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.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ch. 12

“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. 12


Now, since it's the "benoni" state that offers us the most hope, in light of the fact that so few of us are or will ever actually be tzaddikim, let's explore it in depth and contrast it with the tzaddik and rasha states.

A benoni is depicted as someone whose animalistic biases are still there within and haven’t be transmuted to goodness as they had been in a tzaddik’s heart, all right. But they nonetheless never vanquish or conquer his G-dly biases (the way a rasha's animalistic biases do) [1]. And as a result, the benoni is said to *never sin*, be it in thought, speech, or in action; and he’s able to funnel all his thoughts, utterances, and actions into mitzvot instead of sins [2].

So let's examine the benoni's makeup in more depth.


It's vitally important to understand, though, that the only reason why a benoni doesn't actually sin is because of the fact that his three outer "garments" aren't overtaken by his animalistic spirit [3]. That's to say that while it's true that he doesn't think, say, or actually do anything wrong -- nonetheless "inside" those garments where he himself lies, a benoni *can* be overtaken by his animalistic spirit (unlike the tzaddik who’s no longer subject to that).

So, his righteousness is in a certain, broad sense only "skin deep", in that in his core he isn't fully, essentially righteous; it's just that no one would know that, given how righteous all his thoughts, utterances, and actions are [4].

That's certainly not to say that he's a hypocrite or self-delusional. Only that despite his overt and thoroughly honest goodness and devotion, deep in his being he's still-and-all open to sins and shortcomings. Hence unlike a tzaddik, a benoni is always engaged in an inner struggle (Biur Tanya); always at risk of lapsing.


But there *are* instances in which the benoni's inner being is actually free from the tauntings of his animalistic spirit -- though only temporarily. And that would be when he's reciting The Sh'ma or uttering The Sh'mone Esrai prayer [5]. Since those are times when distinct and extraordinary interactions between G-d and us can take place, which are termed instances of Mochin d'Gadlut (literally, "large mindedness", or "amplified awareness").

For that's when we can all attach our G-dly spirit's three mind elements (see 3:1 above) unto G-d's presence by reflecting deeply upon G-d's infinite greatness, and we can set off a sense of fiery love for Him in our hearts and cling unto Him.

"Extra light" is said to shine downward upon us from up above then [6], which then enables more light to shine upon the G-dly spirit, that in turn helps it to suppress the animalistic spirit (Likutei Biurim). The benoni's mind connects more easily to G-d then, and he can thus delve more deeply into G-d's greatness, and more easily arouse the sort of fiery love that lies dormant in the right side of his heart [7]. Those, then, are the most propitious moments in a soul’s life.

So indeed, that's when the benoni's animalistic spirit is subjugated to his G-dly spirit (the way a tzaddik's is), since his mind is attached to G-d's greatness then.

It's just that his animalistic spirit is only asleep, if you will, then, and his capacity to sin is temporarily "turned off". The point is that his animalistic spirit will still-and-all awaken just as soon as the benoni finishes praying and he once again starts to fantasize about one worldly attraction or another (though some small semblance of his prayers can and often does indeed stay with him through the day [see Maskil L’Eitan]).


Nonetheless since his animalistic spirit doesn't have full reign over him as it largely does in the case of a rasha, the benoni never actually sins in thought, speech, or action, as we said, and he never dwells on how to satisfy his desires. But, how? By virtue of the fact that his mind is able to control his heart. Which is to say that he can consciously decide to ignore his inner promptings and do what's right.

In fact, we *all* have this innate ability to consciously control our desires (Zohar 3, p. 224A) -- albeit with a struggle -- and to thus not succumb to sinful thoughts, utterances, or deeds [8]. And we can even distract our minds from earthly desires to the point where we can foster *holy* desires (which -- truth be known -- seems so out of character for us, as attached as we often are to the world) [9].

In any event the verse that best illustrates this phenomenon reads, "I saw that wisdom is as superior to foolishness as light is to darkness" (Ecclesiastes 2:13). What that indicates is that just as light is clearly superior to and more potent than darkness, given that just a little of it routinely dispels a lot of darkness, our animalistic spirit's all-encompassing foolishness can likewise be easily dispersed by applying just a touch of the wisdom that lies in our G-dly spirit.

After all, as our sages said, "A person only sins when the spirit of foolishness overcomes him (Sotah 3A), which is to say that left to our own devices we'd never sin, thanks to our G-dly spirit's inherent wisdom and light; we only do when we acquiesce to the darkness and foolishness that lies at the heart of our animalistic sprit. For at bottom our G-dly spirit wants to reign over our being and work its way into our thoughts, utterances, and actions, and to fulfill mitzvot by their means.


