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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I only update the Ramchal blog and have abandoned the others, I'm afraid. I do some things now on and . Contact me at feldman AT torah DOT org if you care to.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Ch. 5

“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. 5


We’d raised the question above about how anyone could ever hope to “grasp” G-d and offered some insight there (see 4:5-6), but we’d still need to explain the whole idea in some more detail since it’s so mystifying. After all, weren’t we told outright that no thought could ever comprehend Him [1]?

But as we pointed out, despite the fact that we can’t grasp G-d either in the sense of understanding Him with our minds or of taking hold of Him by hand, we can be said to grasp Him in the latter sense when our mind “takes hold of” and is engarbed in His Torah [2]. Let’s see how.


As everyone knows, when we dwell on an idea, our mind could be said to “take hold” of and envelope it, and the idea could then in turn be said to be subsumed in and circumscribed by our mind [3].

It’s also true that when that thought is eventually “grasped” it becomes a veritable part of our thinking and can be said to envelope (i.e., preoccupy, overtake, and eventually assimilate into) our minds. But this is all very abstract, so let’s illustrate it.

Having an idea could said to be a lot like having a guest at home for the first time. The guest initially finds himself surrounded or “enveloped” by a slew of utterly new people, things, rules, and practices, but after a while he comes to be a part of the family -- fully “absorbed” into the atmosphere and at home there. In fact, there often enough comes a point when the guest begins to charm his host-family so much so that his very presence starts to “envelope” (i.e., preoccupy, overtake, and eventually assimilate into) them, when he could be said to have become a “part of the family”.

Now, the same is true of Torah thoughts and ideas, with obvious differences, as we’ll see.

Let’s use a practical illustration of Torah thought. Suppose I were to begin to concentrate on a particular point of halachic contention between two litigants that’s cited in the Talmud. There’d come a point when I’d grasp what was being said and when my mind would surround (i.e., absorb) the particulars of the case, and when the case itself would surround (i.e., preoccupy, overtake, and eventually assimilate into) my mind.

The point of the matter is that since it would be G-d’s own will and wisdom that would be determining which litigant was right in our case and would thus be an integral part of it all (since G-d’s will and wisdom informs all of Torah), I could be said to be “grasping” G-d’s will and wisdom right there and then -- despite the fact that “no thought could ever grasp Him”.

And I could be said to be doing that because His will and wisdom were “engarbed”, i.e., encased, in the halachic instance I was reflecting on. Hence, my mind could be said to be absorbed in (literally, “clothed” in) His will and wisdom -- and thus in *Himself*, since He and His knowledge are one, as we said -- at that time [4].

That explains the utterly superior nature of Torah-study over all other mitzvot -- even over all verbal mitzvot, including the mitzvah of enunciating words of Torah. For when you fulfill a physical mitzvah or enunciate a Torah verse or a blessing, G-d indeed dons your spirit at that moment and His supernal light indeed encompasses you from head to toe. But when you know Torah, your mind isn’t only encompassed by G-d’s will and wisdom -- it’s infused with it [5].


That’s why the Torah you come to know and that infuses your very mind and soul is often termed your soul’s “bread” or “food” [6], because it nourishes you when you “ingest” it (i.e., take it in deeply, and truly co-mingle with it). The other point to consider is that it becomes a veritable part of your very blood, flesh, and being, and sustains you-- both now and in perpetuity.

For as the Ari explained (Etz Chaim 44:3; also see Zohar 2, p. 210), while the other mitzvot we fulfil in our lifetime are our soul’s “garments” in The Afterlife, the Torah we’d learned altruistically (which is to say, for the sole purpose of connecting our spirit to G-d thereby, to the best of your abilities) serves as our soul’s “food” there.

That all accounts for why our sages put Torah study on par with all other mitzvot (Peah 2:1). For while the mitzvot we’d fulfilled serve as “garments” and only enable G-d’s “encompassing light” to surround us, the Torah we’d come to know serves both as the “food” that enables G-d’s “inner light” to infuse us *as well as* a garment to the mind and soul engrossed in it [7].

