Friday, February 22, 2013

Purim in Chassidic Thought: “Until He Doesn't Know”

Purim in Chassidic Thought:
“Until He Doesn't Know”

By Rav Itamar Eldar
Translated by David Strauss

            The Gemara cites the following statement in the name of Rava:

A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he no longer knows the difference between "cursed Haman" and "blessed Mordekhai." (Megilla 7b)

The meaning of this obligation is not entirely clear. It seems to demand nullification of the intellect to the point of losing the capacity to clearly distinguish between Haman being evil and Mordekhai being blessed. Jewish thought, and Chassidic thought in particular, attempted to reach a deeper understanding of this law – drinking wine to the point of drunkenness – which has become one of the central features of Purim.

            R. Chayyim Vital writes as follows in the name of his teacher, the Arizal:

That which our Rabbis, of blessed memory, have said, that a person is obligated to drink on Purim until he no longer knows the difference between "cursed Haman" and "blessed Mordekhai" – this means as follows: It is known that in every kelipa there is a spark of holiness that gives it life, and should it be removed, [the kelipa] will be left with no vitality and immediately it will totally disappear. Now on this great day, when there is this great illumination, we want the vitality of this illumination to reach this spark as well, but not that it should reach so far to illuminate the kelipa. For this reason a person must get drunk on this day, to the point that he does not know the difference between "cursed Haman" and "blessed Mordekhai." For he may err and give a blessing to that spark in the kelipa, and it too will be blessed, but its blessing will not have perfect intention, for if it would have, it would receive a great deal and the kelipa would also be blessed. [Alternate reading: Therefore he must say "blessed Haman," to draw light also to that spark, and therefore he must say it without intention, since he is drunk and has already lost his mind. For were it with intention, God forbid, it would also illuminate the kelipa.] (Peri Etz ChayyimSha'ar Rosh Chodesh, Chanuka U-Purim, ch. 6)

            The words of the Arizal are difficult to understand on two counts.

First, why must we avoid giving a blessing to the kelipa? By illuminating the kelipa, can we not bring it from darkness to light? Why must we be careful to give a blessing only to the spark contained within it, and thus perpetuate the state in which the spark remains chained within thekelipa?

Second, how is it that a blessing given in a state of drunkenness, "a blessing recited in error" – that is, without full intention – attaches only to the spark? How does diminished intention lead to a distinction in destination between the spark and the kelipa?

The key to these questions seems to lie in understanding the state of the kelipa and the Divine spark concealed within it. As R. Chayyim Vital puts it, "It is known that in every kelipa, there is a spark of holiness that gives it life." The kelipa, which symbolizes the evil found in the world, exists by virtue of the Divine spark that is concealed within it and gives it life. Without that Divine spark hidden within it, it could not exist. The ramifications of this point are important. The kabbalistic reference to the "Divine spark giving life to the kelipa" asserts that the very fact of evil's existence is its meaning, and that it is by the will and intention of God that it continues to exist.

What that meaning is we do not know, and the Arizal advises that we not preoccupy ourselves with the role of evil. Blessing results from readiness to contain and accept the existence of evil, and perhaps even to be blessed through it. The only thing clear to us about the existence of evil is that it exists by virtue of the Divine spark concealed within it.

            The Arizal seems to distinguish between the very existence of evil and the accompanying phenomenon. A blessing recited without intention, void of understanding, stemming from an "error," as it were, allows us to relate to the very existence of the evil and not its phenomena. A blessing stemming from knowledge and understanding is accompanied by a conscious or unconscious explanation of the reason for that blessing. That explanation relates to the blessed party and to the justification for the blessing, and so the blessing bestows abundance and legitimacy upon the one blessed. A blessing recited in error bestows abundance but no legitimacy, for it bestows its strength, but its explanation makes no appearance, for we are dealing with an error.

            Losing one's mind, according to the Arizal, restricts the power of a blessing and diminishes its light, but this is the only way in which evil can be blessed in its very existence – that is, in the Divine spark that is concealed within it – without receiving strength from the blessing for its negative manifestation.


