A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai."

Talmud, Megillah 7b

"Everything that G‑d made," proclaims the Proverbist, "He made for His sake, also the wicked for the day of evil" (Proverbs 16:4). The "day of evil," explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi in his Tanya, is the transformation of the nocturnal darkness of evil into the daylight of good. Also the negative elements of existence were created by G‑d "for His sake": that darkness be transformed into light and night into day.

It would therefore follow that "cursed be Haman" (the rejection of evil) is indeed synonymous with "blessed be Mordechai" (the cultivation of good): evil, in essence, is but the masked potential for good, a potential all the greater for surface darkness one must penetrate to reveal it. As the commentaries on the above-quoted talmudic passage note, the gematria (numerical value) of the Hebrew letters that spell "cursed be Haman" — 502 — is the same as the numerical value of the letters that spell "blessed be Mordechai." For to curse Haman is to bless Mordechai — to vanquish evil is to actualize another source of good in G‑d's world.

And yet, the Talmud does not say that on Purim one should attain the knowledge that there is no difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai"; it says that a person should bring himself to the state where "he does not know the difference between" them — implying that there is a difference, only we desire not to know it. Why is such "ignorance" desirable? And why is it attained specifically through drinking on Purim?

Sparks In Bondage

Our sages tell us that "in the place where baalei teshuvah (penitents) stand, utter tzaddikim (perfectly righteous individuals) cannot stand." The tzaddik is one who lives his entire life in full conformity with G‑d's will, thereby realizing, to the utmost, the potential for good inherent in himself and his environment. But the baal teshuvah, who "transforms his willful transgressions into merits," achieves something far greater: he generates good out of elements that have no such realizable potential — at least not by the standards of Torah, G‑d's blueprint for creation.

How does the baal teshuvah "transforms willful transgressions into merits"? To understand this, we must first examine the dynamics of the relationship between man and his the resources of the world with which he interacts according to the Kabbalists and the Chassidic masters.

The divine commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah categorize the universe into two domains: the permissible and the forbidden. Beef is permissible, pork is forbidden; it is permissible to work on the first six days of the week, and forbidden to do so on Shabbat; the trait of compassion should be cultivated, and that of haughtiness eliminated. As Chassidic teaching explains, this is not only a list of do's and don'ts; it is also a catalog of realizable and unrealizable potentials. Every created entity possesses a "spark of divinity" that constitutes its essence and soul — a spark that embodies the divine desire that it be and its function within the divine purpose for creation. When a person utilizes something — be it a physical object or force, a trait or feeling, a cultural phenomenon, etc. — toward a good and G‑dly end, he brings to light the divine spark at its core, manifesting and realizing the purpose to which it was created. While no existence is devoid of such a spark — indeed, nothing can exist without the pinpoint of divinity that imbues it with being and purpose — not every spark can be developed through man's constructive use of the thing that embodies it. There are certain "impenetrable" elements — elements that the Torah has forbidden our involvement with, so that the sparks they contain are inaccessible to us.

Thus, for example, one who eats a piece of kosher meat and then uses the energy gained from it to perform a mitzvah (study Torah, pray, do an act of charity), thereby "elevates" the spark of divinity that is the essence of the meat, freeing it of its mundane incarnation and raising it to a state of fulfilled spirituality. However, if one would do the same with a piece of non-kosher meat — meat that G‑d has forbidden us to consume — no such elevation would take place. Even if he applied the energy to positive and G‑dly ends, this would not constitute a realization of the divine purpose in the meat's creation, since the consumption of the meat was an express violation of the divine will.

This is the deeper significance of the Hebrew terms asur and mutar employed by Torah law (Halachah) for the forbidden and the permissible. Asur, commonly translated "forbidden," literally means "bound"; thus it connotes those elements that the Torah has forbidden, whose sparks it has deemed bound and imprisoned in a shell of negativity and proscription. Mutar ("permitted"), which literally means "unbound," is the Halachic term for those sparks which the Torah has empowered us to extricate from their mundane embodiment and actively involve in our positive endeavors.

Obviously, the asur elements of creation also have a role in the realization of the divine purpose outlined by the Torah. But theirs is a "negative" role — they exist so that we should achieve a conquest of self by resisting them. There is no Torah-authorized way in which they can actively be involved in man's development of creation, no way in which they may themselves become part of the "Dwelling for G‑d" that man is charged to make of his world. It is of these elements that it is said, "Their breaking is their rectification" They exist to be rejected and defeated, and it is in their defeat and exclusion from our lives that their raison detre is realized.

