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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Monday, June 18, 2007

Ch. 16

“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. 16


Both this chapter and the next, then chapters 18-25, will expand on two suggestions offered here as to how we’re to advance in our benoni-ness and be “one who serves G-d” in the ever-fresh, original, inspired ways mentioned in the last chapter [1]. And both touch on our relationship to G-d, though from different perspectives.

The best way to do it -- though it’s certainly not the only one or even the only one fully expected of us -- is to resist temptations and to come to fulfill all of the Torah’s imperatives (most especially Torah study) and avoid all its prohibitions by allowing our mind to hold sway over our hearts [2].

And we do that by reflecting deeply upon G-d’s Infinite, unfathomable greatness, and by fostering an attachment to Him and an all-consuming loving, reverential sense of intimacy with Him in our heart that way [3].

But again, that’s what we’re to do optimally. There’s a less lofty, less exquisite method too, though, which is very important to know of.


If we can’t manage to galvanize our beings by deliberately fostering the sort of urgent love of and reverence for G-d that would have us attach on to Him with our minds as above, then we can always draw upon the innate love for Him already sequestered in our hearts instead [4].

For we’re taught that each one of us realizes somewhere deep in his or her heart, on one visceral plane or another, just how infinitely vast G-d’s presence is; how everything is considered as naught by comparison to Him; and that the idea that “surely G-d is in this place, but I didn’t know it” (Genesis 28:16) is true wherever we stand. And that we each can sense instinctually just how right it would be to simply surrender to His Presence, to stand subsumed in His light, and to submit to our soul’s deeply felt desire to leave the narrow confines of the body it has become confined to, and cling onto Him instead [5].

Doing that would convince us once again how much better it is to study His Torah deeply and fulfill His mitzvot fervently. For we’d understand that we could attach onto Him and take hold of Him when we do that (see 4:5), and we’d be spurred on.

Understand of course the point is that while we’d have certainly dwelt upon all that before in order to achieve benoni-ism [6], the only way we’d be able to reinvigorate and bolster our benoni state and keep it ever-fresh would be to dwell on it again and again. Because there will be times when, despite the fact that we know how true all that is, the impulse would be weak for the moment nonetheless, our beings wouldn't be quite touched to the core, and we’d need reinforcement (see Maskil L’Eitan).

So, if we’d dwell upon these details about G-d and our relationship to Him this second way at least, enunciate them to ourselves (and others) and then act upon them, we’d be giving full expression to them -- even if we’d have only come to a detached, and external realization of them rather than the full one we could have achieved by using the first method (Biur Tanya and Maskil L’Eitan).

And that would enable us to dwell upon G-d's Torah and fulfill His mitzvot with new fervor and a spirit of refreshed love, which would itself then invigorate our worship and furnish it with the sort of “wings” we’d need to soar upward (see Ch. 40 below) since our Divine service could never ascend without such wings (see Tikkunei Zohar 10).

While our doing that wouldn’t foster as quite extraordinary a degree of loving and reverential sense of intimacy as the first method would, it would nonetheless serve us almost as well. Because we’d at least have come to fulfill our obligations thus by, rather than just tended to our bodily needs instinctively [7].


RSZ then contends that our sages alluded to the fact that using our minds to reinvigorate our relationship to G-d is better than using our hearts.

The sages said that a person is credited with having done a good deed even if he hadn't managed to, if he *meant* to do it from the first but was prevented somehow, for some good reason or another. But they prefaced it with the following statement: "A good thought is ‘attached’ to the deed" (Kiddushin 40A). The statement should have read something like, "you are credited with having done the good deed" he points out.

But in fact it's worded the way it is, RSZ surmises, to indicate that the latent fear and love of G-d in our hearts do indeed function in the physical mitzvot we do, and do in fact give them the sort of "wings" they’d need to ascend upward, since the heart is itself physical [8]. It's just that the love and fear that comes about when we allow our minds to hold sway (i.e., the preferred method) is much greater and far above physical acts, so they really don’t function in physical mitzvot. And so they're termed good thoughts (i.e., the “good thoughts” that are “attached to the deed” we meant to do) rather than the deeds themselves.

It's just that G-d chooses to "attach" those "good thoughts" to actual mitzvah deeds and to Torah study, so as to allow them to ascend higher [9], which is why the sages depicted it as “a good thought” being “attached” to the deed.


