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, January 04, 2007

Ch. 11

“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. 11


As we'd said in ch. 6, "each and every thing in this world has a parallel, mirror opposite" -- including our ethical and spiritual standing. So just as there are complete and less-than-complete tzaddikim, there are likewise complete and less-than-complete wrongdoers, *rashaim*. A complete and utter rasha (singular of rashaim) is someone who's hopelessly out-and-out wicked, while a less-than-complete rasha is one whose goodness has been overwhelmed and "outnumbered" by his or her wrongfulness, to be sure, but less so.

In short, a rasha is someone whose goodness which is nestled in his G-dly spirit is overcome by the wrongfulness in his animalistic spirit. But know too that there are as many different grades of rashaim as there are of tzaddikim.

In point of fact and highly ironically (as well as emblematic of our age, we’d dare say), we'd sometimes consider some rashaim to be rather *good and wholesome* people who "happen to lapse", as we’d put it, from time to time. Indeed according to RSZ, a rasha might even sin in only very minor ways and only once-in-a-great-while. So we'll clearly have to delineate just what a rasha is and what he’s not.


We'll start off by examining the makeup of less-than-complete, let's say ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill rashaim. By definition, they're people who are guilty of either uttering, thinking, or doing forbidden things. But as we suggested above, the sins they commit might be rather innocuous.

They might for example dally with only minor hands-on prohibitions; or they might say something ambiguous about someone that might only insinuate something bad about him rather than out-and-out slander him [1]; or they might speak disparagingly or sarcastically about something or another (which is forbidden of us), but certainly not vengefully or acrimoniously [2]; they might only think or fantasize about sinning (by having lewd thoughts, for example) without actually planning to act out on those thoughts [3]; or they might be free to study Torah and decide not to, and delve into inanities instead (see Pirke Avot 3:4) -- though not into actual heresy. In fact, they might not even really enjoy these lapses (Biur Tanya) and only fall into them out of sheer force of habit or upbringing, laziness, apathy and the like.

Nonetheless, despite the seeming "normalcy" and "reasonableness" of their sins, and *even though they might have committed no other sins in their lifetime* such individuals are still considered rashaim at that point [4]! For at bottom, anyone who sins -- whose animalistic spirit overtakes him and has him do something wrong -- is a rasha [5].

But all is not lost for the many of us who are guilty of this of course, G-d forbid!


For once a rasha of this ilk -- once someone like most of us! -- regains himself and regrets what we did, and asks G-d to forgive him for his sins, He indeed will, and he’ll be a full-fledged penitent [6]. That is, as long as he takes our sages' advice as to how to completely undo the various sorts of sins we tend to lapse into [7].

Understand as well, nonetheless, that though he'd indeed be forgiven if he does teshuvah -- he nevertheless remains a rasha essentially (Likutei Biurim), since he's still capable of lapsing into sin (Tanya M’vuar)!

We'll get back to this troubling notion soon enough, but let's now speak about people we're more comfortable denouncing as rashaim.


Though there's a wide variety of them as well, out-and-out rashaim are generally the sort of people who lapse into more serious sins and do, say, or think some rather bad, and even some awful and horrible things -- perhaps again and again, and time after time.

But some of them can also regret their sins and think of repenting (thanks to the native goodness in their G-dly spirits). It's just that they haven't the wherewithal to conquer one sin or another they'd become habituated to, so they *don't* tend to repent.

They're termed "rashaim (who are) full of regrets" (see Reishit Chochma, Sha’ar HaYira, Ch. 3. But at bottom all such rashaim have is regret, and little more.

In point of fact, though, some out-and-out, thoroughgoing rashaim *never* regret what they do and never even consider repenting. And that’s because their animalistic spirit had so overtaken their G-dly spirit that the latter leaves its place in their heart and merely "hovers overhead" instead [8].


So let's step back now and reflect on what we've learned in this chapter as we did with the last.

For one thing it's clear that, contrary to a tzaddik, a rasha (of whatever stripe) doesn't have a deep and abiding relationship with G-d -- though he may love and revere Him now and then to some degree or another, or not; he doesn't reflect upon or grasp G-d's greatness, at least to any great degree; and he's certainly not flawless, either in deed or in belief.

It's also clear -- although sad to say and even off-putting but true -- that according to the above *nearly everyone is a rasha to one extent or another*, regardless of whether he or she is Torah observant or not! In fact, a person can even be a Torah scholar and full of good deeds, and still be a rasha essentially (if not in deed) [9].

Now, everyone knows that we're all imperfect, but few of us would characterize the great majority of us as utterly sinful. Primarily because it's largely counter-intuitive and too gloomy a thought. So, since none one other than the most select few of us is a tzaddik; and since very, very few of us achieve the next-best Benoni-state to be depicted in the chapters to follow, for one reason or another, it's vitally important to underscore the following.