            Lack of knowledge, as it is expressed in the words of the Arizal, involves a restriction and limitation of light, and in this manner, a blessing may be given to evil. R. Natan adopts an entirely different approach in the name of his teacher, R. Nachman of Breslov:

This is the aspect of "A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he no longer knows the difference between 'cursed Haman' and 'blessed Mordekhai" (Megilla 7b). For Purim is the primary [time] for subjugating the filth of the serpent, which is sadness, the aspect of "in sorrow shall you eat of it" (Bereishit 3:17), as stated above. At that time, we must raise the joy from the depths of the kelipot… until we merit by way of the joy to achieve the aspect of the nine palaces as stated above, through which we attain the infinite light … which is the aspect of the goal of knowledge that we are not to know, as stated above. Therefore, a person is obligated to drink, that is, to get drunk on Purim for the sake of the joy, as it is written: "Wine that gladdens the heart of man" (Tehilim 104:15). And he must increase the joy until he merits by way of the drunkenness and the joy of Purim to reach the aspect of the goal of knowledge that we are not to know, which is the aspect of "until he no longer knows, etc." For the primary hold of good and evil, which is the aspect of "blessed Mordekhai" and "cursed Haman," is from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the root of which stems from "nirgan mafrid aluf" ("a whisperer separates close friends;" Mishlei 16:18). That is, it separates the aspect of Keter, which is the aspect of alef, the aspect of wonder which orders and settles the minds, thereby preventing the minds from their pursuit. For the primary attainment of knowledge is precisely the aspect of the goal of knowing that we are not to know. For the aspect of not knowing is the primary goal of knowledge. For he who merits this, knowledge and lack of knowledge are contained together, they being the aspect of pursuit and hindrance, which are truly one at their root. Then evil is altogether nullified, for the primary hold of evil is the lack of knowledge and its concealment, which follows from the excessive light that causes the vessels to shatter. This is because they do not contain knowledge and lack of knowledge together (as will be further explained below with God's help). Therefore, on Purim we must get drunk to the point that we reach such joy until we merit the aspect of the aforementioned goal of knowledge, where pursuit and hindrance are combined, they being knowledge and lack of knowledge. The two are combined together in the aspect of the goal of knowledge that we are not to know, where all evil is entirely nullified, as explained above. This is the aspect of "until he no longer knows the difference between 'cursed Haman' and 'blessed Mordekhai.'" For there we cannot talk about good and evil, for there all is one, all is good, as mentioned above. (Likutei HalakhotHilkhot Nefilat Apayim 4:7)

            R. Natan identifies the obligation to be unable to differentiate between "cursed Haman" and "blessed Mordekhai" with one of the fundamental principles in the thought of R. Nachman of Breslov, the paradoxical assertion that the goal of knowledge is that we are not to know.

            Knowledge and lack of knowledge, argues R. Natan, are "pursuit" and "hindrance." These seem to be contradictory ideas; one engages in pursuit in order to attain something – be it money, knowledge, or any other goal – and a hindrance prevents such attainment. R. Nachman's novel idea was that pursuit and hindrance are one, and that essentially the pursuer is the one who hinders.

            In order to understand this concept, let us try to substitute love for knowledge, it too being a sought after goal. The hindrance in this case is the failure to realize love. According to R. Nachman’s statement that the goal of knowledge is that we are not to know, the goal of love is that we are not to love – in other words, that we not realize our love.

            There are two possible approaches that can explain the surprising assertion that the goal of love is the failure to realize it.

1.         Existentially – It may be argued that the object of love does not really exist. A person fashions a certain object, a certain person, or a certain goal in his mind or imagination, towards which he directs his love and his longings. According to this approach, we are not really interested in the attainment in and of itself, but in the process. The goal is not reaching love, but yearning for it. Accordingly, we can say that our goal is not knowledge, but rather the seeking of knowledge and the experience of its absence, which give rise to constant development and movement forward. Those who "reach" their goals face the danger of fixation and even putrefaction, unless a new goal that has not yet been reached is immediately established that will provide movement and longing.

