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, July 19, 2007

Ch. 17

“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. 17


Realizing by now where we fit within the rasha-benoni-tzaddik continuum and knowing as well how we can become benonim and bolster our benoni-ism [1], we’re in a position to start elucidating the verse that serves as Tanya’s motto, “For the matter 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).

Now, the truth be known, it just doesn’t seem valid to say that getting close to G-d on any level is easy and “very near-at-hand”, despite the verse, and notwithstanding the fact that everything enunciated in the Torah is true for all of us and for all time [2]. For we often don’t find it easy to upend our emotions and love G-d over all the things we tend to love in this world.

And though it’s in fact written, “And now, O Israel, what does G-d your L-rd ask of you but to fear G-d your L-rd …” (Deuteronomy 10:12), didn’t our sages themselves pointedly ask, “But is fear (of G-d) such a simple thing?” (Berachot 33B), let alone the love of G-d [3]? And didn’t they indicate as well that only the very few tzaddikim there are in the world at any one time can control their emotions (Breishit Rabbah 34:10, Zohar 3:290B) -- not benonim, and certainly not rashaim [4]?


But RSZ takes the term “so that you can do it” in the statement “the matter is very near-at-hand to you … so that you can do it” as alluding to the native love for G-d that lies deep and nameless in our hearts, and which can lead us to actually do mitzvot [5]. His point is that while this sort of love isn’t open and aboveboard or passionate, it would still-and-all be genuine and could be used to prompt us to do good things (Biur Tanya).

He also means to underscore the fact that the ability to cultivate that sort of love is indeed “very near-at-hand” and easy for anybody to do. For while we aren’t all in command of our emotions, so we can’t elicit just any feeling we’d like to, we do though have it within us to focus our minds on whatever we care to, and to not think about what we don’t want to or shouldn’t (see Biur Tanya) [6].

His suggestion thus comes to this: reflect deeply and at length upon G-d’s actual greatness, and a sense of love of Him will automatically arise in your heart and you’ll want to cling to Him by fulfilling His mitzvot and studying His Torah as a matter of course. For our minds control our hearts by nature, which then controls our actions (see 12:4 and Ch. 51 below).

For if we’d fully concentrate upon G-d’s greatness, it would occur to us that observing G-d’s mitzvot is our raison d’etre at bottom. After all, aren’t we bidden to “observe all the mitzvot, statutes, and judgments, that I (G-d) command you this day” (Deuteronomy 7:11) meaning in this world (see Eruvin 22A) [7]?


But this option is only available to benonim and ordinary wrongdoers who lapse from time to time -- not to out-and-out rashaim (see Ch. 11).

After all, rashaim of that ilk are invariably controlled by their heart (Bereishit Rabbah 34:10) as a consequence of their sins, rather than in control of it; they’re utterly cut off from G-d for that reason, too; and they’re considered “dead” for all intents and purposes (Berachot 18B) [8] since they’re not doing what they were born to do [9]. So the option would be useless.

What utter rashaim would have to do first off in order to benefit from the opportunity (or any chance to draw close to G-d) would be to do teshuvah for what they’d done wrong (see Iggeret Hateshuvah 7) by realizing their plight, and becoming broken-hearted and embittered as a result (see Zohar 2:116B). That would sever the husks that separate them from G-d so starkly, and undo their heart’s impurities (see Zohar Pinchas p.240 and Vayikrah p.8, as well as p. 5A according to Ramaz).

And that will then enable them to hold sway over their heart and begin to draw close to G-d [10].


[1] Especially after knowing that even our inborn fear and love of G‑d helps to bolster our observance (Shiurim beSefer HaTanya).

[2] As Tanya Mevuar points out, the idea that Torah is relevant to all of us across the board and throughout the generations is stated in several places, including: Rambam’s Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah 9:1 Hilchot Teshuva 3:8; Hilchot Malachim 11:3 (at end); and Perek Chellek, Yesod 9. Also see Taz to Y.D. 74:4, Rav’s Shulchan Orach 2:2 (at end), and Ch. 25 below.

[3] For while both fear and love are inborn, fear comes upon you suddenly and severely, and usually only asks you to stay in place or run away for a while, while love demands effort and great change (see Biur Tanya). It’s also true that while you can be afraid of things you haven’t any real knowledge of and are in fact more likely to be afraid of such things, you really can’t love things you’re not aware of (see Likutei Biurim).

[4] So, how can the Torah indicate that the love of G‑d is very easy to come by, which would signify that our hearts are under our control and that we could easily love Him rather than all sorts of material things (Shiurim beSefer HaTanya)?

[5] It’s as if he’d translate the phrase “so that you can do it” as “since you can activate it”, i.e., you can in fact easily enough activate the love in your heart so as to help you fulfill mitzvot.

[6] See 12:4 above, and note 8 there. Refer to what was said in the previous chapter about our inborn love.

[7] The point of loving G‑d isn’t just about fostering the feeling of love itself, but rather about using that feeling as a means of fulfilling G-d’s mitzvot. For what matters most in this world is actually doing constructive concrete things (Shiurim b’Sefer Tanya). That's to say that while the love of G-d is a lofty, magical thing it’s nonetheless a selfish urge often enough; and at bottom we’re asked to subsume our desires to His will.

[8] It has been said quite intriguingly that rashaim bring a sort of “hell on Earth” upon themselves in life with their insatiate yearnings. For they can never get everything they want and are thus are always discouraged and perturbed, wont and unfulfilled -- and like a soul in a foreign realm, they haven’t any control over their situation (Biur Tanya).

[9] Shouldn’t it have said that they would have been better off not being born, as in the statement that "A person would be better off not being created than being created. But, now that he has been created, he should do good things for himself and for others" (Eruvin 13B)? Why term them “dead”?

The point is that they were in fact created, yet they didn’t “do good things for (themselves) and for others”, so they they might as well be dead.

[10] What comes along here in the original is a fairly complex mélange of Kabbalistic explanations of how a rasha of that ilk can come to control his heart, which we’ll try to lay out and explain here.

The explanation touches upon a number of Kabbalistic premises. First off, that each of the four Hebrew letters of G-d’s name: yud, heh, vav, and heh, represents a single sephirah or a cluster of sephirot. Yud stands for Chochma; heh – this upper, higher heh specifically, as opposed to the other lower heh to follow – stands for Binah; vav (which has a numerical value of six) stands for the six sephirot of Chessed, Gevurah, Tipheret, Netzach, Hod, and Yesod; and the other, lower letter heh stands for Malchut. And that Malchut itself represents the Shechina, the Divine presence as it manifests itself in our experience (see Maskil l’Eitan).

Thus, when RSZ says in our text that the sort of teshuvah (translated literally as “returning”) required in this instance is termed “lower teshuvah”, that’s not only because it’s a less-lofty degree of teshuvah, but also because it involves “returning” the “lower heh” to its rightful place in the Divine name (see Zohar 3:122A). For when one does that he also returns the Shechina to its rightful place in the Divine order of things, and releases it from its “exile” (see Iggeret Hateshuvah 6, Megillah 29A, and Ch’s 37, 45 below).

By virtue of the fact that a rasha is “out of control” if you will, he’s said to act like an “Edomite” (i.e., like one who has undone the Holy Temple and placed the Shechina in exile as a consequence). So, once such a person realizes what he has done both to the Shechina and to his own soul by his actions becomes broken-hearted as a result, the husks surrounding his heretofore unbending heart break in resignation, and he’s then able to reign over that heart.

(c) 2007 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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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.
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