Every single one of us has the wherewithal to better him- or herself and to no longer do wrong. For in fact as we'd seen, that idea serves as the very nub of this entire work. RSZ assures us in the frontispiece that we can overcome our failings and indeed draw close to G-d Almighty if we want to, for the process is “very near-at-hand to you -- in your mouth and in your heart. So you *can* achieve it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). And as we said there, indeed "the formula is clear: obey, and prosper; disobey, and languish", and the procedure is neither “hidden or far way” (v. 11-13) -- instead, it's “very near-at-hand to you -- in your (very) mouth and in your heart” (v. 14).

Yet we're getting ahead of ourselves -- but only so as not to grow discouraged.


For another thing, it's important to recall that despite the fact that the term "rasha" is often understood to be an out-and-out wicked person, that's only true of the extreme end of the spectrum, as we’d pointed out. Another thing to be reiterated is that a rasha is a wrongdoer, plain and simple; and the vast majority of us are indeed just that (even though we also do a lot of good). So it seems that we're simply being forced to face ourselves starkly and honestly.

Indeed, nothing's more threatening and off-putting but better for a soul than the truth outright. Since it leads to the sort of sad dissatisfaction that is a springboard to eventual fulfillment.

In another, vitally important way, though, we're not simply rashaim and no more. After all, what we are at bottom are souls incarnate (see ch. 31) which are "a veritable part of G-d, an unadulterated spark of pure G-dliness" (see ch. 2). For indeed, "we ... all have a G-dly spirit. Each and every Jew, without exception" (Ibid.). And we're thus each connected to G-d despite our predilections, "the way each and every child is connected to his parents ... throughout his life regardless of the sort of person he might have turned out to be" (Ibid.). And lastly, we can always derive "spiritual nourishment and vitality by associating and aligning ourselves" with actual tzaddikim, which will then enable us to affix our beings on to G-d (ibid.) [10]. So all is indeed not lost, even if we remain rashaim, G-d forbid.

In any event, we can still strive for a higher level, if not full righteousness, which is the benoni state. We'll now begin to explore that.



[1] This is referred to as uttering the "dust" (i.e., the merest wisp) of slander. The classic example of that entails responding vaguely to a stranger's question as to where he could find a hot meal in town by saying that he could always find one in so-and-so's house, since there's always something on the fire there (Eruchin 16B). The statement is somewhat slanderous because of its nebulousness. It could either indicate that so-and-so is always prepared for guests (to his credit) -- or that he's simply a glutton. Thus, a speaker who meant to praise so-and-so would have been guilty of besmirching his character if his listener took what he said the wrong way.

But we're told that *everyone* is guilty of the "dust" of slander (Babba Battra 165A) -- tzaddikim apparently included. "Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Most (people are guilty) of robbery, some (are guilty) of lewdness, but all (are guilty) of ... the 'dust' of slander". Apparently then RSZ must contend that the statement isn't to be taken literally, and that while indeed *virtually* everyone is guilty of it, some aren't. We'll return to this point shortly since it touches on a larger issue.

[2] One disparages another by insulting or discouraging him. Rabbeinu Yonah cites different examples of disparagement (The Gates of Repentance 3:174-177), but the most innocent of all is disparaging someone jokingly rather than out of meanness or worse, which is apparently the sort of disparagement RSZ is referring to here.

[3] RSZ points out in the text itself that we're taught that thinking about sinning is actually more serious and onerous than sinning itself (see Yomah 29A). But what's wrong with merely *thinking* about sinning if you don't actuate your thoughts? It's explained that since by definition thoughts aren't actions, it's harder regretting having had them and thus harder to repent for them (Biur Tanya), and that's why they're more serious. But that still begs the question as to why the fantasies themselves are forbidden.

Some say that since your thoughts are deeper within your being than your actions are, it follows that thinking about sinning taints you on a far deeper level than actions do (see Maskil L’Eitan). Others say that it’s because thought is a very significant phenomenon, so when you “stain” it, it would be like staining fine linen as opposed to staining the coarse wool of physical actions; or it's because the very fact that you’re thinking of something untoward goes to show just how attached to it you are (Likut Perushim, Maareh Mekomot, pp. 224-225).

Yet if thinking of sinning is worse than actually doing so, then why in fact is someone who thinks of sinning listed here among those on the lower, less serious scale of rashaim? Because at bottom some forbidden thoughts are less damaging than others.

[4] As we're taught later on, even if you commit a minor transgression you still and all do go against G-d's Will and thus sever yourself from His Presence (Ch. 24; see Maskil L’Eitan).

[5] See note 10 to the previous chapter for the sinful convictions a rasha could also have.

Let's refer back now to what we said at the end of note 1 above. There are other statements that indicate that no one is utterly without sin. We're told that "there is no one so righteous upon earth that does good and does not sin" (Ecclesiastes 7:20), that "there is no man who does not sin" (1 Kings 18:46; 2 Chronicles 6:36), and we're even advised not to be "too righteous" (Ibid. 7:16). Rambam asserts that “each and every person has his merits and his offenses” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:1), that "it is no more possible to be born either inherently lofty or flawed than it is to be born instinctively adept at a trade" (Sh'mone Perakim, ch. 8), and that prophets -- whom Rambam asserted were of greater rank than the pious (Ibid. Introduction) -- "couldn’t prophesy unless (they had) acquired all the intellectual virtues and *most* of the more significant personal ones" (Ibid., ch. 7, italics added), indicating that they were not without their flaws, however minor.

