By Rav Yitzchak
installments in this series can be accessed at:
#39: Rav Hutner (3): Master of Parables
have already noted R. Hutner’s talent for crafting parables. For example, we saw one in which he
differentiated between a person dwelling in a house with many rooms and a person
dwelling in both a home and a hotel to distinguish between a “broad life” and a
“double life.” We also saw his parable distinguishing between a nursing mother
and a cook, which conveys the notion of teachers giving of their essence. Our analysis of devar reshut
discussed the mashal of Shir Ha-Shirim as an example of using the
mundane for a holy purpose, something that Shlomo Ha-Melekh’s era excelled
at. R. Hutner described this kind
of endeavor as a central method of sanctifying the mundane. We sleep in order to gain energy for
mitzvot, but we also utilize sleep and awakening as a metaphor for
the resurrection at the end of days.
That discussion explicitly grants religious value to the use of
instructive examples illustrate R. Hunter’s ability in this area. A midrash says that in the
messianic era, we will celebrate Purim but none of the other holidays
(Midrash Mishlei 9). The
midrash derives this idea from Esther 9:24: “And their memory [of
the Purim holiday] shall not pass away from their descendants.” Why does Purim merit eternal celebration
while Pesach and Shavuot do not?
Hutner paints a portrait of two people who must learn how to function in the
dark. One lights a candle and can
instantly recognize others. The
second fellow learns how to distinguish voices and to identify people even
without a source of light. Each has
an advantage over his colleague.
The person with a candle obviously identifies his surroundings with far
greater clarity. On the other hand,
only the second fellow acquires a new ability. When dawn arrives, the first fellow’s
candle serves no purpose, while the second retains his newly acquired
Pesach and Purim are described with a key verse beginning with the word
“anokhi.” God uses this term
when He introduces himself at the beginning of the asseret ha-dibrot as
the God who took Israel out of Egypt. Regarding Purim, the gemara in
Chullin (139b) associates Esther with the verse “anokhi hastir astir
panai” (Devarim 31:18).
The gemara intends not only a word association but a conceptual
linkage as well. The Purim episode
represents a time when the divine presence is not overtly manifest; no miracles
change the natural order in the Purim story and God’s name does not appear in
the entire work. Indeed, the many
overt miracles of Pesach provide a sharp contrast.
so, our recognition of God in the Pesach story mirrors the person with a candle,
whereas our recognition of God in Purim parallels the fellow who learned how to
recognize voices. In the messianic
era, we will perceive God with a great clarity resembling the overwhelming
strength of the rising sun. At that
point, we will discard the candle of the Pesach story, but the new character
trait acquired during Purim will remain.
A biblical verse, “When I sit in the darkness, God illuminates for me”
(Mikha 7:8), captures the illumination of Purim.
Hutner’s citing of this verse may indicate the influence of R. Tzadok Ha-Kohen
of Lublin. R. Tzadok says that
Pesach represents total salvation, in which we leave the darkness behind, while
Purim symbolizes the ability to survive and sometimes even thrive in the
darkness. At the end of the Purim
story, the Jews remain under the government of a capricious and cruel tyrant,
with Esther trapped in marriage to him.
As the gemara explains, we do not recite Hallel on Purim
because “we are still servants of Achashverosh” (Megilla 14a). Yet we still celebrate this type of
salvation as well. Note how both R. Tzadok and R. Hutner
depict Purim as a time when we find a light in the
particular instance does not prove direct influence. After all, many rabbinic writers focus
on Purim as a time of hester panim and this common imagery could have
occurred to both of these rabbinic giants independently. On the other hand, Yaakov Elman has
argued for R. Tzadok’s influence on R. Hutner, and this case could serve as a
insightful parable explains a different Purim conundrum. We normally oppose excessively wild
celebrations in Judaism. Rambam
even contends that the Jewish authorities would circulate policemen on the
holidays to ensure that the revelry did not get out of hand (Hilkhot Yom
Tov 6:21). The joy of Yom
Tov is regulated by measures such as a ke-zayit of meat and a
revi’it of wine. These
measures convey limitation and restraint.
Purim, surprisingly, knows no such limitation. According to some authorities, Jews have
an obligation to drink on Purim until they are tipsy. Many dress up in costumes and some
perform Purim shpiels or plays poking fun at the local rabbis, among
others. What explains the wilder
quality of Purim joy?
Hutner crafts a parable of two people who were both ill, then they recovered and
threw a party. One had a physical
ailment, while the other recovered from depression. The party celebrating the recovery of
the first is measured, since the extent of the party reflects the degree of
illness. Someone recovering from
cancer celebrates differently than someone who got over the flu. In contrast, the party for the person
who overcame depression does not lend itself to exact measure, since that party
reflects more than gratitude for the cure but constitutes part of the cure
itself. The ability to celebrate
means conquering depression; we will not simply match the joy of the party to
the degree of the illness.
Increasing the celebration means extending the cure.
line with many previous writers, R. Hutner views Purim as a clash with Amalek,
represented by Haman the Aggagi.
