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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Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Ch. 8

“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. 8


We’d pointed out in the last chapter that we could engage in all sorts of everyday things in a spirit of holiness: that we could enjoy a fairly elaborate meal for example, take an “innocent” stroll, drink a soda, and read a classic novel and still manage to somehow be connect to G-dliness.

But understand that unless we engage in them in such a spirit that we’d be bogged down in the husks all the time, since most of that is connected to the gray-shaded luminous husk. So we’re now about to see just how far that all goes.

Now, some might say that what’s laid out in this chapter is rather discomfiting, perhaps even chilling. But the point should be made that it’s all quite sensible and reasonable, if not easy, and certainly helpful if our goal is righteousness and closeness to G-d. For as RSZ assured his readers, he’ll “find peace for his soul” by complying with the mandates offered in this book; he’ll come upon “the sort of advice on everything that he finds difficult in Divine service” herein; and that “his heart will thus be firmly fixed in G-d” for having read and applied its insights into his life. So since the serious student of spiritual growth would want nothing less, we'll explore what's to follow in that spirit (see sect 3 of Author’s Introduction).

Before we lay that out, though ... and come to the end of the first section of this book, too ... let’s first touch upon another idea. We spoke last time about transforming ethically and spiritually neutral food (among other neutral things) into elements of holiness. Could we ever do the same to clearly forbidden, unkosher foods and the like?

Could we, for example, accidentally eat an unkosher meal for the best of intentions, use the energy we'd derived from it to then pray, study Torah, or fulfill mitzvot with fervor and thus elevate the unkosher food [1]?


No we couldn't [accidentally eat an unkosher meal for the best of intentions, use the energy we'd derived from it to then pray, study Torah, or fulfill mitzvot with fervor and thus elevate the unkosher food], we're told here. Because -- regardless of our good intentions -- unkosher food is still and all inexorably linked to the other side and the three utterly impure husks rather than to the luminous one that allows for holiness.

Thus unkosher food (along with all other "unkosher" things) can never be aligned with holiness [2].

But this raises an interesting, albeit esoteric point. We're taught that we're meant to "raise up sparks of holiness" from the world: to redeem holiness from unholiness, to salvage the good left behind in the bad (see Ari's Mavo Sha'arim 2:3:8). Now, that might have us imagine then that we should be able to elevate unkosher things and to "redeem" them as well. But the fact remains that we can only raise the sparks of things that derive their energy from the luminous husk and not from the impure ones [3] (Maskil L’Eitan).

After all, food and other such things are utterly, definitively, and objectively either kosher or unkosher, despite our intentions when we eat it. Much the way poisons are simply poisonous and not open to debate or interpretation. In a manner of speaking then, food's kosherness or non-kosherness is a statement of its metaphysical "chemical make-up", if you will; it’s something that's either true or false about them (Biur Tanya).

We're told, in fact, that the wish to partake of unkosher food or the like is rooted in the proddings of what’s said to be "Gentile Demons" (see Zohar 3, p. 253A) [4]. What that means to say is that it's an inherently non-Jewish attraction that's rooted in the three impure husks.

That's not to suggest that we Jews don't yearn for unkosher things, for we do (except the righteous among us). In fact, some of us sometimes search unkosher things out to embarrassingly great lengths. It's just that when we do, we're out of character, if you will, and as if possessed. For just as there are things that would seem bizarre and unexpected when a particular person engages in them, there are likewise things that we Jews wouldn't be expected to do, though we might (Biur Tanya) [5].

And we're also told that any desire we'd have to use the sort of everyday, ethically neutral things under discussion for less than G-dly reasons would come from the proddings of "*Jewish* Demons". For what they are, are unholy, "devilish" longings for what are in fact permitted pleasures that are nonetheless harmful ... but less so than the un-Jewish attractions [6].


The point to be made though -- and this is what’s so difficult here -- is that the latter sorts of things *do* descend into impurity, for a time at least [7]. And that they leave traces, unwanted vestiges of themselves behind in our body. (After all, everything we eat becomes our very flesh and blood, and has to be reckoned with [8], it’s just that sometimes the trace left behind is flavorful while other times it’s wretched, and therein lies difference.)

