Sefer Tanya

All Tanya all the time, without Chabad: the sefer itself from an outsider's perspective. I'll be calling this work “Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

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Thursday, November 16, 2006

Ch. 7

“Nearly Everybody”: The Inner Life and Struggles of the Jewish Soul

(Based on “Tanya: Collected Discourses of R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi”)

by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman


Ch. 7


So in contrast to the three completely impure husks that only bolster the other side, the one luminous husk straddles holiness and unholiness since it can allow for either. And it thus bolsters, figures into, acts as the backdrop for, and can even be thought to hold sway over most of our world and most of what we do, since nearly everything in our experience -- as neither especially righteous or wrongful people -- is an admixture of good and bad, right and wrong. Thus, when we deliberate upon the world of the luminous husk, we deliberate upon ourselves and our world.

For remember that besides bolstering our animalistic spirit (see 1:5-6), the luminous husk also bolsters all kosher foods (animate and inanimate), as well as all the “kosher”, which is to say, acceptable everyday and profane things we might say, do, or think. Like the stroll we might take which we spoke of in the last chapter, the soda we might drink, the classic novel we might read, and the like [1].

So, again, the stark caveat associated with things in this “everyday and profane” category is that since they’re bolstered by this intermediate husk, they can either wind up drawing their vitality from holiness or from unholiness -- depending on how we use them [2].

For if we think, utter, or perform morally-neutral thoughts, utterances, or deeds for self-serving purposes (even if they’re essential for living, you need to understand!), they then align themselves with the other side. Whereas if we think, utter, or perform such thoughts, utterances, or deeds for altruistic and G-d-centered reasons, they align themselves with holiness.

Accordingly, most of the things we do, utter, and think about are connected to the luminous husk [3]. And the awful but undeniable conclusion we’re to draw from this is that we could conceivably spend our whole life engaged in perfectly acceptable things and still be bogged down in the husks -- unless we know what we’re doing (see Biur Tanya).

And so, it indeed becomes clear that this ubiquitous category of things is very much like ourselves; since we, too, are neither explicitly righteous nor wrongful, but somewhere in between, as we said said (also see 1:2). And we, too, can attach ourselves onto either the side or holiness or the other side, depending on what we do and how we do it.


The point of the matter is that we’re expected to align *everything* we think, say, and do with G-dliness; not just the clearly G-dly things like Torah study and mitzvot. After all, we’re enjoined by G-d to “be holy” (Leviticus 11:45) [4], which means to say, to concentrate on and engage in holiness so much so that it becomes a veritable part of our being.

So how *do* we engage in everyday but “kosher” things in a spirit of holiness? What, for example, are we to have in mind when we eat dinner? Well, we’re to eat it with the thought that we’re doing that in order to have the energy to study G-d’s Torah and fulfill His mitzvot; we’re to work so as to sustain our family and to enable them and us to study Torah, fulfill mitzvot, to give charity; etc. (Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya) [5].

Thus it would obviously do us well to consider the implications of what we’re doing each time we engage in these sorts of everyday things. Ironically, in fact, we’d have to be more sure to keep what we’re doing in mind when it comes to doing them than we’d have to when it comes to doing out-and-out mitzvot. Because while we can always rely on the fact that the mitzvah itself is inherently holy and thus carries its own weight so to speak, everyday things are only potentially holy, depending on us (Biur Tanya).

At bottom we’re taught that if we engage in such everyday things for the sort of self-serving or downright un-G-dly purposes we cited above, that they’ll end up being no better than our animalistic spirit itself, and will come to draw their sustenance from the three impure husks rather than from the partly-pure luminous one. But once again we must reiterate the point that the truth of the matter is that *nearly everything* here draws its sustenance from the forces of impurity for the most part, the world being what it is.


Now, there are a number of curious anomalies connected with this in-between realm. Because I could ironically enjoy a fine and fairly elaborate meal, wash it down with fine wine, and still manage to do it all in a spirit of holiness -- with the right intentions. If I do it in order to relax and clear my mind enough to study Torah in more depth, for example (see Yoma 76B, Sanhedrin 40A, Horayot 13B); or in order to honor the Sabbath or a Festival (see Mishne Torah, Hilchot Shabbat 6:10; Shulchan Oruch, Orach Chaim 242:1). For it all then comes to be associated with the side of holiness (see Iggeret HaKodesh 26, p. 146B).