[1] Like ourselves, some indicate that this chapter expands upon the ideas of the previous one (see Biur Tanya and Maskil L’Eitan) while others say that the principles laid out here stand alone as separate, overarching pieces of advice (see Likutei Perushim). But it seems clear-cut that this chapter and the last one are indeed linked given the parallelism of terms used at the end of the last one and here at the beginning of this in the original text.

[2] The text is quite fecund in this chapter (as it is elsewhere, where it’s nevertheless more apropos) and adds many things that are so rich in implication that they befog the essential message it means to convey, which we’ve thus set aside. Purists will argue that we’re skimming the cream and leaving behind a bland remnant of the original, and they’d be right in essence. But our job in this work is to allow RSZ’s spiritual and psychological insights and wisdom to shine through, and to only grant access to his more esoteric insights here, in these notes so as not to clutter the screen, if you will.

Here is the sentence as worded above.

“The best way to do it -- though it’s certainly not the only one or even the only one fully expected of us -- is to resist temptations and to come to fulfill all of the Torah’s imperatives (most especially Torah study) and avoid all its prohibitions by allowing our mind to hold sway over our hearts.”

Here’s the sentence with RSZ’s implications left intact.

“The best way to do it -- though it’s certainly not the only one, or even the only one fully expected of us -- *is to take hold of (one’s) natural inclinations* and to come to fulfill all of the Torah’s imperatives (most especially Torah study) *no matter how major or minor the prohibitions are, and be they either from the Torah itself or from our sages* and avoid all its prohibitions by allowing *the Divine light that shines upon the G-dly spirit in our mind* to hold sway over our hearts.”

He uses the term to *take hold of (one’s) natural inclinations* to distinguish it from the idea of turning one’s bad traits into good ones, as a tzaddik would do, since a benoni can’t do that (see Likut Perushim and Tanya Mevuar). He indicates that that’s true *no matter how major or minor the prohibitions are, and be they either from the Torah itself or from our sages* to say that it’s true of absolutely all of them, regardless of any reason we might have to take them either too lightly or too seriously. And he speaks of allowing *the Divine light that shines upon the G-dly spirit in our mind* to hold sway over our hearts so as to refer back to the idea that we’d need G-d’s input in order to control our impulses, as cited in 13:2 (Shiurim beSefer HaTanya).

But all of this beside the operative point that we’re to concentrate on our mind’s input more than our heart’s natural inclinations, as cited here.

[3] The original speaks of fostering a “knowledge” of G-d, in keeping with the Kabbalistic reference to the mind’s Chochma, Binah, and Da’at (knowledge) components (see 3:1). We translated the term “intimacy” instead, because knowledge is frequently compared to intimacy in Kabbalistic literature, in keeping with the verse that reads, “And Adam 'knew' Eve his wife (intimately) and she conceived” (Genesis 4:1).

See 3:3 for more on this. Also see 4:3 about the role of love and fear in mitzvah observance (Shiurim be Sefer HaTanya) .

[4] RSZ provides a note here in the original that lays out the Kabbalistic explanation for someone’s inability to produce a fresh and original love for G-d in his mind on his own.

It seems it’s due to the fact that that individual’s mind (Mochin, in Hebrew, referring to the sephirotic configuration that corresponds to the human mind) and his “soul” (Naran, in Hebrew, an abbreviation for N’ephesh, R’uach, N’shama, which is the sephirotic expression of the three lower aspects of our G-dly spirit) are in a “pregnant” or “hidden” (i.e., a potential) stage inside its Tevunah configuration (another aspect of the mind), rather than being “newborn” and outright (i.e., rather than actualized).

The insinuation here (which is much clearer than the one suggested in the non-Kabbalistic body of the text itself.) is that such a person is unable to actualize his or her potential, and that that’s a spiritual failing (see Biur Tanya). The non-Kabbalistic implication, on the other hand, is along the lines of, “Don’t worry if you can’t foster a love of G-d on your own: you can always fall back on your native love”, which doesn’t suggest a failing so much as a happy opportunity to rely on an alternative, albeit lesser, option.