But a benoni is still and all not a tzaddik -- despite the fact that the light of his G-dly spirit became greater than the dark foolishness of the husks in his being, and regardless of the fact that it played no part in any of his thoughts, utterances, and deeds. Since his inner being hadn't been fully disassociated from the animalistic spirit, and because his animalistic spirit reemerges -- in full flower -- as soon as the benoni finishes praying.

Why is that so? Because the only sort of love of G-d in his heart would be the sort that's naturally sequestered in our G-dly spirit all the time rather than the more exalted "fiery love" for Him, which we’ll learn about later on in this work. And so he's capable of sinning right after having prayed, and of desiring all sorts of mundane things -- both permitted and forbidden -- as if he hadn't just prayed. It's just that it wouldn't occur to him to *actually* sin.

He might indeed, though, be subject to a sudden and involuntary influx of untoward thoughts, which would confound his Divine service and Torah study. After all, as our sages said, "(There are) three sins that no one escapes from for even a day: Sinful thoughts, (lack of) concentration in prayer, and the 'dust' of slander" (Baba Battra 164B) [10]. Nevertheless, the impression left behind in his being from his prayers as well as the fear and love of G-d that's naturally sequestered in his heart do indeed help him to overcome those sorts of thoughts, and prevent them from ruling over him and from having him act out on their promptings.

That's why, in the end, the benoni's animalistic spirit doesn't take control over his untoward thoughts and thus can't force him to dwell on them. As he's able to reject them out of hand as soon as they occur to him and to be repulsed by them [11]. And he's also able to simply refuse to consciously dwell on them, act out on them, or to even utter them; since anyone who dwells on such thoughts is deemed a rasha at that point, while a benoni is never, ever a rasha -- not even for a moment.


The same goes for the way the benoni interacts with others.

For as soon as anything like animosity, hatred, jealousy, or anger would occur to him, his mind would prevail over the inclination, he’d reject the thought, and he'd express empathy and love towards the other person instead of enmity, and would do what’s right [12].

He'd never express anger toward that other person for example, and he'd actually bend over backwards to do favors for anyone who had offended him, the way Joseph did for his brothers (see Zohar 1, 201A) [13].


[1] The nub of untoward thoughts do occur to the benoni though, which distract him from Torah study and from his mitzvah-life and have him long for worldly things, as we'll see later on in this chapter. But they don't *vanquish or conquer* him (Likutei Biurim), though they certainly do gnaw away at his being on some level.

[2] Curiously, the benoni is actually portrayed as being someone who has "*never sinned in his life* nor *ever would*". We're never told that a tzaddik never sinned or never would, so how could that be! Is a benoni then greater yet than a tzaddik? He's really not, by definition; so what's RSZ's point?

Part of the answer lies in something we'll learn in ch. 14. RSZ writes there that anyone can *become* a benoni at any time, which means to say that the benoni state is a fluid rather than a fixed one: no one is born a benoni and no one is denied the opportunity to become one. (And a tzaddik can descend to teh level of one, and lower -- see Maareh Mekomot, p. 235). Thus we can say that when one does indeed become a benoni he rises above and severes his personal ties to all past sins, and that that new lofty states affirms that he'll never sin in the future either (Likutei Biurim, Maskil L’Eitan, Tanya M'vuar). And that's why he can be said to have never sinned or to never sin.

But some frankly see this explanation as rather far-fetched (Likutei Biurim). After all, we're advised to reiterate all our past sins year after year in our confessions on Yom Kippur (see The Gates of Repentance 4:21), which seems to affirm that our sins are never fully gone, on one level; and we're likewise taught to never rest assured that we won't ever sin in the future (see Pirke Avot 2:4 and ch. 30), thus we can never be sure we'll never sin in the future.

So we'd offer another explanation, based on a statement made in ch. 7. We're taught there that when we sin, our souls attach itself on to the other side and we become removed from G-d. Now, could there be anything more daunting or exasperating for anyone trying to draw *closer* to G-d than that?

"What could I possibly do to reverse that and return to G-d?" such a person would wonder. What we're told he -- or any one of us in such straits -- could do is *long* to return to Him. But not just simply and honestly -- rather, "with an intensity *that even the righteous can't muster*"; an intensity that's truly "heartfelt and thoroughgoing" (ch. 7).

The point is that a benoni is thus the ideal and true penitent at bottom.

He's someone who had gone awry in the past, come to realize how far off the mark he'd wandered, then managed to undo and *redo* himself. And that while he'd indeed distanced himself from G-d, it was that very distance that had him draw close; i.e., his "illness" itself had enabled him to produce enough "antibodies" to be fully healed. So in a certain sense a benoni could be considered greater than a tzaddik. Since "the reward conforms to the efforts made" (Pirke Avot 8:23) and the benoni has in fact worked harder at his service to G-d than a tzaddik (see Biur Tanya; and Hilchot Teshuvah 7:4,7).