2.         According to the approach of Kant – A fundamental distinction must be made between the world of phenomena and the world in itself. Man encounters the world of phenomena, but not the essence of the world. The phenomena may teach us about the essence, but they constitute an everlasting barrier between man and the thing itself, and likewise between man and himself. Any attempt to realize love will therefore miss the mark, and move it from the potential state of "essence" to the secondary state of "phenomenon." From that moment the phenomenon will become more and more distant from the essence.

This Kantian approach asserts that in every action, speech, and sometimes even thought, there is a dimunition of some abstract will or idea which in and of itself is infinite. As we speak about it, we put it into a pillory of definitions, words, and actions. In our every attempt to define an experience, to realize it, to express it, we miss the mark and diminish it. Realized love is more diminished than abstract and unrealized love. According to this approach, the ultimate objective of love lies in not realizing it, and the same is true regarding knowledge. For every bit of knowledge and every definition involves a dimunition of an infinite and abstract idea.

The first to commit this sin, as it were, was God Himself, for with the first words that appeared out of the eternal silence, the infinite light contracted into vessels and definitions. This is tzimtzum, contraction, which in the world of kabbala expresses the transition from the Ein to the Yesh, from the sefira of keter, which is the highest sefira –  the sefira of Ein, void of limits and vessels – to the sefira of Chokhma, the second sefira, which begins to create a world of limits, definitions and contractions.

R. Natan describes that moment of transition from Keter to Chokhma, from Ein to Yesh, as a transition of "nirgan mafrid aluf," "a whisperer separates close friends" (Mishlei 16:18). In other words, when the alef, which expresses perfect and unified Infinity, descends from Keter toChokhmaBina and Da'at, its unity falls away and multiplicity is fashioned.

The first creation – that of light – bears within it the multiplicity, separation, and distinction that immediately follow. From the moment that there is light, there is also darkness, and thus place is created for good and evil. The distinction between good and evil belongs to the world of knowledge – the tree of knowledge of good and evil. It is the result of the embodiment of the Infinite in the vessels of Yesh, which contain ChokhmaBina and Da'at.

The world of knowledge, according to this, is both the world of distinction between good and evil and also the world of the contraction from the Ein and the Infinite. Knowledge allows for distinction, but this distinction results from the sin of eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, from contraction of the Infinite which is void of distinctions and limits.

It would seem, according to this, that Kant was right when he asserted that from the world of knowledge in which we are found, the world of Yesh, we will never be able to encounter the Ein, the essence and the Infinite. As "possessors of knowledge," we can only relate to the world of phenomena that grew out of the Yesh.

R. Nachman, however, undermines the pessimistic assertion of Kant. Indeed, from the world of Yesh and its vessels, we will not be able to reach the Infinite and the essence itself. From the perspective of "good and evil," we will never be able to relate to anything but the world of phenomena. According to R. Nachman, however, the possibility exists, within the framework of this world, to climb up to the Ein and touch the place where there is no knowledge: "The goal of knowledge is that we are not to know." Concealed within the waiver of the world of knowledge, even for a moment, lies the possibility of crossing over the abyss between the Ein and the Yeshand touching the Infinite. By waiving definitions and being prepared to devote ourselves to the "hindrance," we can reach the primeval "pursuer," which is the goal of knowledge.

To a certain extent, R. Nachman agrees with Kant's assertion that the essence is hidden and the phenomenon is false, and that the sefirot of knowledge from the world of the Yesh diminish and limit the Keter coming from the world of the Ein. According to him, however, and in contrast to Kant, it is possible to waive knowledge and touch the Keter, to ignore the phenomenon and encounter the essence.

As we have seen, the transition from the Ein to the Yesh is characterized by the transition from a world that is entirely good to a world that distinguishes between good and evil. In this world, we possess knowledge, and this knowledge allows us to judge and categorize – this is good and this is evil. In the world of Ein, where there is no knowledge, there is also no distinction between good and evil.

