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, March 01, 2007


“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



This part harkens back to Tanya's "motto" which was cited in its introduction: the statement that “the matter is very near-at-hand to you -- in your mouth and in your heart -- so that you can do (i.e., accomplish) it” (Deuteronomy 30:14). It also helps explain the statement made on the work's frontispiece that Tanya will address a “longer” and a “shorter” way to draw close to G-d. And it comes here because we're now at the point where we can discuss spiritual growth, after having come to know just who we are, where we stand, and what we're capable of being.

The "longer" way is offered in Ch’s 16-17, which speaks of reflecting lovingly and reverently upon G-d’s infinite and boundless greatness, and of fulfilling mitzvot and studying Torah fervently; the "shorter" way is offered in Ch’s 18-25, which speaks of depending upon the “love that's sequestered in every single Jew's heart”.

(Let it be said that while RSZ directly addresses the benoni per se in this section as he offers his advice, we'll be expressing his ideas as if he were addressing each one of us -- by speaking of "you" and "us" rather than "the benoni" as is done in the text itself -- since we're each bidden to be a benoni as we’ve already pointed out.)

First, we're counseled to be among those who always "serve G-d" (see Ch. 15) by always contending with the influence of our animalistic spirit. But then we're advised that the only way to truly succeed at that is with G-d's help (for otherwise it's frankly *impossible*), which we enjoy when G-d irradiates His light upon our G-dly spirit.

The only way we’d manage to merit that, though, would be to reflect deeply and profoundly upon the greatness of G-d's Being, which then fosters great awe (on an intellectual level), as well as so great a degree of love for Him (on a deeply emotional, even visceral level) that our hearts flare with that love and awe, and want nothing more than to attach on to Him.

Nonetheless, even if you don't manage to foster so great a degree of love for G-d, you can always draw from the sort of native love for Him that each one of us has inherited from our forefathers (the aforementioned “love that's sequestered in every single Jew's heart”). That sort of love alone is capable of convincing us on a subliminal level, if not more manifestly, that it's indeed fitting to "nullify our beings" (i.e., dedicate ourselves utterly) to Him by engaging in Torah and mitzvot and to thus cling on to Him.

It's important to know, though, that while this sort of native love isn't potent enough on its own to have you abandon your more mundane desires and love G-d instead, it does nonetheless inspire us to fulfill mitzvot. In fact, that was alluded to in the statement that “the matter is very near-at-hand to you -- in your mouth and in your heart -- *so that you can do it*”.

In fact, the native love is fairly easy to implement. All one has to do is reflect upon G-d's Being (which of course requires one to first study the sort of Torah literature that addresses that, most especially Kabbalah and Chassidut, for the subject isn't accessible without that background).

That then is the "shorter", more accessible way to draw close to G-d. For even if you can't form an intellectual love of G-d you can still easily draw upon your native love. All you have to do is remind yourself that you're a Jew and that love will well up within you -- when you want that to happen, of course.

The reason why this native love is so accessible is because it's rooted in the source of each and every Jew's soul, which is deeper and more transcendent than one's mind, and hence can be tapped into even by those of us who aren't intellectually gifted. It thus also accounts for the sort of faithful, non-rational transcendence that some of our less educated but devoted ancestors exhibited when they were willing to succumb to execution rather than convert to another religion.

(Note: the truth be known, this sort of self-sacrifice is inconceivable in contemporary Jewish society; it's anathema! The closest parallel to it today is the out-and-out adamant, some would say "irrational" aversion most Jews have toward some Christian religious symbols and values, despite the social pressures to be accepting of things. Many, many Jews will forthrightly and proudly reject such things -- in fact to the point of social self-sacrifice and ostracism. So, while it could be said that many of us don't know what we are as Jews -- at least we know what we're *not*!)

But that raises a legitimate question. Why do we sometimes lapse into sin and thus threaten our relationship to G-d on a pedestrian level, when we're willing to sacrifice our very lives to avoid that in extraordinary circumstances? As RSZ explains it, that's because our native love is in "exile" in our beings when we're faced with a sin, it's covered-over by the yetzer harah and the husks, and confronted by the "spirit of foolishness" that overcomes us. The latter has us rationalize that we're still-and-all "good Jews" despite our sins, which is easy to accept on a quasi-rational level. But when one's faith is tested on an intense level and "push comes to shove", then our native love asserts itself, since we're simply not willing to go *that* far.

Now, while no one can deny the cunning of the "spirit of foolishness", it can be overridden, though, by reflecting upon the following three things.

First, on the utter and absolute transcendence of G-d's Being. After all, He existed before creation and always will exist, and He has been utterly unaffected by it; and so everything is as nothing in His awesome and overarching absolute Presence. A stunning and full realization of that can overturn nearly everything, in fact.

Second, we're to reflect upon how deeply our sins affect our relationship to G-d. For when we sin, His Countenance is hidden from us, forcing us to face the hindmost aspect of holiness instead; and we diminish G-d's utter and absolute dominion (His "Yichud").

And third, we're to dwell on the fact that G-d's very Being itself shines upon our souls when we fulfill His mitzvot.

Thus, we're able to draw upon the native love and to quash the "spirit of foolishness" (and thus avoid sin) by reflecting deeply and cogently upon these three themes, and by keeping the importance of mitzvot and the threat of sins in mind. And that's "the matter (that) is very near-at-hand to you", since nearly all you have to do to draw close to G-d whenever you're faced with sin is to rekindle your native love of Him this way.

But you'd also have to trigger your inborn willingness to nullify your wishes to G-d's own (to experience what's termed, "mesirat nephesh", which while usually understood as "self-sacrifice" and in terms of being willing to give up one's life rather than convert, as spoken of above, can also apply on a more day-to-day, less intense level of nullify your wishes to G-d's).

In fact, that explains why we were commanded to recite the Sh'ma Yisrael -- in which we declare G-d's utter dominion and reaffirm our faith in it, and we take the "yoke of Heaven" upon ourselves in a spirit of mesirat nephesh -- twice each day. For by doing that we remind ourselves of all this and are more easily able to resist temptation.

(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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