Chapter I

וקבל היהודים את אשר החלו לעשות

"And the Jews took upon themselves that which they had begun [heicheilu] to do."1

Ravah explains2 the verse to mean that "they fulfilled that which they had accepted upon themselves when the Torah was given." The [Alter] Rebbe o.b.m. says in the name of the Baal Shem Tov o.b.m., that the Jews took upon themselves to serve G‑d with total self-sacrifice and acceptance of the Divine Yoke. This rectified that which they had made mundane [the Hebrew word heicheilu may be translated as deriving from the word chol or mundane] through their worldliness, which stemmed from an illness of the spirit.3

Heicheilu may be translated in several ways: One is "mundane," the verse reading either "they became mundane," or "which they made mundane."

An alternate translation of heicheilu comes from the word cholle, or illness. Jews at the time of Mordechai became spiritually ill, as they were suffering from the malady of "Let us be like all the other nations."4 The result was that they became mundane, with gross corporeal tendencies and desires. [While in such a state], the whole essence of a person covets physical wealth, eating and drinking well, wearing beautiful clothing, spending one's time enjoying all manner of physical pleasure, and indulging in whatever the heart desires, with utter disregard of Torah prohibitions. The person is so sick and so base that he oversteps the bounds of basic human decency and throws off all restraints. He loses all sense of shame, and acts like an animal5 who performs all its bodily functions in public without shame.

Those who lose themselves in pleasure sink even lower than the most depraved beasts. We observe that even beasts of prey appear glum and even somewhat depressed after they fulfill their bodily functions and desires. Philosophers say that upon exercising their base instincts, animals are aware of a somewhat more refined "feeling" that makes them feel "guilty" about having such base natural desires. But coarse people not only do not know shame,6 but [as the verse says]7 "the wicked boasts of his heart's desire." They are boastful of their pleasures, and demean Torah and mitzvos. The pleasure seeker desecrates all that is holy. By doing so he makes mundane the mitzvos of Shabbos, family purity, tefillin, etc. This then is the meaning of the Baal Shem Tov's explanation of the word heicheilu [that they made performance of mitzvos mundane through their base behavior].

Jews at that time, like some present-day Jews, were ill with wanting to be "like all the other nations." They became so coarsened that they debased Shabbos, family purity, etc. G‑d then fulfilled His promise to the Jewish people8 that should they act in such a faithless fashion, He would set upon them an individual who would [through his harsh decrees] bring them to teshuvah. " The Jews accepted [Torah and mitzvos]" with total self-sacrifice9 and loud calls of repentance when Haman received permission from Achashveirosh to destroy them all.10 The Jewish people realized that this was G‑d's way of getting them to repent, and they immediately did teshuvah, regretting their past misdeeds and resolving to conduct their lives in accordance with Torah and mitzvos.

The Jews' acceptance of the Divine Yoke and the teshuvah with which they rectified their past wrongs brought about a great salvation, so that "the opposite came about"11 and Haman and all Jew-haters were completely destroyed.

In summary: The Baal Shem Tov's commentary on the verse: "The Jews accepted..." teaches that the acceptance of the Divine Yoke by Torah and mitzvos observers healed the Jewish people of their sick desire to "be like all the other nations," as well as from their coarseness. This spiritual ailment, with its concomitant wallowing in physical pleasures, makes a person even coarser than beasts, and desecrates the holiness of Torah and mitzvos. The G‑dly admonishment brought about through a Haman leads Jews to teshuvah and true salvation.

Chapter II

[As important as acceptance of the Divine Yoke is,] Kabbalas ol is only a prelude to teshuvah and good deeds. The verse states:12 "I have separated you from all nations.'' The talents, emotional attributes and basic nature of the Jews are different from that of other nations. Acceptance of the Divine Yoke helps a Jew plumb the depths of his character and reveal the profundity of his innate understanding, good emotional attributes and character traits. This whole manner of service is known by the name "well,"13 while the incisive comprehension, emotional attributes and good character traits which this service revals are known as "living waters."14

A better understanding will be gained by more fully understanding the function of a physical well.15 A well's purpose is to provide water from deep in the ground. The earth obstructs the flow of water, and must be dug out before the fountainhead can be revealed.

The wellspring is G‑d's creation and not man's; man merely has to remove the obstacles that hinder the water's progress to the surface. When a wellspring is concealed it may be considered nonexistent, for though water continues to flow underground, man derives no benefit from it. It is therefore necessary to dig away the earth and rock that conceal the water. Once the well is revealed, it serves its purpose.

The nature of a well's function is thus to expose and draw up the water that flows underground. The fountainhead itself is lower than the place where the water is gathered.

The spiritual aspects of a "well" will be understood in a similar vein. Man possesses both a G‑dly and an animal-like soul. The G‑dly soul is a "well of living waters" as the [Alter] Rebbe says:16 "The second soul of the Jew is truly a part of G‑d above." But this "well of living waters" is concealed by "earth" and other matter. Man's service involves peeling away the layers of coarseness with which the animal soul conceals the G‑dly soul and its powers.