Elsewhere, R. Natan writes as follows:

Therefore, one is obligated to drink on Purim until he no longer knows the difference between "cursed Haman" and "blessed Mordekhai." For there he is above knowledge, and there it is inappropriate to say, "cursed Haman," for there it is entirely good, above themiddot, above days of good and days of evil, as stated above. This is the aspect of the secret of the red heifer, which is the aspect of statute (chuka), above knowledge: it defiles the ritually pure and purifies the ritually impure. This secret will remain incomprehensible until the future when the hidden Torah will be revealed, as stated above. (Likutei Halakhot,Hilkhot Purim 4:5)

            The chuka, which is not given to understanding or definition, is the place where the boundaries between good and evil become blurred, where the ritually impure purifies and the ritually pure defiles. It is precisely in the absence of knowledge, argues R. Nachman, that we can touch the secret of the Infinite and eternity.


            Understanding the Ein as a place void of the distinction between good and evil is relevant not only to the primeval history of creation, but to the here and now. Thus writes R. Nachman in a different passage:

Know, that the root of the entire creation is glory. “For everything that the Holy One, blessed be He, created, He created only for His glory. As it is written: ‘Everyone that is called by My name, for I have created him for My glory’ (Yeshayahu 43:7)” (Yoma 38). Since everything was created for His glory, blessed be He, His glory is the root of all of creation. Even though He is entirely One, nevertheless, creation consists of parts, and each and every part of creation has a unique aspect of glory, which is its root, as stated above. This is the aspect of (Avot 5:1): "By ten utterances was the world created. Could not all have been created by one utterance? It is only for reward and punishment that it was created by ten utterances." And each and every utterance has a unique aspect of glory, which is its root, for glory is the root of everything, as stated above. This is the aspect of (Tehilim 29:9): "And in His Temple, everyone speaks of His glory," for every utterance clothes His glory, blessed be He, for through it the world was created, for "the whole world is full of His glory" (Yeshayahu6:3). Even sins and evil things, God forbid, which are void of His glory, blessed be He, having the aspect of "My glory I will not give to another" (Yeshayahu 42:8). For the glory has a limit, past which it will not spread. And even though the whole world is full of His glory, nevertheless, there is a limit when it reaches the aforementioned places, so that it will not go out there. This is the aspect of "My glory I will not give to another," as stated above. And there is a limit to each and every glory, so that it not spread to the external places, as stated above. But know, that all this notwithstanding, they too certainly receive vitality from Him, blessed be He; even filthy places and houses of idolatry must receive vitality from Him, blessed be He. But know, that they receive from the aspect of a closed utterance, which at the beginning is a closed utterance, which includes all the utterances, and all of them receive vitality from it. And the glory of a closed utterance is closed and hidden in ultimate concealment, and from there they receive vitality. For from the aspect of the revealed glory and utterances, it is impossible for them to receive vitality, having the aspect of "My glory I will not give to another," as stated above. Only from the closed utterance, which is hidden in ultimate concealment, from there they receive vitality. This matter cannot be understood, and one is forbidden to contemplate it at all. (Likutei Moharan Tinyana, 12)

            The creation of the world through the ten utterances is the transition from unity to multiplicity. It is also the place where good and evil came into being. "It is only for reward and punishment that it was created by ten utterances" –  multiplicity engenders good and evil, and they all arise in the world of Yesh.

            The utterance standing behind each and every thing does not only bring it into being, but rather dwells within it and maintains it. Thus, the Divine glory, namely the Divine utterance, dwells in all of creation. However, in the world of distinctions, of good and evil, of Yesh, there are limits that the Divine Shekhina and the Divine glory will never cross, having the aspect of "My glory I will not give to another."

            In the world of Yesh, distinctions are dichotomous. Good is good and evil is evil, and he who has sinned will not repent, having the aspect of "None that go to her return" (Mishlei 2:19). The law governing the Sabbath desecrator is stoning, and the law governing one who strikes his father or mother is death, and there is no repentance, for in the world of Yesh, the world of distinctions, a clear distinction must be made between holy and profane, between light and darkness, and between good and evil. Evil, however, also requires a "Divine utterance" in order to exist, as we saw at the beginning of this lecture, for everything that exists must receive its vitality from God.

