1. A Pregnant Year. This Purim marks two hundred years since the Baal Shem Tov [first] spoke at his seudas Purim about the neshamah of the Alter Rebbe.1 After all, the Alter Rebbe’s father, R. Baruch, was “a Baal-Shem Yid.”

The account of that episode was handed down by R. Yissachar Ber Kobilniker,2 who was present at the time, to R. Moshe Vilenker.3 He passed it on to my great-uncle, R. Baruch Shalom,4 whom my great-grandfather, the Tzemach Tzedek, used to call “my baal-shemuah,” my source for oral traditions. He used to be consulted with regard to customary chassidic conduct and chassidic oral history.

In the course of his Torah teachings on that Purim, 5705 (1745), the Baal Shem Tov mentioned that throughout the Megillah the Jews are referred to as Yehudim, whereas in the Chumash, they are called bnei Yisrael, the Children of Israel. Moreover, the Hebrew word Yehudim is spelled in the Megillah six times with a double letter yud.5 As is well known, Jews are called Yehudim by virtue of their innate capacity for mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice. The name bnei Yisrael signifies that they are children of ישראל, whose letters are an acronym for the phrase, יש ששים רבוא אותיות לתורה – “The Torah comprises 600,000 letters,”6 which empower them to have mesirus nefesh. And the repetition of the letter yud7 in the name Yehudim alludes to the ten faculties of the G‑dly soul and the ten faculties of the natural soul.8

In the area of mesirus nefesh for Torah and avodah, every individual has his own specific role. Indeed, the Torah’s term for idolatry (avodah zarah – lit., “alien service”) is sometimes understood in Chassidus to include Divine service which is alien – inappropriate – to the spiritual personality of a particular individual.

The above-mentioned year, 5705 (1745), was “a pregnant year,”9 and on that Purim the Baal Shem Tov said, “At this time the world is pregnant.”

After Purim the Baal Shem Tov called for one of his close disciples, R. Yissachar Ber Kobilniker, together with a certain melamed, and told them that they should visit the hut of R. Baruch in Liozna. There they were to bless his wife, Rivkah, who was then in the fourth month of her pregnancy with the Alter Rebbe.

2. A Hidden Tzaddik. The Baal Shem Tov strove to conceal himself from the Alter Rebbe.10 In fact, when the Alter Rebbe’s parents visited him in 5504 (1744), he instructed them that they should not mention him to their son. Rebbitzin Rivkah responded that like Chanah of old she had undertaken a vow,11 and asked whether the Baal Shem Tov would be willing to annul it. Later, when the child was three years old, she wanted to bring him to Mezhibuzh to be blessed by the Baal Shem Tov who, as explained above, did not agree.12 [Many years later,] R. Yaakov Yosef of Tcharei was present at the time of the passing of the Baal Shem Tov, who [long ago] had told him that for two years he (the Baal Shem Tov) should remain unknown to the Alter Rebbe. He added that the Alter Rebbe should then be given guidance [in his avodas HaShem] for three years. The Baal Shem Tov explained at the time that the Alter Rebbe’s soul-connection ought to be with the Maggid.

As has been handed down, the Alter Rebbe had hard feelings about the fact that R. Yissachar Ber Kobilniker revealed nothing to him of the Baal Shem Tov.13

3. At the Red Light, Stop! On the first Purim after the Alter Rebbe’s wedding in Shklov, he delivered a non-literal interpretation of the teaching of the Sages14 that Chayav inish livesumei bePuria ad delo yada – “A man is obligated to become so intoxicated on Purim that he does not know [the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman!’ and ‘Blessed be Mordechai!’].” The Alter Rebbe said: “The ultimate fragrance15 of Purim is that one should know (yada) whatever is lo (‘Thou shalt not…!’).” That is, one should know and recognize that which is prohibited.

As to the positive obligations, everyone knows all their details, so that they will be fulfilled properly. What needs to be known and recognized is the prohibitions, so that one will be able to exercise extreme vigilance. This is called for because the intellect of the animal soul16 speaks up via the intellective soul17 with all kinds of unduly permissive dispensations.18 The intellect of the animal soul would not even try to tackle a sensible person, so it makes its proposals via the intellective soul. One’s avodah should therefore focus on seeing to it that no vestige should remain of the lo, of whatever is prohibited. This is the basis upon which the Alter Rebbe founded Chabad Chassidus.