Hence, many would argue against RSZ's position and posit that *no one* is utterly righteous.

Another point to be made is that we might wonder how the world manages to go on if the great preponderance of us are rashaim. After all, weren't many in antiquity destroyed as a consequence of their immorality, like the people of the Generation of the Dispersion and of Sodom?

For Rambam records that "If a country's inhabitants' merits outweigh their offenses, the country is considered righteous; while if its inhabitants' offenses outweigh their merits, it's considered evil. And the same is true of the world at large, as well" (Hilchot Teshuva 3:1). He then goes on to report there that "when the offenses of (the world's) inhabitants outweigh their merits, *it's to be destroyed immediately*" (Ibid. 3:2, italics added). Since the world hasn't been destroyed, it might stand to reason then that humanity as a whole is in fact more righteous than wrongful.

Rambam does provide us, though, with an insight about the state of things that might help to explain this conundrum. He points out that "the determination of all this isn't based on the number of offenses or merits (we each commit) so much as *their relative worth*. For there are some merits that compensate for several offenses ... and ... some offenses that compensate for several merits" (italics added). After all, not everything we do and experience is laid out plain and mathematically explicit.

His point is that the determination of the value of our thoughts, utterances, and actions "can only be made by All-knowing G-d; since only He knows the relative worth of our merits and offenses." Thus it could indeed be argued that we're less wrongful than we appear to be since we do still exist.

[6] First, understand that his regret wouldn't be hypocritical, as we might think, but rather a partial [albeit flawed] victory in an inner conflict between his two disparate spirits (Biur Tanya).

Second, realize that if he so uproots his untoward desire that it was as if he hadn't committed that particular sin -- or any other, then he'd have become a benoni (Likutei Biurim), which will be discussed in the following chapters.

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto explains the dynamics behind the efficacy of regret in The Path of the Just, where he writes that "the uprooting of the *will* to (commit a particular sin) is equivalent to uprooting the act itself". For by virtue of the fact that "the penitent recognizes his sin ... and regrets having done it as much as he'd regret a vow he'd made inadvertently, sincerely wishes he had never done that thing, is terribly pained in his heart that he'd ever done such a thing ... -- such an uprooting of the (sin) from his will is likened to rescinding the vow, and he is forgiven (i.e., absolved)" (Ch. 4).

Assumedly, though, as Maimonides would put it, he'd have to have come to the point where "He who discerns all concealed things" -- G-d Almighty -- "would affirm that he'd never again commit that sin" (Hilchot Teshuva 2:2), which would be a decidedly solid and thorough point to have come to.

[7] See Yomah 86A (as well as RSZ's Iggeret HaTshuvah 1) where it's said that sins are indeed forgiven as a consequence of teshuvah, but not necessarily right there and then. For, one who doesn't fulfill an imperative but then repents is forgiven immediately; while one who commits a transgression but then repents isn't forgiven until the following Yom Kippur; and one who commits a transgression that incurs excision or capital punishment but then repents is only forgiven after having suffered tribulations.

Also see 7:4 above, and Hilchot Teshuvah Ch. 2. And see the late Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l’s insightful, rather exhaustive yet concise layout of the degrees of teshuvah one might achieve or not manage to, depending on his spiritual rank; the various categories of sins different sorts of rashaim might be more or less prone to; and what might inspire some rashaim to repent which might not influence others as cited in Likut Perushim 11:1.

[8] What that indicates for one thing is that one’s G-dly spirit is never totally vanquished and undone, no matter the depths to which we might sink; and that it's ready to descend at anytime, no matter how rarely it may be asked to. It also alludes to how little some people sense its presence.

Understand as well that while here are *degrees* of hovering, including hovering close overhead, somewhat at a distance, etc.; nonetheless at bottom, it's still a gift from G-d that such a state exists (Maskil L’Eitan).

Let it also be said outright that one could be utterly removed from and opposed to Torah, and still call upon his G-dly spirit (ibid.).

RSZ cites the sages' statement that "the Shechina is present whenever ten Jews (of whatever moral stripe) eat together" (Sanhedrin 39A) at this point in the text as proof of this. For what that indicates is that the Shechina can't help but dwell where there are 10 Jews -- even if they’re utter rashaim (Biur Tanya).

[9] See the discussion of the great Rabbah's quandary in ch. 1, which will be followed through on in ch. 13.

[10] Also see Rabbeinu Yonah's comments that "a person’s (spiritual) status is determined by what he praises. For if he praises good deeds, sages, and the righteous, you’d know and could determine for yourself that he himself is good and basically righteous .... And while such a person may have committed some secret sins himself, he’s nonetheless a lover of righteousness and is rooted in what’s right. And he’s thus a member of the community of those who honor G-d" (The Gates of Repentance 3:148).

(c) 2007 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.
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