            R. Nachman teaches us, surprisingly, that it is the "closed utterance" that comes from the Infinite, the Divine light devoid of distinctions that comes from the Ein and to which the capacity to draw distinctions coming from the world of Yesh has not adhered, that gives life to evil. It alone can dwell even in the midst of evil. This is the "closed light" that is void of knowledge and meaning, and as the Arizal said, all that can be said about it is that it gives life to evil. This is the light that we cannot bless with the blessing of knowledge, for it does not come from the world of knowledge, but from a higher place, devoid of knowledge.

            It is precisely this infinite light, teaches R. Nachman, that dwells in the evil, and therefore it is precisely the conjunction with that supreme light that allows us to redeem evil and that allows one who has fallen into that place to be redeemed and rescued.

He also exceedingly expanded upon the enormity of the virtue of repentance. Even when people fall very low, God forbid, and each person falls to the place where he falls, may God save us, nevertheless, it is forbidden to despair of him. For repentance is high above the Torah. Therefore, there is no despair in the world, for if a person merits, his sins will turn into something else entirely, as our Sages of blessed memory have said (Yoma 56b) that sins turn into merits. This matter contains the most concealed secrets. (Sichot Ha-Ran, 3)

            According to R. Nachman, repentance that comes from the sefira of Keter is higher than the Torah,[17] because the Torah comes from the world of the Yesh, from the world of ChokhmaBina and Da'at. The Torah is Chokhma and Bina, and it serves as the pillar of the world of Yesh. It is the source of all distinctions between good and evil, between pure and impure, between permitted and forbidden. It punishes sinners and bestows reward upon those who walk in the path of God. It is the Torah's light, which cannot dwell among evil and filth.

            This is not true about repentance that comes from the world of Ein, the world that is devoid of distinctions. It is light that is not afraid nor does it recoil from entering, blessing, and receiving a blessing even amidst evil. Therefore, it is the light that can redeem one who has fallen and sunk deep into that evil.

            The absence of knowledge is the ability not to recoil or fear the world of phenomena and to reflect upon the essence that is entirely light and good.

Know that one must judge every person favorably, and even in the case of a totally wicked man, one must search and find in him some small amount of good, in which he is not wicked. By finding in him a small amount of good and by judging him favorably, one truly elevates him toward merit, and can cause him to repent. This is the aspect of "For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be; and you shall look well at his place, but he will not be there" (Tehillim 37:10). That is, the verse warns one to judge everyone favorably. Even if you see that he is totally wicked, nevertheless you must search and try to find in him a small amount of good where there is no wickedness. This is, "For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be." For you must search in him for that small amount of good that is still in him, where there is no wickedness, for even though he is wicked, how can it be that there is no small amount of good in him, for how can it be that never in his life did he perform some mitzva or good deed. By finding in him some small amount of good where he is not wicked, and by judging him favorably, through that you truly elevate him from liability to merit, to the point that he will repent. This is, "For yet a little while, and the wicked shall not be." By finding in the wicked person a small amount of good, where there is no wickedness, through that "you shall look well at his place, but he will not be there." That is, when you look upon his place and level, he will not be there in his original place. For when we find in him a small amount of good, some good point, and judge him favorably, through that we truly remove him from liability to merit. (Likkutei Maharan Kama, 282)

            What is needed to fulfill the words of R. Nachman in this teaching is "loss of knowledge." For how can we judge a wicked person standing before us favorably when we look at him and see that from head to toe he is evil? The world of phenomena that is manifest before us is filled with evil. In the world of Yesh, it is very clear and simple how to catalogue this evil. R. Nachman demands of us that we disregard the world of phenomena, waive knowledge, waive judgment, waive understanding, waive distinctions, and reflect upon the Ein within us. Reflect upon the essence, and bless it: "Blessed Haman"!