[3] See 4:2 for a discussion of the soul's "garments".

[4] Of course, only an individual himself and G-d Almighty can really know what anyone is and whether or not his righteousness goes to the core. But one can often-enough "read" another's mind in a sense if he's familiar enough with that person's patterns of actions and utterances. Of course no such reading is foolproof, since there are many well-trained individuals (like actors, con-men, and even well-meaning teachers of different stripes) who can indeed mislead others, but the point is still largely valid.

[5] "Reciting 'The Sh'ma'" entails reading and concentrating on certain potent and affirmative verses that speak about G-d's oneness, might, love, dependability, and justice; about His expectations of us; and about the exile, including Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11: 13-21, and Numbers 15:38-41.

The "Sh'mone Esrai” is the central text of all Jewish prayer.

[6] I.e., a greater degree of immaterial, numinous "nourishment" from up above is said to shine.

[7] RSZ says that this process is in effect not only when we recite the Sh'ma and Sh'mone Esrai -- but also when we recite the blessings before the Sh'ma and after it (and hence before the Sh'mone Esrai). We're told in ch. 49 below that the first of those blessings depicts different aspects of G-d's greatness -- how the most sublime angels are nullified in His presence, how far exalted above them He is, etc. And that the second one tells of how much He loves the Jewish Nation, how He draws them close to Him, etc. Hence, after reflecting upon these blessings one is indeed ready to recite The Sh'ma in the appropriately lofty state of mind.

It's nonetheless important to point out that it's nonetheless true that the benoni's love doesn't "spill over" to the left side of his heart then, and thus doesn't "douse" the fiery love for the world in our being as it would for a tzaddik (Maskil L’Eitan).

[8] This ability will prove to be a major theme of this work, by the way. What it comes down to is consciously and willfully changing your focus away from one thing to its extreme opposite. (The truth be known, it’s indeed the will that matters most in the process, since it’s what has ultimate control over the personality [Likut Perushim, Maareh Mekomot, p. 237]). In fact, we all exhibit this ability to set "mind over matter" in various areas of our life, as when we decide to undergo surgery, for example, even when we're afraid to, simply because it has to be done (Maskil L’Eitan).

[9] Let's explain the difference between a benoni and a tzaddik at this point by using the analogy of a country being threatened by an outside interloper, as cited in 9:3 above.

A tzaddik would have completely vanquished the enemy, who'd thus no longer be a threat. An incomplete rasha -- even one who engages in Torah and mitzvot most of his life -- does find the enemy coming in and out of his borders all the time. And while a benoni would have prevented the enemy from entering the city, he'd still have to be on the lookout for him all the time. But unlike the rasha, the benoni wouldn't let the enemy in (though it would always be a struggle for him -- other than at auspicious times) (Biur Tanya).

[10] See our note 5 to ch. 11.

[11] That's to say that while the benoni still has to contend with untoward thoughts on some level, the same sorts of thoughts merely appear-then-disappear in an incomplete tzaddik's mind, while utter tzaddikim don't even experience them (Maskil L’Eitan).

{12] Some would say that while a benoni might experience anger and the like *within*, he nonetheless wouldn't allow the emotion to come full-bloom (Biur Tanya). But that still raises the question as to how we (as potential benonim) can manage to damper what are sometimes very, very compelling emotions. After all, as someone once indicated, while it's easy enough living alone with G-d if you will and to be on the best of terms with Him, it's extraordinarily difficult living with other people, managing to stay the course, and not lapsing into smallness and meanness.

So perhaps the best advice is that offered elsewhere by RSZ, who counsels that we're to assume a whole other attitude toward the world around us to succeed at that. We're to recall that in fact "there's no place void of Him" (Tikkunei Zohar, 27), i.e., of G-d. For keeping that in mind enables us to be "happy and joyous all the time", as RSZ puts it. After all it only follows, he reasons, that anyone "who's sad and somber ... denies G-d's omnipresence."

That's to say that anyone who truly believes that G-d's comforting and benevolent presence is all around wouldn't "be perturbed by any suffering whatever" -- "'yes' and 'no' would be all the same to him". So we're to believe that "everything is absolutely good, though we don't apprehended it as such", since "when one truly believes that, then everything *becomes* good" (Iggeret HaKodesh, Ch. 11), and living in society becomes easier.

[13] Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, but he nonetheless used his capacity as Viceroy of Egypt to feed and provide for his brothers and their extended families (see Genesis 37 to 50).

(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.
Rabbi Feldman also offers two free e-mail classes on entitled
"Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal"


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