefore when a person’s approach to holiness is based on intellect, it will not encompass all of the dimensions of his personality and will not affect his physical tendencies, for they are far below intellect.

Divine service following the directive of “Know Him in all your ways,” by contrast, is based on the fact that a Jew’s holiness is an expression of the essence of his being. This is who he is. For this reason, it is reflected in every aspect of his conduct.

On this basis, we can also understand why Haman made his determination by casting lots. Casting lots refers to an approach above intellect, and ultimately, above all the limits of the spiritual cosmos (Seder HaHishtalshelus). Haman thought that the advantage the Jews possessed over the gentiles involved only the limits of the natural order and the Jews’ revealed powers. With regard to matters which transcended the limits of the natural order, however, they did not possess any advantage.

The miracle of Purim showed that even with regard to matters which transcend the natural order, the Jews possess an advantage. This concept is so central to the holiday’s theme that the holiday is named Purim, pointing to this dimension of transcendence.

This quality is also expressed in the Jews’ distinction from the gentiles with regard to material things. For this reason, the Purim miracle involved a process that encompassed the natural order of the world, the workings of the Persian royal court, reflecting how the matters which concern the lowest levels reflect the level which transcends all limitation. See note 9, which states that it is within the body that G‑d’s essential choice of the Jews is revealed.

Haman’s decree to forbid the four signs of holiness which distinguish Jews from non-Jews on a physical level led to his decree aimed at destroying the spiritual elements of Judaism, and ultimately to his decree to destroy the Jewish people itself. The chain of causality can be explained as follows: The fundamental nature of a Jew is holiness. Therefore, when an attempt is made to separate him from holiness at a basic level even though expressions of holiness remain permitted at certain times and places the very nature of a Jew is destroyed.

Therefore, when the Jews were finally free of Haman and his decrees, they established the festival of Purim,30 the uniqueness of which is expressed with a physical meal at which “a person is obligated to become intoxicated… until he does not know the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’ ”31

This implies that in the state of consciousness above knowledge, Haman i.e., all evil remains cursed, and Mordechai all good remains blessed. A Jew’s connection with G‑d is not an acquired factor, but rather the essence of his being. It is not a result of knowledge, but is rather an integral element of his character. Accordingly, even when he is in a state of “not knowing,” it is evident that “ ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai.’ ”

(Adapted from Sichos Purim, 5719)