So the warning -- and it's a very serious one at that -- is that we'd have to experience what’s referred to as “The Purgatory of the Grave” [9] after death for having engaged in these sorts of "innocent" diversions, in order to be purged of the impurities associated with the luminous husk [10] and the aforementioned Jewish Demons [11] we'd thus linked ourselves up to -- usually unknowingly and innocuously.

But the truth be known, only rare and lofty individuals like the holy Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi would escape "The Purgatory of the Grave" altogether (see Ketubot 104A; Shabbat 118A, Tosephot Rubum). For while he'd certainly made use of all sorts of permitted things, he nonetheless didn't derive any personal pleasure from any of it. He only partook of them altruistically (Tanya M’vuar) [12]. So we'd be far from alone in our terror, since most people experience this; but that gives us little succor.


But there’s a whole other order of things that are morally and spiritually neutral and which are far more subtle than food, drink, and the like that aren’t associated with our bodies and touch instead upon our mind. They include conversations we might have and books we might read, for example.

Now, not everyone is capable of holding lofty conversations, and even the most learned among us might not spend every available moment studying Torah. So can more mundane conversations and more profane sorts of books be transmitted into holiness? Or do those iffy kinds of things seep just too deeply within to be safe to engage in?

Let’s start by discussing idle conversation. It seems logical to assume that at bottom the only reason why unlearned people would engage in it is because they're "forced" to, if you will, simply because they can't fall back on loftier subjects of conversation [13]. So, can they really be blamed for it?

But it's not really a question of blame. The point is that there'd be a price to pay for their having engaged in idle conversation, howbeit innocently. Simply because their beings would have been exposed to impurity and the husks so often in the process, much the way people exposed to radiation against their will would have to be detoxified regardless of their intentions. They'd thus have to endure being tossed about in the post-mortem experience known as "The Hollow of the Sling" (see 1 Samuel 25:29; Zohar, Beshalach p. 59) [14].

The reason for that, we’re told, is just as the body would need to be purified by the aforementioned "Purgatory of the Grave", the soul would likewise need to undergo a process of purification of its own -- "The Hollow of the Sling" -- in order to enter the Heavenly Garden of Eden to finally enjoy G-d's presence (Biur Tanya). But the thought of that is also quite daunting and discouraging.

There are other sorts of conversations an unlearned (as well as a learned) person might engage in. He or she might, for example, mock or slander others in conversation. Is there a price to pay for that?

Yes, and it's far steeper, as we'd expect, simply because those conversations are out-and-out wrongful and are thus tied to the three impure husks. So, being tossed about in "The Hollow of the Sling" alone wouldn't be potent enough to expunge someone's soul of them. He'd also have to endure a fiery Gehenom (i.e., form of Hell). While equally daunting, there seems to be a sense of fairness about that, though, since it’s the price such a person would be paying for quite spiteful and harmful actions.

What about someone who's capable of studying Torah but doesn't and engages instead in frivolous conversation (either because he was indifferent, or too lazy to study Torah)? How would such a soul be cleansed? He too would need to be tossed about in "The Hollow of the Sling", we’re taught. But he'd also have to endure a snow-and-ice Gehenom (see Likutei Torah of the Ari, beginning of Shemot) aside from experiencing the sort of discipline due anyone who transgresses [15]. But that’s discomfiting once again, since even the most serious of scholars lapse into that.


Now, what about lofty or challenging ideas that aren't Torah-based and are either inherently un-Jewish or simply out-and-out secular? Is there any reason to avoid delving into them? Yes, we’re told, if for no other reason than that you'd be guilty of not studying Torah when you could have by delving into them.

But there's another, deeper reason to avoid them. For while when you engage in frivolous and mundane conversation you merely harm your personality [16], you could harm your very mind by delving into un-Jewish or secular studies, they go that deep [17]. In fact, the more intensively you'd go into them, the more impurity you'd garner (Biur Tanya).

You'd be allowed to engage in such studies, though, if by doing so you'd eventually be able to make a more-than-equitable living (see Avot 4:5)and thus serve G-d in more comfortable, less distracting circumstances. Or if your knowledge of those things would prove to enrich your service to G-d, as Maimonides, Nachmonides, and others of their caliber were able to do [18].


