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.

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"

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
"Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal"

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