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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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Ch. 14

“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. 14


We’re nearly finished with this second part of the book that has laid-out the diversity of inner beings, so let’s clear up a couple of other quandaries found in the very first chapter. We’ll begin, though, by offering a word-for-word translation of a very important, compelling statement RSZ makes at the very beginning of this chapter (which we referred to in the previous one).

It reads, “The quality of benoni-ism is everyone's (to be had), it's one that everyone strives for; (and indeed,) everyone can become a benoni at any time”.

Let's bypass the idea in the middle of this complex sentence that benoni-ism is a quality that “everyone strives for" just now and concentrate instead on the point that “the quality of benoni-ism is everyone's (to be had)” and that “everyone can become a benoni at any time”.

What that means to say is that while few of us could ever hope to become a tzaddik, each one of us *can* become a benoni, regardless of our history, despite our makeup, and in an instant. We'd just need to truly repent for our sins and decide there and then never again to do, say, or think anything we're not to (see note 2 to Ch. 12).

After all, benoni-ism is “very near-at-hand to you -- in your mouth and in your heart -- so that you can do (i.e., achieve) it” (Deuteronomy 30:14), as has been stressed. And that's so because, as the middle section of our quote points out, it's the quality that “everyone strives for” -- or should, at least (Maskil L'Eitan) -- since on some level each one of us wants to draw close to G-d.


We can also achieve it because we needn't actually despise wrongdoing viscerally to be a benoni, or love G-d instinctively and intensely, which few of us actually do -- though there are times when we can, too, as when we pray or recite "Sh'ma Yisrael" with fervor, for example, when we celebrate Shabbat and Yom Tov in full, and at other auspicious moments of personal elevation, as has been pointed out.

"All" we'd have to do to become a benoni -- which is of course no small feat -- would be to never again do, say, or think anything wrong.

For while we haven't all that much control over what we despise and what we love, we *have* all been granted the freedom to make the right moral choices and to go against our own impulses if we want to [1]. Indeed, whenever we long for one material thing or another that's either out-and-out wrongful or just superfluous (see Ch. 7), all we'd need to do would be to distract ourselves from it altogether and we'd overcome the temptation [2].

Now, one way to do that, we're taught here, is to engage in the following inner-dialogue (loosely translated).

“You know, I don't want to be a rasha even for a minute! After all, who’d ever want to be disconnected from G-d Almighty by sinning (see Iggeret Hateshuva Ch. 5). I want to cling onto G-d with the whole of my being by fulfilling, verbalizing, and dwelling upon His Torah and mitzvot, and by drawing upon the love for Him that's just naturally sequestered in every Jew's heart [3]. After all, if even the simplest of Jews can give his life to Sanctity G-d's Name [4], I'm certainly no less capable of that than he!”

In fact, there are only a couple of reasons why anyone in his right mind would set out to do something that would make him a rasha. Either because he'd gone out of his mind and come to be possessed by the sort of temporary insanity the sages termed the “spirit of folly” (Sotah 3A; see Ch's 19, 24 below) [5], and imagined that he'd still be a good Jew despite his sin; or because he'd come to be completely out of touch with the native love for G-d in his Jewish heart (see Ch's 24-25) [6].

In any event, “I don't want to be a fool like that” the inner-dialogue would continue, “... I don't want to reject the truth that way!". For we can in fact manage to avoid doing that.


When it comes to literally hating wrongdoing (see 13:5) though, we can't possibly simply "decide" to do that; we'd first have to foster the sort of great and mighty love of G-d known as the “love of delights” which the righteous bask in, in the World to Come (see 9:4 and Ch. 27) and sometimes even in life [7].

But not everybody can arrive at that degree of love, let alone *bask* in the "love of delights", since it itself is a reward granted to those who strive for it, as is explained elsewhere (See Chinuch Kattan, Iggeret HaKodesh 18) [8].

And in fact our inability to just decide to hate wrongdoing explains why Job pointed out that G-d "created the ox with cloven hooves and ... the donkey with whole hooves ... " and likewise "created tzaddikim and rashaim" (9:7, see Babba Batra 16A and Ch. 1 in the original). What Job’s point was that just as an animal can't decide to be born other than how it is, we likewise can't aspire to be tzaddikim unless G-d grants us that make-up.

The same was intimated for all intents and purpose in the Tikkunei Zohar’s statement that (1B) “there are many orders and sorts of souls within the Jewish Nation: pious individuals, mighty ones who overpower their yetzer harahs, masters of Torah, prophets, ... tzaddikim, etc.”, to indicate that just as not everyone has the capacity to master Torah or be a prophet no matter how much he might want to, not everyone can be a tzaddik either.


Now we can understand another curiosity from chapter 1 -- the apparent redundancy of the vow our soul is told to take before we’re born to be a tzaddik and to also not be a rasha (Niddah 30B). After all, if it will be a tzaddik, it won't be a rasha by definition, so why would we have to stipulate both?