The same goes for many other such things. I might for example share a hardy joke with a friend and elevate it to the side of holiness if I tell it, for example, in order to lift his spirits or to give oomph to our mutual Torah studies [6].

The difference is that the spiritual components of the meal I’d eaten or the joke I’d told in such a spirit would have been transferred from the luminous husk to out-and-out holiness, whereas if I’d have eaten or joked for lesser reasons they’d have been transferred to out-and-out impurity, and I myself would have become tainted in the process [7].

There’s always hope, though; always a way to make amends for all sins -- let alone ones associated with things that are permissible anyway. I could reconsider what I’d done and the spirit in which I’d done it, regret my actions and decide right there and then never to do that again. Which is to say, I could repent (see sect. 5 below). And my having done that would then allow the food, the joke, *and myself* to revert fully to the side of holiness.

The truth of the matter is, though, that a shadow or a speck of impurity would remain behind in my being, which would have to be reckoned with in the end [8], but know that it will be indeed be undone by then.


Now, there are many other arenas in which the whole idea of permissible, forbidden, and in-between thoughts, utterances, and deeds come into play, of course. One of them that’s just as ordinary as eating and drinking that’s still and all more charged with passion is the expression of our sexuality. For there’s perfectly permissible and commendable sexuality, a variety of prohibited sexual acts, and a slew of in-between ones as well.

The most commendable expression of sexuality comes into play when husband and wife try to conceive children and express their love to each other; a more intermediate kind touches upon intercourse with one’s spouse simply to satisfy one’s own needs [9]; and there are two especially egregious expressions of sexuality: self-stimulation and adultery. They’re prohibited in the strongest of terms and are said to be inexorably linked to the other side.

Nonetheless the link isn’t everlasting. Because there’ll indeed come a time when *all* sins will be undone, in the End of Days, when "the unclean spirit will pass from the land" (Zacharia 13:2) and all wrong and sin will be undone.

In more immediate terms, though, one can undo even those kinds of sexual sins by repenting earnestly. But not only as earnestly as you might for slighting someone’s feelings, for example. You’d have to repent so profoundly that you’d effectuate enough of a permanent change in your being that your purposeful sins would actually be transmuted into merits! But let’s explain that.

We’re taught that while there are an infinite number of nuanced degrees of repentance, there are two higher sorts: fear-based and love-based repentance. And while both eradicate sins, they do it to different degrees (see Yoma 86B).

Fear-based repentance -- or repentance motivated by a fear of the consequences your sins would have upon your immortal soul or upon your relationship to G-d -- has the ability to turn your purposeful sins around, indeed. In fact, they’d transform them into mere accidental sin, fear-based repentance is that lofty. It would be as if you’d started off meaning to sin and wound up only inadvertently lapsing into it.

Love-based repentance, though, has the ability to turn your purposeful sins into out-and-out merits, it’s that lofty! As if you’d actually obeyed G-d’s will rather than rebelled against it when you sinned [10].

But true loved-based repentance only comes about when you adore G-d so much from then on that you’re drawn closer to Him for having sinned than you’d have been had you not sinned (see Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya)! And when you love Him from the depths of your heart, and out of a passionate and thirsty desire to cleave unto Him because you seem to yourself to be nothing but a clod of parched and barren soil without Him.

(For, indeed, until you’d repented and disowned your sins, your soul had been in a virtual wilderness and in the shadow of death, i.e., in the throes of the “other side”. For you’d been as far removed from G-d as you possibly could, whereas you now thirst to return to Him with an intensity that even the righteous can’t muster [11].)

But if your repentance isn’t as heartfelt and thoroughgoing as that (regardless of the sin), but is rather unexceptional though adequate enough, it will still and all be accepted by G-d and will atone for your sins on some level. It’s just that those sins won’t be transmuted into merits or be extricated from the impure husks until the aforementioned time when "death will be swallowed up forever" [12].


Don’t forget, though, that there are two types of particularly serious sexual transgressions: self-stimulation and adultery. Aside from other considerations like lewdness or hurtfulness toward others, both self-stimulation and adultery bring about emissions of semen for less-than-lofty purposes and are thus bound to the impure husks.

But there’s a difference between the two. The drops of semen wasted in the first instance can still and all ascend upward and away from the three utterly impure husks if the person responsible for them repents adequately enough -- not necessarily out of love or fear -- and he also concentrates intensely and ardently when he recites Shema Yisrael at bedtime (Pri Etz Chaim, Sha’ar Kriat Shem al Hamitta, ch. 2) [13].

