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 28, 2007

Ch. 15

“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. 15


We've spent the last several chapters defining a benoni and contrasting him with a rasha and a tzaddik. But we're going to go beyond that from this point on and begin explaining how a benoni -- how each one of us -- is to serve G-d, knowing what we do now about a benoni's potentials and limitations (see Biur Tanya).

It will become clear from here on that at bottom the benoni's life is one of ever-faithful, on-going acts of Divine service. But not only is that so, he'd also be expected to grow level by level without ever stopping either (Biur Tanya), much the way a professional in any field would need to keep advancing in his craft if he's ever to reach his full potential.

In any event, let's first try to illustrate just what sets one benoni apart from the others in his "profession"; what makes one more successful than another in his Divine service. And we'll do that by explaining a curious verse that will illustrate it for us.


We're told that there’ll come a time when we’ll see for ourselves “the difference between a tzaddik, a rasha, one who serves G-d, and one who doesn’t serve Him” (Malachi 3:18). But that's odd because it seems to imply that there are four types of individuals: a tzaddik, a rasha, someone who serves G-d, and someone who doesn’t. But isn’t that redundant, since it seems that a tzaddik is “one who serves G-d” and a rasha is one who “who doesn’t serve Him”? But RSZ’s point will be that there’s a distinct difference between tzaddikim and those who serve G-d (as he understands the latter) [1].

According to RSZ, “one who serves G-d” is someone who does so on an ongoing basis [2], who's always battling his yetzer harah, forever trying to expunge it from his being, always making sure that he never thinks, utters, or does anything wrong -- and more, as we'll soon see [3]. That's to say that “one who serves G-d” is the benoni par excellence.

A tzaddik would be termed “a (fully accomplished) servant of G-d”, in that he’s impeccable in his service to G-d and is now an utter, absolute, bona fide servant of Him rather than just someone going about serving Him. (Much the way a full-fledged, consumate Talmudist is an out-and-out “Talmudic scholar” rather than a “student of Talmud”). For the tzaddik would have already won his war against the yetzer harah and fully expunged it from his being, and wouldn’t have to do anything else along those lines [4].

But there'll prove to be real distinctions between people who "merely", so to speak, serve G-d on an ongoing basis and those who go further yet.


So again, the verse isn't speaking of tzaddikim in fact but of different sorts of benonim: those who actively and conscientiously “serve G-d” and those “who don’t serve Him" all that much. That's not to say that the latter doesn't serve G-d whatsoever, since that would deem him an out-and-out rasha. It’s just that he’s the sort of benoni who wouldn't have to have served G-d -- wouldn’t have to have fought against his impulses and dedicated them to the service of G-d, that is -- assiduously, purposefully, and with great effort, because he never had to battle his yetzer harah all that much to maintain his benoni-state.

Why? Because he’d be the sort of person whose yetzer harah doesn’t threaten his spiritual standing in one instance or another, so there’d be little to resist. But let's explain.

Someone who's bookish by nature, for example, and thus more serious and studious would find it easy to study Torah a lot. So, he could readily be a serious Torah scholar, and thus couldn't really be accredited with having done very much to achieve that status [5].

The same would be true of someone who's naturally austere or melancholic and thus wouldn’t need to resist any untoward thoughts or actions (see Sanhedrin 39B); or of someone who has always been rather sober or non-indulgent from birth, who'd thus find it easy to become serious and G-d-fearing enough not to sin (without having to depend on certain more taxing means, like dwelling upon G-d’s greatness, all that much) [6].

Or he may only need to depend on the love that’s secreted in all our hearts’ (see ch's 18, 19, and 44) in order to love G-d out-and-out, and to cling to Him by fulfilling His mitzvot, and wouldn’t have to strive to love Him [7].

That would also go, by the way, for someone who worked very hard to train himself to study Torah regularly and consistently, though he didn’t tend toward bookishness from birth. For he, too, would only need to draw on his inborn love of G-d to serve Him rather than foster that sensation -- unless he decided to go beyond his usual limit [8].