The point is that since not everyone can be a tzaddik and has the wherewithal to choose to truly delight in G-d's Presence, or to actually despise wrong, then we're told to vow to at least not be a rasha, but be a benoni [9]. And our having vowed to do that will give us the extra impetus and determination to succeed at that (Biur Tanya), at the very least on a subliminal level.

For, again, we have it within us to make the right ethical choices and to take control of our impulses and yetzer harah enough to not be a rasha moment after moment by "simply" not doing anything forbidden and doing everything we should (most especially to study Torah, which is the ultimate and best mitzvah [Pirke Avot 6:3]).


Nonetheless, we're to at least set aside time and find ways to *come to* despise wrong on one level or another. How? By applying the advice of our sages. They recommend at one point, for example, that we picture someone we're attracted to on a lascivious level or anything else earthly we're attracted to as being “a pot of dung”, in order to be thrown off and avoid temptation (Shabbat 152A).

What that means to say is that we're to set aside time to reflect dispassionately on the actual raw, roughhewn, and unpretty make-up of things that we're to avoid, and to take that thought to heart. For after all, the deliciousness of a fine meal is nothing more than the interplay of red, saliva-ridden glands with a compost of mashed food that will inevitably wind up as waste-matter, despite how alluring it is at the moment.

Indeed, if you're wise you can't help but see the inevitable in the present moment (see Pirke Avot 4:1) and realize that all such things will ultimately rot and turn to dust and ash -- while the very opposite is true of the sublime experience of delighting and rejoicing in G-d's Presence, which is truly, copiously luscious; utterly, all-encompassingly gripping; and richly, richly satisfying. And we can only come to the latter perspective by pondering G-d's infinite greatness as best we can. which the benoni is required to do as well (Maskil L'Eitan), not only the tzaddik.

And though we know full well -- if we’re honest with ourselves -- that we’ll never actually arrive at the point where we truly despise wrong so much as *think* we do or *act as if* we do, still and all we’re to do whatever we can to fulfill our vow to be a tzaddik on that level at least [10] and G-d will do what He deems best.

Besides, when you do something regularly, the habit itself starts to take over and to become second nature to you; and in the end, "routine (will) rule" (Sefer Mivchar HaP'nimim) and you'll indeed act as if you felt the way you seemed to be feeling. In point of fact, "second natures" are often actually stronger than "first", inborn natures (Likut Perushim, Maareh Mekomot, p. 262) [11].


Besides, the truth of the matter is that when you train yourself to despise wrong, you'll truly come to despise it on some level [12], and you'll foster at least *some* small measure of inner-transformation in the process (Biur Tanya). And training yourself to delight in G-d's Presence by pondering His greatness will also surely help [13].

That aid often comes from unexpected, more supernatural means, too. For we're taught that you just might merit being permeated or "possessed" by the soul of an august tzaddik from on high! And while you'd be being helped along by that soul, it would be *you* who'd have advanced in the end. That would then enable you to serve G-d in true joy, and to have actually fulfilled the vow you took to be a tzaddik -- on that level at least [14].


[1] As Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva (5:1), “Permission has been granted everyone to either incline himself in the direction of goodness and to be righteous or, if he so chooses, in the direction of evil and be wicked .... Of his own volition man can consciously and on his own distinguish between good and evil, and do whatever he wants to do, either good or evil, without anyone stopping him". (Recall of course that being "righteous" or "wicked" here hasn't very much to do with being either a tzaddik or rasha per se, as was discussed in 1:2.)

The subject at hand is human “free will” versus ”Divine compulsion” -- that is, whether we're free to do as we see fit, or if G-d (so to speak) transports us from place to place of His own volition, has us do what He wants us to, then carries us along to our next mission, despite ourselves. It contends with the question of how free we are to act out on our own wills; or put another way: where G-d's will end and our's begins; where our will ends and G-d's begin.

Rambam seems to say quite firmly here that man is utterly free to act on his own. For as he says later on in Hilchot Teshuva, “everyone has been granted the capacity to do anything in the human sphere ... he'd like to do” (5:3), “(G-d) want(s) man to be free and to have the ability to act any way he wants, without any deterrents or instigators, of his own G-d-given volition” (5:4), and "man's actions are in his own hands, ... G-d neither instigates or preordains what he's to do” (5:5).

Apparently, then, man is "as free as a bird”-- able to do what he wants, when he wants, as he wants. But, doesn't Rambam himself raise the question later on as to how anyone could do “anything he wants and be allowed to act any way he cares to?” and how, “anything in the world (can) be done without the permission or against the will of the Creator? For isn't it written, ‘All that G-d wants done in heaven or on earth is done’ (Psalms 135:6)?”

But it seems to come to this: Man *isn’t* as free as a bird. In fact, no matter how hard he tries, or how much he’s determined to, he could never fly on his own. Nor could he live to two-hundred, or survive without the ability to breathe (at least without artificial means), etc., etc. And G-d Almighty *does* manifest and express His will all the time, which by definition, is utterly and uniquely invincible and unstoppable.