(Self-stimulation isn’t cited outright as a sin in the Torah, by the way, simply because it can be undone that way, even though it produces an even greater number of very impure husks than adultery does, and it’s a far more serious sin [14]. It’s just that when one engages in adultery, he bolsters terribly impure husks that can only ascend upward when the perpetrator engages in the aforementioned "love-based repentance" and thus transforms his sins into merits [15].)

Now we understand what our sages meant when they asserted that bearing an illegitimate child is a fault that simply can’t be rectified (Chagigah 9A). Because even if you engaged in serious and intense repentance for your illicit offspring, you still and all couldn’t have the spirit of the original semen involved ascend to sanctity, since it would have already entered the world and become flesh and blood.



[1] I.e., things that are neither mitzvot or sins per se.

It should be underscored that RSZ declares in the text that “most, in fact, almost all of the luminous husk is (related to) wrong, with only a little goodness mixed in”. For the great preponderance of what we less-than-righteous people do is inspired by the overarching human need to be self serving rather than devout -- to say nothing of the out-and-out wrong things we do. (See two paragraphs down from here in our text.)

[2] RSZ makes a fascinating point in ch. 35 that our G-dly spirit is actually synonymous with our immortal soul (our neshama) while our animalistic spirit which is rooted in the luminous husk under discussion, is an “intermediary” between the immortal soul and our body. The point seems to be that the luminous husk has the capacity to turn profane things round to Divinity just because it serves as an intermediate or “passageway” between the Divine soul and the body.

[3] In fact it could be said that these sorts of things are rather banal by nature and less than “luminous” themselves, ironically. Since the evil within this category, while indeed wrongful and un-G-dly, is still and all not as evil as the evil in the three utterly impure husks, while the goodness within it isn’t as good as the goodness in holiness either (see Maskil L’Eitan).

[4] See ch’s 27 and 30 for an explanation of the importance of this requirement as well as techniques for attaining it.

[5] Optimally, we’re to eat it “for the sake of Heaven”, which is to say that we’re not to purposefully set out to delight in the taste, aroma, appearance of the food we eat, per se. Instead, we’re to arouse the love of G-d from the first, and to get to the point where we come to love Him more so than the food (or anything else material, for that matter). Our doing that will undo the food’s unholy components and elevate all its good elements. It’s important to understand, though, that while tzaddikim can elevate the evil in each and every instance (whereas we can only undo it), we can though manage to elevate it on Shabbat and Yom Tov, when it’s a mitzvah to enjoy food -- as long as our intention is to enjoy the Sabbath or Holy Day itself that way (Likutei Biurim), as we’ll indicate shortly in the text.

See Maimonide’s statements in “Eight Chapters”, Ch. 5:

“It’s important to ... place a single goal before your eyes, which is to comprehend G-d Almighty as much as a human being can. Which is to say, that you know Him and direct all your actions, movements, and utterances to that end, so that nothing you do is arbitrary or tends to thwart that goal.

“So, for example, when you eat, drink, sleep, have intercourse, awake, move about, or rest, let your only aim be your health. But let your goal in being healthy be to remain robust and well enough to acquire the knowledge and the personal and intellectual virtues you’d need to reach that goal. Don’t let your goal be to simply enjoy yourself, and thus choose only appetizing foods, drinks, and the like. Strive for what’s edifying. If it happens to be gratifying, too, so be it; and if it happens not to be, so be it.

“Or favor more appetizing things for medical reasons the way someone whose appetite was weak would whet it with well-seasoned and sweet foods. Or the way someone suffering from melancholia would ward it off by listening to poems and music, by strolling in gardens and among alluring structures, or by sitting before attractive works of art and the like -- in order to settle his spirit and ward off his melancholia.

“Your goal in all that, though, should be your physical well-being; and your ultimate reason to be well should be to be able to acquire knowledge.

“Likewise, your goal in accruing money should be to use it to acquire edifying things, to maintain your well-being, and to extend your life long enough to comprehend G-d and know as much about Him as you can.”

[6] See Pesachim 117A, where Rav joked with his students in order to open their hearts and minds enough to be more receptive to what he had to say (Likutei Biurim).