We observe that the soul's life-force which descends into the body to vivify it is but an emanation of the soul's essence. The natural soul is the vehicle by which the body is enlivened. [An intermediary level is necessary, because] the soul's illumination is [wholly] spiritual, similar to its source. Animation of the body involves providing physical life. In order for it to be able to do so, the soul's spiritual emanation must be garbed in the natural soul. Inevitably, this causes the soul's powers to become materialized [in comparison to their former selves].

The same is true of the emanation of the soul that provides life to the body as a whole. The soul itself has an intrinsic desire to be one with G‑d. When the soul's emanation enclothes itself in the animal soul, however, this desire is not manifest, since the animal soul conceals it.

Yet the concealment is not necessarily complete. A person involved in spiritual service will sense a higher feeling [which emanates from the G‑dly soul. He gets this feeling by penetrating through his spiritual service some of the animal soul's concealment].

A person who does not involve himself in spiritual service will not be aware of these higher spiritual feelings.

In summary: The Jewish people have inherently superior intellect, more refined emotions, and better character traits than the other nations. However, it is concealed in the depths of their souls, as wellsprings of water are concealed in the earth. Acceptance of the Divine Yoke is a prelude to Torah and good deeds. Most important is the revelation of the G‑dly soul through the spiritual service of a "well" which involves peeling away the layers of concealment brought about by the animal soul.

Chapter III

The spiritual service of a "well" thus involves the removal of the veils with which the animal soul conceals the G‑dly soul, muffling its intellect and emotions. The corporeality of the animal soul draws a person to physical things and makes it difficult to comprehend spiritual matters. Thus, the service of a "well" involves the revelation of the soul's "wellspring of living waters," resulting in a greater comprehension of G‑dliness and an attraction to G‑d with love and awe. The result of all this is that one performs mitzvos with an inner vitality.

The first step in the spiritual service of "well digging" is to "forget one's nation and father's home,"17 i.e., to abandon all those things in which one has become immersed, for they are reflections of coarse materialism. We observe that people often possess faults of which they are aware, but either because the fault is a natural one or they have become used to it, they do not feel it to be a matter of concern.

Generally, people fail to recognize their own inadequacies. The first step in removing one's coarse materiality is the acceptance of the Divine Yoke, with its attendant resolve to refrain from evil, study Torah and do good18 to a greater degree than one is accustomed to. One should also give more tzedakah than one is naturally inclined to give.

The above-mentioned service removes the general coarseness of the animal soul and reveals the comprehensive illumination of the G‑dly soul. It results in the experience of a G‑dly feeling as a person is lovingly drawn to G‑dliness.

There are three kinds of "well digging" the well of good emotional attributes, the well of comprehension, and the well of mesirus nefesh. Yitzchok, who symbolizes strength and Kabbalas ol,19 dug these three wells, for the power of Kabbalas ol is such that it provides the ability to dig all three.

The verse states:20 "G‑d made one opposite the other." The well of good emotional attributes is opposite man's natural emotional attributes, which coarsen the good character traits inculcated by the Torah. This is the well of Eisek21 [dispute] worldly "wisdom" that disputes a person's emotions as they respond to the Torah.

The well of Torah comprehension has secular erudition as its opposite. This is the well of Sitnah22 [which has the same etymological root as "Satan"], for the well of heresy opposes true belief and Torah sanctity. Atheists and heretics abhor the G‑d-fearing Jew, and with the greatest chutzpah desecrate the sanctity of those mitzvos which involve actual deeds, profaning the Divine name with impudence.

However, the well of mesirus nefesh has no opposition, and is therefore called Rechovos, "broad spaces," as it is written:23 "For now G‑d has given us broad spaces." Mesirus nefesh for G‑dliness will bring about salvation. This is meant by the verse: "The Jews took upon themselves that which they had begun to do." Jews accepted the Divine Yoke upon themselves with mesirus nefesh in order to rectify the coarsening of [heicheilu] Shabbos, keeping kosher, family purity, etc., and to heal themselves of the desire to be "like all the other nations." Jews shook off their personal baseness and returned to a life of Torah and mitzvos.

By acting in a similar manner during this last exile, we shall merit to speedily greet our righteous Moshiach.

In summary: A firm resolve to accept the Divine Yoke enables a person to remove the baseness of his animal soul and escape drowning in personal pleasures. It also enables one to "dig up" the three wells of good character traits, Torah, and mesirus nefesh. The wells of good character traits and Torah are opposed by Eisek ("worldly wisdom") and Sitnah (atheists and heretics). Mesirus nefesh, however, has no opposition, and is accordingly called Rechovos. Now, when G‑d is bringing His "punishment of admonition" upon the Jewish people, those who rectify their mundane behavior will merit to speedily greet our righteous Moshiach.