Still and all, though, man is completely free in one area and domain -- in his moral decisions. As we're taught, “Everything's in the hands of Heaven -- except the fear of Heaven” (Berachot 33B), and only that. That's to say that while G-d Almighty instigates all things and all actions, my moral reactions to them is in my hands and left to me alone.

As such, we have absolute control over our moral decisions -- over how we react to all that G-d presents us with. But that's all we have control over. Everything, but everything else is under the direct and constant rule of G-d Almighty alone.

[2] Of course we could partake of our permitted but superflous desires for more altruistic reasons, but we'd need to be aware of whether we're fooling ourselves into thinking we're doing that when we aren't (Maskil L'Eitan; see Hilchot De'ot Ch. 3), the way we'd need to be sure we're not fooling ourselves about our spiritual standing either (see 13:3 above and note 5 there).

Also see Moshe Chaim Luzzatto’s statement to the effect that “the yetzer harah ... knows that if you were to concentrate upon your ways for just an instant you would certainly repent of them, and a strong regret would grow within you” automatically, as he implies, “that would lead you to utterly abandon your sins” right there and then (The Path of the Just Ch. 2).

[3] This concept will be explained later on in the work, but for now let it be said that this love is just naturally sequestered in each and every Jewish heart, without exception; it's rooted in the interconnection between the Jewish soul and G-d's being; it's beyond reason and isn't predicated on anything we do, though it can be prompted by reflection; it isn't undone by our preoccupation with worldly concerns or our sins; and it's what drives us to attach ourselves unto G-d's being and to even sacrifice our lives for His sake, when that's called for, as we'll see later on (Maskil L’Eitan).

[4] ... if forced to (see Ch's 18 and 19 below).

[5] One way to know if we'd become temporarily insane, we're told, would be to determine for ourselves if we'd begun to grant the world and its delights more substance than they're worth and taken them to be more satisfying than they are; and if we'd begun to spurn G-d's presence in the face of them (see Maskil L’Eitan).

Also see Sichot HaRan (#6), where Rebbe Nachman of Breslov likened the yetzer harah to someone running about through a crowd with a hand held tightly shut, giddily asking everyone what they thought he might be hiding, whom everyone then chased after because they imagined his hand contained the very thing they wanted most, and who were all terribly disappointed to discover that his hand had been empty all along.

[6] And so we're taught that the only point at which we can actually stop ourselves outright from falling sway to the "spirit of folly" is the very moment it first occurs to us to commit a particular sin. All we'd have to do then would be to distract ourselves. But once it had gone past that point and traveled along our thought-and-impulse processes all would be lost for all intents and purposes, because we hadn't distracted ourselves. For the "spirit of folly" would have taken over (Likutei Biurim, in the name of R' Chaim Vitale).

[7] Our sages referred to that as “seeing your (eternal) world while (yet) alive” (Berachot 17A).

[8] Moshe Chaim Luzzatto referred to this phenomenon (which he termed the state of "holiness") as being, "a twofold matter: (which) begins in effort and ends in recompense; and (which) begins in striving and ends in being given as a gift .... because it's impossible for a human to place himself in this state which -- because he is in truth physical, and flesh and blood-- is so difficult for him. All you can do is make the effort of seeking the true knowledge, and try to constantly give thought to the sanctification of your actions. Ultimately, G-d alone can direct you in this, the path you would like to follow, and can have His holiness dwell upon you and sanctify you" (Messilat Yesharim, Ch. 26).

[9] In fact it could be said that the essential difference between a tzaddik and a benoni is that while a benoni doesn't want to do wrong any more than a tzaddik does, he's still and all persuaded to sometimes, while the tzaddik simply despises wrong and wants absolutely no part of it (Likutei Biurim).

We could liken the difference between the two to the difference between someone who could be persuaded to drink alcohol or not (depending on circumstances and social pressures) who thus might end up becoming an alcoholic or not, and someone who simply hates the taste, effects, etc., of alcohol and wouldn't think of drinking it, who'd never be an alcoholic.

[10] We might posit that by doing that we'd at least achieve the level of tzaddik depicted in 1:2 -- one "mostly free of sin", as cited it Hilchot Teshuva 3:1.

[11] This concept will be expanded upon in the next chapter, where more of the methodology is laid out.

[12] See 13:6 above about relative truth.

[13] And besides, as most know, while epiphanies -- true and deep insights into significant things -- are very, very satisfying and long-lasting, material or sensual satisfaction is very short-lived, and could actually be said to be unsatisfying by comparison (Likut Perushim, Maareh Mekomot, p. 261).

RSZ’s compares this effort to a “spur from below” ushering in a corresponding “spur from above” (see Zohar 1, p. 86B, 88A; 2, p.135B).

[14] A soul comes back to the world in two different ways, we're taught. Either fully embodied again (as a gilgul, in order to rectify sins which that same soul committed in past lives), or as a soul encased within another individual now in a body (as an ibur) to assist it in its Divine service (Likutei Biurim, Maskil L'Eitan based on Shaar HaGilgulim 4-5).

Note, though, that while the first instance is clearly, though necessarily, self-serving on some level, the second is utterly altruistic.

(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
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