            But the Torah cries out: "My glory I shall not give to another." How can one bless the cursed? How can one purify the impure? How can one illuminate darkness?

            Repentance quietly answers from the world of Ein: Indeed our holy Torah is right, for I am devoid of knowledge. It is true that I understand nothing of the world of distinctions. It is true that I am not made of the world of Yesh, but all these failings are what allow me to bless this wicked person, to be blessed by him, and to elevate him from his dark abyss to the Divine light that illuminates all of existence.

            Taking in the infinite light, which involves a blurring of boundaries, is what gives us the ability that Kant never considered assigning to man – the ability to disregard the world of phenomena and look at the essence.

Waiving knowledge is, indeed, a little scary, just as it is a little scary to put on a mask and lose our appearance. Who are we? we ask ourselves when we look in the mirror and see a Purim mask. From the moment that our faces are hidden, we can no longer provide a simple answer: It is I, Moshe, Yitzchak or Sara. For from the moment that we don a mask, we lose the world of phenomena, and in the words of R. Kook, who adopted the Kantian position regarding man's looking at himself, we have lost that which surrounds the "center of knowledge." There is no longer anything surrounding it. There is no face, no smile, no mustache or mouth. Only a mask with a stupid smile, void of knowledge, on our faces.

At this frightening moment, a moment without knowledge, a moment of drunkenness, we can do nothing but look inwards, into ourselves, into our essence, into the center of knowledge – to the Ein within us, which is only revealed when we remove all the garments. At this moment, there is no cursed and no blessed, no profane and no holy, no impure and no pure – there is only blessed silence, that allows us for a moment to look at the Ein, at repentance which is above the Torah.

The foundation of repentance that disregards the world of phenomena and seeks the blessing of the essence reveals itself not only when we get drunk on Purim to the point that we no longer know the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordekhai, but also on Purim's twin holiday – Yom Kippur (Yom Ki-Purim).

"With the consent of the Omnipresent One, and with the consent of the congregation, by the authority of the heavenly court and by the authority of the earthly court, we declare it lawful to pray with sinners." This is the way we begin our prayers, following Tefilla Zaka, on the eve of Yom Kippur. The foundation of the day of repentance lies in the nullification of the distinction between the righteous and the sinners, just as the foundation of Purim lies in the nullification of the distinction between cursed Haman and blessed Mordekhai. Repentance is based on a waiver of knowledge that makes distinctions, that sets clear boundaries between the righteous and the wicked. Therefore, as a first step, we are required to waive this knowledge.

On Yom Kippur, we do not get drunk, and this waiver is made in full consciousness, and therefore we require the consent of God and of the congregation sitting in the heavenly and earthly courts, in order to allow us to waive knowledge, to waive the distinction, to gather in every created being, from good and from evil, from the pure and the impure, from the holy and from the profane, into the bosom of the infinite unity that gives rise to the light of repentance.

All the festivals will cease to be observed, but the days of Purim will never cease to be observed. As it states: "And that these says of Purim should not fail from among the Jews, nor the memorial of them perish from their seed" (Esther 9:28). R. Elazar said: So too Yom Kippur will never cease to be observed. As it is stated: "And this shall be an everlasting statute to you, to make atonement for the children of Israel for all their sins once a year" (Vayikra 16:34). (Midrash Mishlei [Buber], 9)

            The eternity of the days of Yom Kippur and Purim stems from the fact that they both try to skip over the world of Yesh, to waive the world of knowledge, not to stumble in the world of distinctions; from the fact that they both strive to touch not only the world of phenomena, but also the essence.

            Internalizing these two holidays in our hearts, all year long, will allow us to look at ourselves, at others, at our world, with a deep and penetrating look that is not distracted by the world of phenomena, that does not submit to masks, that does not for a moment give up on touching the Ein. By asking permission to pray with the sinners, and through drunkenness that removes knowledge to the point that we cam bless and be blessed by all, we shall don the Keter of the world, and illuminate ourselves and others with an apprehension of eternity, with the light of repentance, and with the abundance of blessing.

Happy Purim!

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