The ultimate point here then is that while few of us can be tzaddikim, the rest of us can indeed be benonim, and that the harder the struggle we’d need to suffer to grow in stature, the higher our degree of benoni-hood [9].


That explains the statement in the Talmud (Chagiga 9b) to the effect that only someone who reviews his studies 101 times can be considered one who serves G-d, while someone who “only” reviews it 100 times can’t be (see note 1).

For, as the Talmud points out there, students and scholars of that day and age would just normally review their studies 100 times [10]. Hillel compared someone's willingness to only review his studies 101 times to that of the mule-drivers of the day, who’d charge 1 zuz to transport their customers’ goods the usual distance of 10 parasangs, but who’d only agree to transport those same goods for 11 parasangs if the customer would pay twice as much.

Hillel was making the point that just as mule-drivers would rightfully charge twice as much to go an extra parasang beyond their usual custom which required extra effort, only a student or scholar who’d go out of his way to review his lessons 101 times when that wasn’t the usual custom, could rightfully be called “one who serves G-d”. For he’d have to have mustered enough personal fortitude to choose to go beyond his own way of doing things for one thing, and also because he’d have to have done that all for G-d’s sake (see Ch. 14). For that one extra review would have required as much effort for him as the first 100 times all together.

After all, he’d have to have concentrated deeply enough on G-d’s greatness to arouse enough love for Him to overcome his own nature (which is resistant to that since it’s rooted in his animalistic spirit and affected by the impure husks), and that indeed calls for “service” or extraordinary effort on the part of a benoni (who is the subject at hand, recall). Or he’d at least have to have drawn well enough upon the native love of G-d in his heart that we all have to overcome his own nature [11], which also calls for a lot of effort and determination.

But a benoni who wouldn’t do all that -- who’d be satisfied with not sinning with the aid of the gifts granted him by G-d from birth without fostering the wherewithall to go further on his own by *at least* drawing on his native love for Him, to say nothing of foserting an even deeper love of Him on his own -- couldn’t really be said to be “one who serves G-d” (though he’d certainly be a benoni and not a rasha) [12]. It follows then that what sets one benoni apart from another is how much each strives for ever-fresh, original, inspired service to G-d.

As we’ll see, this chapter actually serves as an introduction to the following one, which starts to explicate just how we’re to serve G-d as benonim on all levels.


[1] The Talmudic statement upon which this entire chapter is based is the following one. We’ll present it entirely here and explain only the beginning, then we’ll explain it in full later on as RSZ understands it.

Once again, the verse cited reads “you will ... see the difference between a tzaddik, a rasha, one who serves G-d, and one who doesn’t serve Him”. Like us, the Talmudic scholar Bar Hehe wondered about the wording of the verse and asks:

“[But isn’t] a tzaddik equivalent to ‘one who serves G-d’ and isn’t a rasha equivalent to ‘one who doesn’t serve Him’?” So, why doesn’t the verse just read, “you will ... see the difference between a tzaddik and a rasha”?

The reply to this question is the premise of the rest of the chapter.

“[Hillel] responded thusly: ‘one who serves G-d’ and ‘one who doesn’t serve Him’ *both* refer to the utterly righteous; but an utterly righteous individual who reviews his chapter [i.e., the chapter of Mishna he’s concentrating upon] 100 times can’t be compared to one who reviews it 101 times.”

“Said [Bar Hehe]: But can it be that because of one [more review of the same chapter] that [an utterly righteous individual] is called ‘one who doesn’t serve G-d?

“[Hillel] responded: “Yes, go and determine that [for yourself] from [what’s commonly practiced in] the mule-drivers market. For [mule-drivers agree to transport goods for a distance of] 10 parasangs for 1 zuz, but [only agree to transport goods a distance of] 11 parasangs for 2 zuz (Chagiga 9b).