So it seems that our spiritual standing is threatened fore and aft in the end. For while we can engage in all sorts of everyday things in a spirit of holiness, many, many such things can’t be done that way, and our lives are positively awash in them -- say nothing of our out-and-out sins of commission and omission.

Is there hope for us in the end? Or, taking it from a more affirmative stance, what are we to do, given that we want to draw close to G-d yet so many things hamper us?

Well, there will be answers, to be sure; but the essential point is that the task will truly be arduous ... but well worth it.

We’d need to delve further yet into our inner makeup, though, before we can go on -- if only to know what we have to draw upon. So we're about to delve into the second section of Tanya.


[1] Which is to say, could we eat it altruistically and "for the sake of Heaven" (not knowing of course that it was unkosher)? The answer will prove to be that we can't. But contrast that with our discussion in the previous chapter about doing permitted ordinary thing less than altruistically (Biur Tanya).
Apparently the point of the contrast is to indicate that while intentions are indeed vital, the act itself is what matters in the end.

[2] RSZ points out that that goes both for food whose unkosherness is stated outright in the Torah as well as for food deemed Rabbinically unkosher. In fact, he underscores, the latter are often more stringent than the former (See Sanhedrin 88B).
That’s so because the decisions of the sages about the kosherness or unkosherness of things affects and alters their very essences (Maskil L’Eitan) to the extent where those foods that the Torah accepted as kosher which the sages nonetheless considered to be unkosher (for various reasons) now come to derive their vitality from the three impure husk (Tanya M’vuar), when it had earlier derived it's vitality from the luminous husk.
The truth be known though, since we're commanded by the Torah itself to follow the edicts of the sages (see Deuteronomy 17:11; also see Rambam's Sefer HaMitzvot, Shoresh 1 along with Ramban's remarks), any act of defiance against them would by definition derive its vitality from the other side.

[3] That’s to say that we're essentially repairmen in this world, as there's a plethora of "broken shards of light" here that came about when the primordial vessels filled with primordial light were shattered in the cosmic realm before the universe was created, and that we're here to piece them together again by using things of this world for holy ends. For, indeed, every material item in this world that's permissible has some sparks, and we liberate them when we use them to serve G-d. And while we can do that when it comes to the potentially kosher circle of things associated with the intermediate shell, we can’t redeem things that are aligned with out-and-out unholiness.

[4] The Zohar presents an allegory of a king -- *the* King, in this instance, G-d Himself -- sitting at a feast with his servants and apportioning out different quality foods to his servants. And that He gives Class A food to His most loyal servants (the angels), Class B food to the "Jewish Demons", and Class C things to the "Gentile demons".
The implication is, of course, that while Class B is certainly not the best, it's also not the worst and is still and all part of the royal repast, while Class C food which is associated with the impure husks, is barely part of the meal and always somehow offensive.

[5] See Ch. 14 below where the idea that one could somehow or another still be a "good Jew" despite his lapsing into un-Jewish ways is disputed.

[6] They're rooted in the fact that while we Jews naturally long to ascend to G-dliness and abhor the thought of separating ourselves from G-d, so we tend to be averse to out-and-out sin -- we're still-and-all fallible and thus subject to such proddings. There's always the risk, though, that once we come to enjoy such excesses that we'd then be drawn to forbidden things as well (Maskil L’Eitan).

[7] ... until you repent, that is.

[8] This is analogous to the semen that had gone on to produce an actual illegitimate child cited in the last chapter. The point is that the flesh and blood produced as a product of our having eaten to excess would have to be reckoned with every bit as much as an illegitimate child would.

[9] This daunting experience is described in Sha’ar HaGilgullim 23 as follows: “Immediately after a person dies and is buried, four angels come to ... return his soul to his body .... They then take him by the ‘corners’ (i.e. by his extremities) and shake and beat him ... , much the way a garment is held by its ends and shaken in order to clean it off from its dust, until the husk (there) leaves completely .... The righteous don’t need much shaking ... but the opposite is true of the wicked .... (But in the end,) each person receives what he needs according to the level of the husk (attached to him) and the degree to which it’s attached.” (See note 8 to the previous chapter.)