The Man in the Desert

These are the rules that govern our existence — the rules by which the tzaddik lives. The tzaddik devotes his or her every thought and deed to the fulfillment of the divine will communicated to us in the Torah, so that all the elements that become part of his life — the food he eats, the clothes he wears, the ideas and experiences he garners from his surroundings — are elevated, their "sparks" divested of their mundanity and raised to their divine function. And he confines himself to the permissible elements of creation, never digressing from the boundaries that Torah sets for our involvement with and development of G‑d's world.

The baal teshuvah, however, is one who has digressed. One who has ventured beyond the realm of the permissible and has absorbed the unredeemable elements of creation into his life. His digression was a wholly negative thing (indeed, the Talmud warns that one who says, "I shall sin and then repent" is "not given the opportunity to repent"), but having occurred, holds a unique potential: the potential for teshuvah, "return."

Teshuvah is fed by the utter dejection experienced by one who wakes to the realization that he has destroyed all that is beautiful and sacred in his life; by the pain of one who has cut himself off from his source of life and well-being; by the alienation felt by one who finds himself without cause or reason to live. Teshuvah is man's amazing ability to translate these feeling of worthlessness, alienation and pain into the drive for rediscovery and renewal.

The baal teshuvah is a man languishing in a desert whose thirst, amplified thousand-fold by the barrenness and aridity of his surroundings, drives him to seek water with an intensity that could never have been called forth by the most proficient well-digger — a man whose very abandonment of his G‑d drives him to seek Him with a passion the most saintly tzaddik cannot know. A soul who, having stretched the cord that binds it to its source to excruciating tautness, rebounds with a force that far exceeds anything experienced by those who never left the divine orbit.

Thus the baal teshuvah accomplishes what the most perfect tzaddik cannot: he liberates those sparks of divinity imprisoned in the realm of the forbidden. In his soul, the very negativity of these elements, their very contrariness to the divine will, becomes a positive force, an intensifier of his bond with G‑d and his drive to do good.

Will and Willer

Why can the baal teshuvah "elevate" evil, despite the fact that it's sparks are "bound"? Why can't an ordinary person — or even a tzaddik — put an asur element to a positive use, while a returnee from sin can?

Interpreting the opening verses of Genesis, the Midrash states:

At the onset of the world's creation, G‑d beheld the deeds of the righteous and the deeds of the wicked... "And the world was chaos and void" (Genesis 1:2) — these are the deeds of the wicked. "And G‑d said: Let there be light" (ibid. verse 3) — these are the deeds of the righteous. But I still do not know which of them He desires... Then, when it says, And G‑d saw the light, that it is good" (verse 4), I know that He desires the deeds of the righteous, and does not desire the deeds of the wicked.

In other words, the only true definition of "good" or "evil" is that "good" is what G‑d desires and "evil" is what is contrary to His will. The fact that we instinctively sense certain deeds to be good and others to be evil — the fact that certain deeds are good and certain deeds are evil — is the result of G‑d having chosen to desire certain deeds from man and to not desire other deeds from man. We cannot, however, speak of good and evil "before" G‑d expressly chose the "deeds of the righteous." On this level, where there is nothing to distinguish right from wrong, we cannot presume to know what G‑d will desire.

Therein lies the difference between the tzaddik and the baal teshuvah.

The tzaddik relates to G‑d through his fulfillment of the divine will expressed in the Torah. Thus, his achievements are defined and regulated by the divine will. When he does what G‑d commanded to be done, he elevates those elements of creation touched by his deeds. But those elements with which the divine will forbids his involvement, are utterly closed to him.

The baal teshuvah, however, relates to G‑d Himself, the formulator and professor of this will. Thus, he accesses a divine potential that, by Torah's standards, is inaccessible. Because his relationship with G‑d is on a level that precedes and supersedes the divine will — a level on which one "still does not know which of them He desires" — there is no "bondage," nothing to inhibit the actualization of the divine potential in any of G‑d's creations. So when the baal teshuvah sublimates his negative deeds and experiences to fuel his yearning and passion for good, he brings to light the sparks of G‑dliness they hold.

To Be and To Be Not

What enables the baal teshuvah to connect to G‑d in such a way? The tzaddik's ability to relate to G‑d through the fulfillment of His will was granted to each and every one of us when G‑d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. But what empowers the baal teshuvah to reach the "place where utter tzaddikim cannot stand" and touch the "pre-will" essence of G‑d?

The thrust of the baal teshuvah's life is the very opposite of the tzaddik's. The tzaddik is good, and the gist of everything he does is to amplify that goodness. The baal teshuvah had departed from the path of good, and the gist of everything he does is to deconstruct and transform what he was. In a word, the tzaddik is occupied with the development of self, and the baal teshuvah, with the negation of self.

