Knowledge and Naught


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.”[1] The “day of evil,” explains Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, 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.[2]

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 the 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” (arur Haman) is equivalent to that of the letters that spell “blessed be Mordechai” (baruch Mordechai).[3] 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[4]) stand, utter tzaddikim (perfectly righteous individuals) cannot stand.”[5]

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,”[6] 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.

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 for 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 houses it. There are certain “impregnable” 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 assur and mutar employed by Torah law (halachah) for the forbidden and the permissible. Assur, 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 assur 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 man 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 “divine abode”[7] that man is charged to make of his world. It is of these elements that it is said, “Their breaking is their rectification.”[8] They exist to be rejected and defeated, and it is in their defeat and exclusion from our lives that their raison d’etre is realized.

The Man in the Desert

These are the rules that govern our existence—the rules that the tzaddik lives by. The tzaddik devotes his 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,[9] 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 a 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

Referring to 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’[10] —these are the deeds of the wicked. ‘And G-d said: Let there be light’[11] —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,’[12] I know that He desires the deeds of the righteous, and does not desire the deeds of the wicked.”[13]

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.”[14]

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 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.


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 its negative moorings.

Purim, however, is the festival of teshuvah, the festival of transformation.[15] On Purim we are empowered to transform the most negative concealments into a force for good, to make cursing Haman as positive and constructive an endeavor as blessing Mordechai.

But the synonymity 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.”[16]

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 Rebbe, Adar II 9, 5725[17] (March, 1965)

[1] Proverbs 16:4.

[2] Tanya, chapter 27.

[3] Agudah (quoted by Rabbi Yoel Sirkish (the “Bach”) and R. Moshe Isserles (the “Rama”) in their commentaries on the Tur, Orach Chaim 695). When two things share the same gematria, this implies that despite their surface differences (expressed by their variant spellings) they are intrinsically analogous.

[4] lit. “returnees.” See Repentance, Prayer, and Charity: Three Mistranslations, Week in Review, vol. IV no. 2.

[5] Talmud, Berachot 34b.

[6] Ibid., Yoma 86b.

[7] See Midrash Tanchuma, Naso 16; Tanya, chapter 36.

[8] Paraphrase of Sifra, Shemini 7; see Sefer Hamaamarim 5654, p. 76.

[9] Indeed, the Talmud (Yoma 85b) warns that one who says, “I shall sin and then repent” is “not given the opportunity to repent.”

[10] Genesis 1:2.

[11] Ibid., 1:3.

[12] Ibid., 1:4.

[13] Midrash Rabbah, Bereishit 2:7

[14] Deuteronomy 4:35.

[15] See Esther 9:1 and 22.

[16] Psalms 139:12.

[17] Likkutei Sichot, vol. VII pp. 20-24.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
1 Comment
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
baal teshuvah
11 years ago

I find it fascinating the parallels of Torah – Talmudic studies & Zen philosophy in this respect. The denial of self, search for Devine will (read: enlightenment). One being G-ds will and the others Mans desire.

The Meaningful Life Center