We’re also taught that this supplemental effect of both nourishing and clothing the soul is all the more so true when we enunciate the words of Torah we dwell on (which we’re thus encouraged to do). For then the very vapors that emit from our mouth at the time then act as “encompassing light“ as well (Pri Etz Chaim, Ch. 1).


[1] The Hebrew term in question, t’phissa, usually refers to taking hold of or grasping something with one’s hand, which will be alluded to shortly. But it can also suggest the idea of grasping something with one’s mind (see Maskil L’Eitan). Our discussion will play off of both senses of the term and will demonstrate how a person could grasp G-d’s wisdom with his mind, and grasp or take hold of His Being too in the process, by being encased by and encasing His will and wisdom.

[2] ... and in His mitzvot, too, though to a different degree.

[3] The text here speaks of the sechel she’maskil ... b’sichlo (literally, “the mind that comprehends ... with its mind”) and of the fact that the sechel tophet et hamuskal umakifo b’sichlo (“the mind grasps and surrounds the subject at hand with its mind”), both of which seem to indicate that the mind itself has a mind. This appears to be alluding to a higher mind or consciousness which does the grasping and somehow or another enables the ordinary mind to grasp as well. It might hence be addressing the process of Chochma (“Wisdom”) informing Binah (“Understanding”).

[4] It would do us well to raise a number of points about this. First off, making a new idea a part of your thoughts or accepting a stranger into your home (to use our example) obviously takes time and follows a progression. And some of us are more successful at either skill than others. Clearly, the degree to which we “absorb” and internalize new ideas and friends depends on the depths to which we go when we study (see Maskil L’Eitan), or the degree to which we reach out to guests. The same is true then of “grasping” G-d: the deeper we reflect on His Torah, and the more of ourselves we extend, the “tighter” will our grasp onto Him be.

Another important point is that it’s said that we even “take hold” of G-d to a degree when we study His Torah with ulterior motives, or even if we use our Torah knowledge to do someone a disservice (Likutei Biurim; Likut Perushim 5:4), because the damage done will eventually be undone when the one who studied Torah in that fashion repents (Maskil L’Eitan). The difference is that Torah studied less than altruistically doesn’t *nourish* him in terms we’ll discuss below (Maskil L’Eitan). (In fact, Maskil L’Eitan points out here that the repentance could even be done in another life!)

Let it also be said that we can begin to understand how G-d is said to “surround” all worlds, to “infuse” them at the same time, and to commingle with them from the notion of uniting with a thought as presented here (Likut Perushim 5:12).

The point could also be made that there’s absolutely no other instance of utter co-mingling like this in the world, since it’s a co-mingling of two utterly disparate entities: human intellect and Divine intellect (Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya). And let it also be underscored that not only does one’s mind co-mingle wth G-d at that time -- his entire being does, including his immortal soul (Maskil L’Eitan).

[5] Let’s clarify some details. There are several sorts of mitzvot connected with Torah. For example, there’s a mitzvah to write a Torah scroll, which is a physical mitzvah; there’s the one to enunciate words of Torah, which is verbal; and there’s a mitzvah to know and fully comprehend Torah concepts, which is intellectual. RZS’s point is that the latter is the greatest of all since it’s the only one that enables us to fully co-mingle with G-d’s presence.

[6] See Proverbs 25:21, Sukkah 52b, Chagigga 14a, and Zohar 2, p. 61b.

[7] G-d’s presence can be encountered on a large, all-encompassing level which is known as an experience of His “encompassing light” or on a more personal, intimate dimension known as an experience His “inner light”. Consequently, Torah study is on par with all other mitzvot because our having fulfilled mitzvot “only” enables us to encounter Him in broad terms, our having ingested Torah enables us to encounter Him inisde and out.

The fact that mitzvot are likened to clothing here isn’t meant to demean them, for they serve a very high purpose. After all, we’re taught that the soul’s garments shield it from the exquisite, but by-far too intense lustre of the Divine Presence in the Garden of Eden, which the soul couldn’t otherwise bear (Shiurim b’Sefer haTanya).

(c) 2006 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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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.
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