Thus the tzaddik's virtue is also what limits him. True, his development of self is a wholly positive and G‑dly endeavor — he is developing the self that G‑d wants him to develop, and by developing this self he becomes one with the will of G‑d. But a sense of self is the greatest handicap to relating to the essence of G‑d, which tolerates no camouflaging or equivocation of the truth that "there is none else beside Him" (Deuteronomy 4:35).

The baal teshuvah, on the other hand, is one whose every thought and endeavor is driven by the recognition that he must depart from what he is in order to come close to G‑d. This perpetual abnegation of self ("bittul", in the terminology of Chassidism) allows him to relate to G‑d as G‑d is, on a level that transcends G‑d's specific projection of Himself formulated in His Torah.

Indeed, the power of teshuvah is not limited to one who actually sinned (though this is the classical example of how it is achieved). A tzaddik, too, can be a baal teshuvah, if he achieves the state of utter bittul and self-abnegation that derives from the experience of feeling alienated and distant from G‑d and being driven to return. In the history of an individual and of a people there are such moments, from which he, she or they "rebound" with the transformative power of Teshuvah. Our Sages tell us that Purim — when the face of G‑d was "concealed" and every Jewish man, woman and child on the face of the earth felt abandoned by their Father in Heaven, yet clung to Him with complete and absolute loyalty — was such a moment.

Purim

So on Purim, a person is obligated to drink until he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai."

By the standards of Torah law, there is a difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai." Both are willed by G‑d, both contribute to the realization of the divine plan. Both the development of good and the rejection of evil fulfill the purpose of the "divine spark" within the developed or rejected element. But with a significant difference. A good deed elevates its object, divesting it of its mundanity and reuniting its spark with its supernal source. The rejection of evil, however, effects a "passive" actualization of a thing's divine potential, which remains "tied down" by in its negative moorings.

On Purim, however, we are empowered to transform the most negative concealments into a force for good, to make coursing Haman as positive and constructive an endeavor as blessing Mordechai.

But the synonymy of "cursed be Haman" with "blessed be Mordechai" is not something one can come to "know". On the contrary, it is attained solely through "not knowing", through the abnegation of the rational self. For it is only through the utter nullification of self that one can relate to the "possessor of the will," to the divine essence before whom "also darkness does not darken... and night shines like day" (Psalms 139:12).

On Purim, a person is obligated to drink until he does not know. Until the abnegation of his reasoning self raises him to a state of utter non-differentiation between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai."

Based on an address by the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Likkutei Sichot vol. VII pp. 20-24); adapted by Yanki Tauber

Follow-Up Discussion of the Above Essay

Question:

Something in your essay Knowledge and Naught stopped me cold. I quote:

The only true definition of "good" or "evil" is that "good" is what G‑d desired and "evil" is what is contrary to His will. The fact that we instinctively sense certain deeds to be good and others to be evil—the fact that certain deeds are good and certain deeds are evil—is the result of G‑d having chosen to desire certain deeds from man and to not desire other deeds from man. We cannot, however, speak of good and evil "before" G‑d expressly chose the "deeds of the righteous." On this level, where there is nothing to distinguish right from wrong, we cannot presume to know what G‑d will desire.

What you seem to be implying (though you stop short of actually saying so) is that G‑d could just as well have desired that we murder young children or have forbidden us to give charity. Had this been the case, we would be living in a world in which infanticide is a "good" deed and giving a piece of bread to a starving man is an "evil" deed. Furthermore, our very perception of good and evil would likewise be reversed.

Though I understand the logic of this, I find it a horrible thought. Is this really what the Rebbe is saying?

Answer:

No, it is not, although that's what a casual reading of the Midrash might imply. The paragraph you quote is simply a restatement of the Midrash (Midrash Rabbah, Breishit 2:7) quoted in the paragraph before:

At the onset of the world's creation, G‑d beheld the deeds of the righteous and the deeds of the wicked... Still, I do not know which of them He desires ... Then, when it says, "And G‑d saw the light, that it is good," I know that He desires the deeds of the righteous, and does not desire the deeds of the wicked.

Is the Midrash saying that G‑d could conceivably have desired the deeds of the wicked? A careful reading shows that it says only that until G‑d expressly tells us what He has chosen we have no way of knowing. Logically, there is no reason for one deed to be good and another evil. Many a secular moralist has attempted to explain "good" and "evil" in terms of what is beneficial or detrimental to our continued existence; but why is our continued existence "good" and the cessation of our existence "evil"? Certainly we want to exist, but does this mean that it is a good thing to want? And is there any objectively compelling reason for us to have been created with such a desire?