[5] In the original, RSZ likens the soul’s heart-felt dissatisfactions with its earthly situation quite evocatively to that of a woman whose husband is overseas whom she can’t be with as a result, who is termed a “widow [for all intents and purposes] of a live man” (see Breishit Rabbah 14:4 and Rashi’s comments to Exodus 22:23, based on 2 Samuel 20:3), which frustrates her so. In fact the analogy is apt, since the Jewish Nation is termed G-d’s “bride” and is kept at a distance from Him as a result of our corporeality (Likutei Biurim).

What’s significant here is the fact that the terms that RSZ uses for the sort of mind-based realizations we’re to come to are far less bracing and intense than the ones he uses for his “default” heart-based ones.

He indeed speaks of feelings of love of and reverence for G-d that would have us attach on to Him that we could foster through our mind’s efforts; yet he then goes on to cite how the heart, the source of the second-best process, knows on its own how infinitely vast G-d’s presence is, how everything is considered as naught in comparison to Him, and how right it would be to surrender to Him and to leave the narrow confines of the body and cling onto Him instead, comparing being without Him to be being what’s classically termed a “grass widow” (a woman whose husband is frequently away from home or who deserted her)!

We’d expect RSZ to prefer the more cerebral method, since that’s what sets his Chassidut apart from the others, which are more emotional. Yet he uses rapturous terms for the emotional method as opposed to the rather cool and detached ones he uses for the analytical mode. On one level that seems to reflect an inner-conflict of his, as RSZ was rather emotional and outright ecstatic in his love of G-d at times, yet extraordinarily analytical a great deal of the time as well.

On the other hand, though, he appears to be making the following subtle point. The first process is preferable specifically because it’s lower-keyed; for while the second method is decidedly more idealistic in tone, it’s nonetheless too self-conscious and self-absorbed, which is always out of favor in Chabad Chassidut.

[6] See 3:3, 4:3, 6:3, 9:2, 4, 10:3, 11:5, 12:5, 13:6, 14:2-3, and 15:3-4.

[7] There’s an interesting parenthetical thought in the original at this point that reads, “... even if he’s naturally inclined to be bookish” (see 15:3 above) and would thus find it easy to study Torah on his own -- which would lead us to think that he’d always find it easy to serve G-d as he’s naturally inclined to (at least when it comes to Torah study) -- he’d “nonetheless just naturally love his body (i.e., himself) more” than books from time to time, as even the most studious do, as when they’re very hungry, thirst, or the like, and they need to follow through on those urgings in a G-dly way. The point is that the second process is thus useful even for such a person.

[8] In what's essentially a parenthetical aside, RSZ adds here in the text that the heart itself is capable of acting as an agent of those holy emotions because of the fact that despite it's being a flesh-and-blood organ it's also a source of our inscrutable life-energy, so it can function both as a medium for such exalted phenomena *as well as* for the flow of blood.

In other words, the term "heart" here can either be taken literally as the physical organ it is, or figuratively as a source of emotions. But isn't that self-evident? Don't we often use the terms interchangeably ourselves (much like we use the term "wings" literally and figuratively)? The point that RSZ is making -- which can be said for so much Kabbalistic literature -- is that *most* of our makeup functions both on a physical and a paradigmatic level at one at the same time, thanks to the "inscrutable life-energy" that comprises our souls.

[9] G-d attaches the two much the way that He miraculously links body and soul, so as to affect change in the world and to allow for things to ascend heavenward along the same lines.

RSZ makes several esoteric points at this juncture, both in the text proper and in a note. In fact, this whole section seems rather speculative as opposed to the practical nature of the rest of the chapter, and we were tempted to place the whole last section of the chapter here (see note 2 above and our thinking there along these lines).

In any event he indicates here, at the end of the chapter, that when we use the preferred method of reinvigorating our service, it’s elevates to the world of Beriah, whereas if we’d use the default method they’d only ascend to the world of Yetzirah. As he said, this will be discussed in depth later on, in chapters 38-39, 44. The point of the matter is that while Yetzirah is less-exalted than Beriah, it’s lofty nonetheless, and far higher than the world of Assiyah (i.e., the physical world we experience).

He bases what he says in the note here on a statement made in the Zohar 3, 291A, and in Etz Chaim 15:4) that’s decidedly obscure and touches upon the make-up of Tevunah and its place in the Kabbalistic world system. We refer to the reader to the note itself.

(c) 2007 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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