When recounting our first encounter with Amalek, the Torah says,
“asher korkha ba-derekh” (Devarim 24:18). R. Hutner does not connect the word
“kar” to “mikreh,” meaning “happened upon,” but to “kar,”
“coldness.” Amalek represents a
cold absence of enthusiasm for mitzvot. Perhaps this explains why the Jews of
Persia went to the king’s party.
Not finding joy within religious observance, they looked for it
Purim, we reaffirm our joy in performing the commandments. Since we resemble the depressed person
throwing a party and overcoming depression, the celebration does not come with
limitations and measures. The other
festivals resemble a person overcoming a sickness; therefore, they do not
engender the same lack of restraint.
analogous parable helps explain a discrepancy between Chanuka and Purim
regarding the berakha of she-asa nissim. On Purim, only someone who fulfills the
mitzva of keriat ha-megilla makes that blessing; on Chanuka,
someone who merely sees Chanuka lights recites the blessing, even though he
himself did not light. I will skip
most of R. Hutner’s complex web of analysis and jump to the parable at the
Hutner distinguishes between a person who was deathly ill and recovered and a
person who had temporary muteness and got better. Both would like to recount the story of
their salvation. In the former
situation, the recounting is external to the salvation; in the latter scenario,
the recounting itself forms the salvation.
According to R. Hunter, the salvation of Chanuka included a return to an
earlier state in which historically significant events inspire new festivals
passed on through the generations.
On Purim, telling the story stands outside the salvation; on Chanuka, the
telling is itself part of the salvation.
Therefore, noting the miracle has greater prominence on Chanuka.
letter to a community commemorating their rabbi’s tenth year in the synagogue
also uses a clever parable. The
letter mentions two explanations for why towns usually place the town clock in a
very high location. Obviously,
greater height enables more people to see the time. A deeper explanation notes that this
affects the townspeople’s approach to the town clock. When the clock is low and within reach,
people will adjust it based on their own watches. Conversely, placing the town clock out
of reach encourages people to adjust their own time to match that of the town
clock. R. Hutner instructs the
community to place their rabbi on a high pedestal, thereby enabling the rabbi to
set the tone rather than being subject to the whims of each individual
was an important value for R. Hutner, and students testify to a strong
authoritarianism in his interaction with them. This letter coheres with those
tendencies, although its message could certainly be accepted by a reader with a
less authoritarian conception of leadership.
oddity of this letter pertains to the date in the printed volume. R. Simcha Krauss informs me that he
received this letter verbatim when he was a community rabbi in Saint Louis in
1975. Yet the printed version dates
the letter to 1963. I do not know
if this is a mistake or an attempt to help prevent identification of the
final citation may also indicate R. Hutner’s affinity for parables. The gemara warns against adding
our own praises for God, since we invariably fail to do Him justice
(Berkahot 33b). R. Hutner
approvingly cites the Vilna Gaon, who argues that this problem does not apply to
parables. If we describe God with
plain adjectives, we may be employing silver vessels when gold is required. However, when we refer to God as
“sitting in heaven” to convey exaltedness or compare Him to a lion to convey his
strength, the silver vessels stem from the limitations of the corporeal imagery
available to us and not from a limitation in our praise for God. Therefore, we can employ such parables
must admit to having some difficulty with the Gra’s idea. Could we not equally say that the
inherent limitations of human language mean that our less than stellar praise is
not a limitation of our acknowledgement of God? If so, the argument for parables also
justifies plain description. Be
that as it may, R. Hutner’s endorsement of the Gaon reveals his love of parables
and the religious avenues they open up.
we have mentioned in passing R. Hutner’s authoritarianism, it behooves us to
briefly explore this topic. R.
Aharon Lichtenstein, a former student of R. Hunter,
a related vein, he sought, and largely attained, spiritual control. From talmidim, in particular, he
brooked no challenge. On one
occasion, when a talmid, by then well established in the Torah world as a
rav, disagreed with him with respect to a communal halachic issue, he
concluded the discussion by remonstrating that he had long since concluded that
he had no mortgage over the latter’s mind; and he then told a confidant who had
been privy to the interchange that the day had been, for him, a mini–Tisha
description echoes this portrait.
Hutner was not to be addressed except in the third person (“the Rosh Yeshiva”),
not to be taken leave of by turning one’s back and leaving but by walking
backwards out the office door (so as not to turn one’s back on Torah), and, most
important, not to be challenged once he had reached a decision on matters of
communal policy, of yeshiva administration, of personal guidance, of
sees both personal and contextual factors as motivating this approach. As a response to rapidly assimilating
American Jews rejecting kavod ha-Torah, R. Hutner felt a need to
emphasize honoring the Torah, including honoring people who embody Torah through
their knowledge and ideals. At the
same time, this policy reflects a personal predilection as well.
 Pachad Yitzchak Purim, no. 34.
 R. Tzadok
Ha-Kohen, Divrei Soferim, no. 32.
 Pachad Yitzhak Purim, no. 30.
 Pachad Yitzhak Chanuka, no. 16.
 Pachad Yitzchak Iggerot U-Ketavim, p.
 Pahad Yitzchak Pesach, no. 61
 See the letters section, Jewish Action (Summer
 Hillel Goldberg, “Rabbi Isaac
Hutner: A Synoptic Interpretive Biography,” Tradition 22:4 (Winter 1987),