[10] ...which is, after all, still a husk, and still attached to un-G-dliness to some degree.

[11] ...which are, after all, still demons -- albeit *familiar*, native ones.

[12] It should be noted that if you enjoy something that’s permissible but not necessary *neither* for the sake of Heaven nor to satisfy a desire but you enjoy it just “like that”, it would still attach itself onto the luminous husk in the end. And that’s because you’d have derived satisfaction from it despite yourself. But if you’d set out to eat, drink, etc. something like that altruistically, you’d be accredited with *not* having derived satisfaction from it in the end [even if you actually did], since you’d (originally) partaken of it for Heaven’s sake (Likut Perushim 8:6).

[13] ... either because they can't grasp lofty ideas, or because they hadn't ever been exposed to them.
Understand, of course, that there are various degrees of "frivolity" as far as conversation is concerned. Talking about household needs and the like can be vital, and relevant to holiness, too -- or otherwise. While "street small talk", if you will, and the day's news can be informative and useful, but often isn't holy. (We'll soon discuss clearly immoral and unholy speech.)
Understand as well that there are many intelligent and otherwise well-read people who'd fit into the category of "unlearned" in our context, simply because they don't study Torah (perhaps because they'd never been exposed to it or because they don't resonate with the subjects at hand). The truth be known, they too would have to suffer the consequences of that (especially in light of the plethora of translated Torah texts with accessible explanations, and the wide diversity of topics encompassed in Torah study which anyone can be exposed to if he's so inclined).
It should be noted, though, that otherwise learned individuals who are “unlearned” in our use of the term fall under the halachic category of Ohness Rachmana Patrei, which is to say that they're halachically excused under the circumstances, since their status is basically beyond their control. And besides, reciting Sh'ma Yisroel twice a day suffices for one's minimal requirement to study Torah and they can easily accomplish that (Maskil L’Eitan).

[14] It's pointed out (see Shabbat 152B) that while the souls of the righteous are "bound in the bundle of life with G-d" (1 Samuel 25:29) -- i.e., they're to be attached to The Source of all life and to dwell in comfort in His presence when they die -- the soul's of the wrongful are to be "cast about as from the hollow of a sling" (1 Samuel 25:29) when they die -- tossed here and there as if shot from a sling and made to endure a chaotic, fierce, and harrowing whirlwind of a ride before they could rest (also see Zohar, Beshalach, p. 59).
Some contend that being "cast about as from the hollow of a sling" means that the soul is first shown the bliss of holiness then slung back roughly to its memories of the life it lead so as to experience the difference between the two for itself (Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya). Others say it means that the soul is thrust very, very far away from G-d; or that it’s cast back into the worthless thoughts it had while yet alive, and made to think that its still alive and is thinking and acting as it had in this world (Likut Perushim, Maareh Mekomot, p. 189).

[15] All metaphysical reparations are based on the principle of "measure for measure". Hence, the price to pay for *heatedly* mocking and slandering others would be the experience of a fiery Gehenom; while the one to pay for being *cooly* blasé about Torah study would be to experience a snow-and-ice Gehenom. (On one level and quite ironically, this would be quite merciful, in that a "hot" person would be more comfortable in a hot environment, while a "cold" one would be most comfortable in a cold one.)

[16] ... which is only relevant to the luminous husk and your animating spirit (as RSZ indicates in the text).

[17] ... and they touch upon your *G-dly* spirit, as they’re a product of "The Breaking of the Vessels" cited in note 3 above, RSZ also points out.
There’s another problem, too. Reading secular works tends to encourage a stronger sense of self and of egoism, and to discourage self-abnegation, which leads to all sorts of good traits (Likut Perushim 8:19).

[18] As Maimonides explained it, the best way to love and fear G-d is to "contemplate the great wonders of G-d's works and creations", which the study of science and other things helps in. For when you do that, "and realize that they're all a product of a wisdom that has no bounds or limits, you'll immediately love, laud and glorify [G-d], and experience an immense passion to know His Great Name" (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2).

It’s also important to cite Maimonides’ point in the fifth chapter of Sh’mone Perakim that sometimes our minds need distractions so as to return to our Torah studies with renewed vigor.

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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
"Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal"


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