[2] I.e., RSZ takes the term “serves” to represent the present-continuous case, as if to say that he’s someone who serves and serves, and continues to serve G-d (because he has to, since unlike a tzaddik he hadn’t perfected his service, as we’ll see). He’s always laboring away (see Lessons in Tanya vol. 1, p. 216) -- forever straining and striving.

[3] Interestingly, the Hebrew term for "serves" in the verse, oved, can imply reworking something over and over again until it becomes utterly new, much the way we'd rework or tan hides until they become parchment, for example. It can also imply softening something and making it pliable (Likut Perushim, footnote 1). As such, that would come to alert us to the fact that we'd need to rework and redo ourselves if we're ever to become benonim; and to soften our "heart of stone" and make it a "heart of flesh" (see Jeremiah 11:19-20).

In fact, even utter tzaddikim have to always change their routines and grow greater and greater; and the truth be known, RSZ himself points out at another junction, a tzaddik who doesn't do that is lower is said to be lower to a degree than a benoni who does in fact change and grow (Maskil L’Eitan)!

[4] That's not to say that tzaddikim don't grow, for they certainly do (see previous note and Berachot 64A). It's just that they're no longer preoccupied with the yetzer harah and are thus free to pursue growth in Torah and mitzvah observance in purer, unimpeded ways arther than in subjugating urges (Biur Tanya). (Indeed, it's remarkable how much ground we lose *just trying not to fall back* when we're still subject to the promptings of the yetzer harah.)

[5] Understand of course that there’d be other corners in his life that would require effort and actual service, since he may not have been born with a natural resistance as far as they’re concerned.

Nonetheless, he’d only be engaging in things that tend toward piety because they came easily to him, and not because he yearned to draw close to G-d. Ironically, his actions also aren’t a result of his having overcome his animalistic spirit, but rather a product of that spirit (Biur Tanya).

[6] It’s pointed out that someone who's a scholar and avid reader by nature who studies Torah when he could very easily study and read a world of other material instead is certainly to be praised for his choices, since his decision is no doubt rooted in a love of G-d (Maskil L’Eitan).

It follows then that someone’s who’s austere and could also deny others’ their pleasures but doesn’t, someone melancholic who might not even try to serve G-d joyfully and good-naturedly (see Deuteronomy 28:47, and 1:2 above) but manages to, and the sober or non-indulgent who would be hard pressed to enjoy the Holy Days who nevertheless overcome their natures are all to be praised.

The idea is that everyone has his or her proclivities; what we’re asked to do is to use everything we’re given in the service of G-d, and to not settle on native gifts but rather to challenge them.

[7] Once again we see just how vital the notion of meditating upon G-d’s greatness, and of coming to love and cling onto Him are in our service to G-d. It will be a primary feature of the following chapter.

[8] The same is true of someone who’d been well-educated as a young person; he too could be said to have been primed for this one good trait, and couldn’t really be praised for just following through on the fine job his teacher had done (see Maskil L’Eitan).

[9] See 1:2 above about the preciousness of spiritual struggles (also see note 2 there).

[10] Because they were studying by memory rather than from a text, as RSZ explains (and thus had to work rigorously in order to have everything at the ready).

[11] Indeed there are a number of points to be made about changing our natures (see the next chapter for more on this): first, that a large part of the reason we were granted life in the first place was to learn to change our inborn natures (Likut Perushim); second, that changing our nature is an aspect of teshuva (ibid, note 14b); and third, that the only way one could ever change his nature is by dint of will, since only one’s will can overpower the body's demands (after all, aren’t there people who can walk on hot coals and the like thanks to the force of their wills alone?) (Likut Perushim, Maareh Mekomot, p. 273).

[12] In fact some say that as soon as a benoni would allow himself a sense of self-satisfaction and accomplishement that’s a sure sign that he’d somehow come to be willing to settle for less, he’d have lowered his stature, and he’d have stopped serving G-d for all intents and purposes (see Biur Tanya).

(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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