4. You Must Not, You Need Not. Once upon a time chassidim used to sing a little Yiddish rhyme: “What you may not, you may not – and that which you may, you also may not.”

In fact that wording is a little mistaken, and the correct version is this: “What you may not, you may not, you may not, you may not – and that which you may, you don’t have to.”19

That’s the point in brief.

5. We should be Distinguishable. If one considers the subject deeply, as Chassidus demands, the guiding principle of all avodah is veniflinu – “We should be distinguishable”20 in every respect. This was Moshe Rabbeinu’s request, that the Divine Presence should not rest upon the nations of the world and that it should rest upon Israel. This means that he expressed his request in terms of the oros, the “lights” [of spiritual energy] that are bestowed downward, from Above. (Thus he asked that the Divine Presence “should not rest” or “should rest.”) Conversely, Chassidus teaches people, who are down here below and are working their way upward, how to become keilim – fit “vessels” or receptors for that downward flow21 of spiritual light. As seen by Chassidus in general and as seen by Chabad Chassidus in particular, the above principle of veniflinu – “We should be distinguishable” – should be evident in everyone’s avodah, whether they are Torah scholars22 or businessmen.They should be distinguishable ineverything – in the way they study, daven, sleep and eat.23

To express [the challenge of self-refinement] in terms of one’s middos, or character attributes, there are many levels. In ascending order, there are good middos, which means middos as required by the Torah; there are middos of Chassidus,24 which means middos that go beyond the letter of the law;25 and even in such middos there is the further requirement of veniflinu.

[Turning to address the temimim who were present, the Rebbe continued:] And with you in particular, the temimim, the requirement of veniflinu should be present in all areas of your lives – in your intellectual labors,26 in your middos, as well as in your conscious thoughts, your speech and your actions.27 What we have been saying here about veniflinu is no mere rhetorical figure of speech; it is an obligation and a mitzvah that applies to every individual. In you, the temimim, I would dearly like to see the principle of veniflinu expressed. And when a person exerts himself in that direction, the Master of the Universe28 will bless his endeavors with success.

6. As if it was Me. Jews are innately compassionate and bashful.29 All Jews have ahavas Yisrael, a love for their fellow Jew. Ahavas Yisrael is present in particular among chassidim, but the further demand of veniflinu must be evident in this mitzvah, too.

In the Megillah we find the same phrase applied to Mordechai and to Haman, even though they are such opposites. Concerning Mordechai [who knew about the decree against his brethren] it is written, “all that happened to him.”30 Concerning Haman [and his downfall] it is likewise written, “all that happened to him.”31 Mordechai, the tzaddik, lacked nothing materially, while spiritually, he was head of the Sanhedrin – and what could be greater than that? Materially, since he was privileged to sit at the king’s gate, we may assume that he never had to look around to borrow a couple of rubles…. Yet after he heard of the dire decree and “uttered a loud and bitter cry,”32 it is written that he relayed a message to Esther about “all that happened to him,” as if it had happened to him personally. And it was this perception of his, that the misfortune had “happened to him,” that brought about Haman’s “happened to him.”

If (G‑d forbid) someone encounters a misfortune, this should strike a fellow Jew as if it had happened to himself – not merely sharing his pain, but feeling the misfortune as if it had happened to himself personally. If this is so, how much more does this principle apply with regard to joy. When one sees a fellow Jew who is blessed with health, a livelihood, and nachas from his children, one ought to be just as happy as if he himself had been granted all these blessings.

[The Rebbe now turned to address the faculty of the Yeshivah:] The teachers33 and the mashpi’im of Tomchei Temimim should imbue all their pupils, from the youngest ones who are learning alef-beis to the oldest, with the practice of ahavas Yisrael at the heightened level of veniflinu, so that in this “we will be distinguishable.” This calls for guidance, study and practice, until habit becomes second nature.

We must teach those little Jewish hearts that the ideal of veniflinu should apply to everything, but especially to the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael. This is in your hands. Just picture the pleasure that you will generate by implanting this principle. Its effects will be felt for generations. Mashiach will kiss the foreheads of these children. If, on the other hand, you were not to attend to this, that would be “doing G‑d’s work dishonestly.”34 But let us not continue in that direction, and instead, let us speak positively.