[7] I’d have become a “vehicle” for the misdeed, as it’s put classically -- which is to say that my very being would have been so absorbed by and lost in the deed that I’d have been a virtual mindless accomplice to it, a sort of innocent bystander who could very well have done something to stop the crime but didn’t, and I’d have thus played a part in it despite himself (Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya).

[8] I.e., in the afterlife, through a daunting process known as the “Purgatory of the Grave”, which we’ll cite in Ch. 8 as well. (See Ch’s 22-23 of Shaar HaGilgulim).

[9] ... in which case there’s nothing wrong with the act, per se, but rather with one’s intentions at the time (Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya) -- one’s need to satisfy himself as an end unto itself. And while that, too, isn’t forbidden in fact, it’s not meritorious.

[10} Also see Maimonide’s Hilchot Teshuvah (2:1-2) where he writes:

One accomplishes full repentance only when, while he’s yet able to sin, he’s faced again with a situation in which he had previously sinned, and he nonetheless doesn’t -- but only as a consequence of repentance, rather than out of fear, or because of a physical inability to carry the sin out.

So if, for example, one had once sinned with a woman, and after a time found himself alone with her, still in love (with her) and in full possession of his prowess, and in the same place he had transgressed -- if, rather than transgressing again, he recants, he’d be a "full penitent".

What’s “conventional” teshuvah, though? No longer committing a sin one once committed, not thinking of committing it anymore, and affixing to his heart the commitment to never do it again. He should also regret having sinned .... and he must then verbally confess and enunciate the things affixed to his heart.

[11] As it’s said, "Where penitents stand .... not even the perfectly righteous can stand” (Berachot 34B). After all, the righteous are always close to G-d and are thus always “close to water”, so their thirst for G-d isn’t quite intense (though their longing to *stay* close to Him is intense). While the penitent actually experiences himself as being in a desert and as very thirsty (Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya; see end of ch. 40 below).

Also see Maimonides’s depiction of the rapprochement between the wayward lover and his Beloved, G-d, when the sinner repents:

Repentance is great because it brings a person closer to G-d. As it’s written, "Return, 0 Israel, to G-d your L–rd" (Hosea 14:2); "You have not yet returned to Me, says G-d" (Amos 4:6); and, "If you will repent, Israel, you will return to Me" (Jeremiah 4:1), which is to say, repent and you will cling to Me.

And repentance brings those distant from G-d closer to Him -- whereas heretofore they were repulsive to G-d, disreputable, far removed, and loathsome, henceforward they are beloved and desired, close and intimate ....

How outstanding repentance is! The very person who, just yesterday, was completely separated from the G-d of Israel ...; who would do mitzvot, and have them rent from his hands ... is today attached to G-d ... and even yearned for (Hilchot Teshuvah 7:6-7).

[12] That’s to say that while your sins won’t be transmuted into merits or be extricated from the impure husks *at that point* if your repentance is less than heartfelt, they will eventually be -- when "death will be swallowed up forever". Which is to say, when G-d removes all husks from the world and the holy sparks nestled deep within them will be able to ascend (Tanya M’vuar; See ch. 37 below).

[13] “Shema Yisrael” refers to the recitation of the verse, “Hear, O Israel (Shema Yisrael), G-d our L–rd is One G-d!” (Deuteronomy 6:4) which is done in the morning, evening, and at bedtime (the case in point).

[14] Adultery *is* cited in the Torah explicitly, of course. Not engaging in it is the seventh of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:13). But self-stimulation is only alluded to in the verse “Onan ... allowed his seed to spill to the ground, ... which was wrong in G-d’s eyes“ (Genesis 37:9-10). That also explains why the act is known as “onanism”.

The other point to be made is that even though self-stimulation is a serious sin, one can nonetheless more easily extract the holy sparks in its case than one can in the case of adultery (Tanya M’vuar).

[15] RSZ inserts an esoteric note here that explains the reason why that’s so. It’s because the spirit of semen emitted in the course of adultery was absorbed by the "female aspect” (i.e., an actual female recipient-- Maskil L’Eitan), which is simply not the case in self-stimulation, where there’s no “female aspect” involved.

(c) 2006 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

(Feel free to contact me at )

Rabbi Feldman's translation of "The Gates of Repentance" has been reissued and can be ordered from here
Rabbi Yaakov Feldman has also translated and commented upon "The Path of the Just", and "The Duties of the Heart" (Jason Aronson Publishers). His new work on Maimonides' "The Eight Chapters" will soon be available.
Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes on entitled
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