So if we were to attempt to read the divine mind "before" (a more correct term would be "beyond", since time, too, is part of what G‑d created) His explicit choosing of the "deeds of the righteous" over the "deeds of the wicked," we would indeed have no way of knowing which He will choose. The fact that you (and all of us) find the prospect of G‑d choosing the other way around "horrible," is a moot point: had G‑d so chosen, we would be just as outraged at the suggestion that the moral reality might have been such as it is today.

But could it have been the other way? No. The fact that G‑d indeed chose the "deeds of the righteous" means that this is the only way it could have been. The sentence you just read represents one of the most revolutionary and fascinating principles in the Rebbe's philosophy, and I would be hard-pressed to properly address it in the space allowed me in the context of this reply. Last year (1995), I filled two issues of the Week In Review with one attempt (On The Essence of Choice) which fell far short of doing it justice, space being the least of its limitations.

Briefly stated, the principle revolves around the question, "What is choice?" Is it the sifting through the various pros and cons, advantages and disadvantages, of two (or more) options? Is it the completely arbitrary selection of a thing, regardless of all reasons for and to the contrary? Or is it the ultimate expression of who and what one is, a desire that is nothing less than an assertion of the chooser's quintessential self?

Choice, says the Rebbe, is all three of the above, and can be exercised on any, or all, of these levels; indeed, these various definitions of choice are but successively deeper dimensions of the same phenomenon. The Rebbe applies this three-fold definition to his analyses of the dynamics of choice, both on the human level (the motivations that drive our moral choices, the deeper significance of transgression and teshuvah, the nature of the "freedom of choice" granted to man) and as applied to G‑d (the nature of good and evil, G‑d's "caring" about the deeds of man, Israel as G‑d's "chosen people," et al).

We are accustomed to thinking of a "choice" as the selection of one of several possibilities. But this is only so regarding the outer two layers of choice (reason-motivated choice and arbitrary, motiveless choice). On the third, deepest level — the level on which choice is the election of the thing or course that is consistent with the chooser's quintessential self — there cannot be more than one possibility, any more than there can be more than one quintessence to a self. The fact that there is only one possibility does not make this any less "free" a choice — on the contrary, a truly free choice is when the chooser's deepest self asserts itself, free of all compulsions of circumstance, behavior patterns and reasoned benefit.

Ultimately, then, G‑d's desire for the "deeds of the righteous" is nothing less than the singular — and only possible — expression of the divine essence. But this is not necessarily the level on which we relate to the divine will. Generally, we relate to the Torah as a series of divine commandments that spell out what is most beneficial for a spiritually fulfilling life. This it of course is; but this is but the most external dimension of the divine will. On a deeper level, we understand that G‑d cannot be said to be "motivated" by what is beneficial, but that the very reverse is true: the "deeds of the righteous" are beneficial to life because they were willed by G‑d. This is the level of divine choice that the Midrash speaks of when it says, "I do not know which of them He desires": on this level, there is no reason for G‑d to desire the "deeds of the righteous" over the "deeds of the wicked."

But G‑d's choice of the deeds and practices He deemed "good" runs even deeper than that. It is a choice in the ultimate sense of the word — an assertion of the supernal chooser's quintessential self. So while we have no way of predicting what G‑d will choose — as we have no way of knowing the essence of G‑d — once we are told what He chose, we know that this is the only way it could have been.

How does all this apply to the baal teshuvah's ability to transform "willful transgressions into merits"? What the Rebbe is saying in the talk we adapted for the essay Knowledge and Naught is that the baal teshuvah reaches beyond the conventional relationship with G‑d (i.e. our implementation of His expressed will of what is good and what is evil) to relate to Him on the level on which "I do not know which of them He desires." On this level, nothing is intrinsically negative — evil is evil only because of G‑d's rejection of it. So there are no barriers to prevent the positive application of past misdeeds and experiences: the sparks of G‑dliness they contain are not imprisoned (asur) by the mantle of negativity that cloaks them on the more external, "post-will" dimension of our relationship with G‑d. The baal teshuvah can therefore sublimate his past transgressions by exploiting them to fuel his yearning and passion for good.

This is not to say that on this level there is no difference between good and evil. G‑d's choice of good and His rejection of evil is consistent on all levels of divine reality — the baal teshuvah certainly cannot go ahead and commit a transgression, G‑d forbid, because of his deeper relationship with G‑d. We are speaking only of the ability to elevate past transgressions through positive and acts and feelings. The baal teshuvah has the unique power to access these otherwise inaccessible "sparks" because he is relating to G‑d on a level that transcends the reasoned formulation of the divine choice. (See footnote #28 in the edited transcript of the Rebbe's talk, Likkutei Sichot vol. VII pg. 23)

Again, I refer you to the aforementioned essay for a lengthier, though by no means comprehensive, treatment of this fascinating topic.

YT