Monday, January 01, 2007

Tanya Ch. 11 (Parts 1 & 2)

“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. 11


As we'd said in ch. 6, "each and every thing in this world has a parallel, mirror opposite" -- including our ethical and spiritual standing. So just as there are complete and less-than-complete tzaddikim, there are likewise complete and less-than-complete wrongdoers, *rashaim*. A complete and utter rasha (singular of rashaim) is someone who's hopelessly out-and-out wicked, while a less-than-complete rasha is one whose goodness has been overwhelmed and "outnumbered" by his or her wrongfulness, to be sure, but less so.

In short, a rasha is someone whose goodness which is nestled in his G-dly spirit is overcome by the wrongfulness in his animalistic spirit. But know too that there are as many different grades of rashaim as there are of tzaddikim.

In point of fact and highly ironically (as well as emblematic of our age, we’d dare say), we'd sometimes consider some rashaim to be rather *good and wholesome* people who "happen to lapse", as we’d put it, from time to time. Indeed according to RSZ, a rasha might even sin in only very minor ways and only once-in-a-great-while. So we'll clearly have to delineate just what a rasha is and what he’s not.


We'll start off by examining the makeup of less-than-complete, let's say ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill rashaim. By definition, they're people who are guilty of either uttering, thinking, or doing forbidden things. But as we suggested above, the sins they commit might be rather innocuous.

They might for example dally with only minor, hands-on prohibitions; or they might say something ambiguous about someone that might only insinuate something bad about him rather than out-and-out slander him [1]; or they might speak disparagingly or sarcastically about something or another (which is forbidden of us), but certainly not vengefully or acrimoniously [2]; they might only think or fantasize about sinning (by having lewd thoughts, for example) without actually planning to act out on those thoughts [3]; or they might be free to study Torah and decide not to, and delve into inanities instead (see Pirke Avot 3:4) -- though not into actual heresy. In fact, they might not even really enjoy these lapses (Biur Tanya) and only fall into them out of sheer force of habit or upbringing, laziness, apathy and the like.

Nonetheless, despite the seeming "normalcy" and "reasonableness" of their sins, and *even though they might have committed no other sins in their lifetime* such individuals are still considered rashaim at that point [4]! For at bottom, anyone who sins -- whose animalistic spirit overtakes him and has him do something wrong -- is a rasha [5].

But all is not lost for the many of us who are guilty of this of course, G-d forbid!


[1] This is referred to as uttering the "dust" (i.e., the merest whisp) of slander. The classic example of that entails responding vaguely to a stranger's question as to where he could find a hot meal in town by saying that he could always find one in so-and-so's house, since there's always something on the fire there (Erichin 16B). The statement is somewhat slanderous because of its nebulousness. It could either indicate that so-and-so is always prepared for guests (to his credit) -- or that he's simply a glutton. Thus, a speaker who meant to praise so-and-so would have been guilty of besmirching his character if his listener took what he said the wrong way.

But we're told that *everyone* is guilty of the "dust" of slander (Babba Battra 165A) -- tzaddikim apparently included. "Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Most (people are guilty) of robbery, some (are guilty) of lewdness, but all (are guilty) of ... the 'dust' of slander". Apparently then RSZ must contend that the statement isn't to be taken literally, and that while indeed *virtually* everyone is guilty of it, some aren't. We'll return to this point shortly since it touches on a larger issue.

[2] One disparages another by insulting or discouraging him. Rabbeinu Yonah cites different examples of disparagement (The Gates of Repentance 3:174-177), but the most innocent of all is disparaging someone jokingly rather than out of meaness or worse, which is apparently the sort of disparagement RSZ is referring to here.

[3] RSZ points out in the text itself that we're taught that thinking about sinning is actually more serious and onerous than sinning itself (see Yomah 29A). But what's wrong with merely *thinking* about sinning if you don't actuate your thoughts? It's explained that since by definition thoughts aren't actions, it's harder regretting having had them and thus harder to repent for them (Biur Tanya), and that's why they're more serious. But that still begs the question as to why the fantasies themselves are forbidden.

Some say that since your thoughts are deeper within your being than your actions are, it follows that thinking about sinning taints you on a far deeper level than actions do (see Maskil L’Eitan). Others say that it’s because thought is a very significant phenomenon, so when you “stain” it, it would be like staining fine linen as opposed to staining the coarse wool of physical actions; or it's because the very fact that you’re thinking of something untoward goes to show just how attached to it you are (Likut Perushim, Maareh Mekomot, pp. 224-225).

Yet if thinking of sinning is worse than actually doing so, then why in fact is someone who thinks of sinning listed here among those on the lower, less serious scale of rashaim? Because at bottom some forbidden thoughts are less damaging than others.

[4] As we're taught later on, even if you commit a minor transgression you still and all do go against G-d's Will and thus sever yourself from His Presence (Ch. 24; see Maskil L’Eitan).

[5] See note 10 to the previous chapter for the sinful convictions a rasha could also have.

Let's refer back now to what we said at the end of note 1 above. There are other statements that indicate that no one is utterly without sin. We're told that "there is no one so righteous upon earth that does good and does not sin" (Ecclesiastes 7:20), that "there is no man who does not sin" (1 Kings 18:46; 2 Chronicles 6:36), and we're even advised not to be "too righteous" (Ibid. 7:16). Rambam asserts that “each and every person has his merits and his offences” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:1), that "it is no more possible to be born either inherently lofty or flawed than it is to be born instinctively adept at a trade" (Sh'mone Perakim, ch. 8), and that prophets -- whom Rambam asserted were of greater rank than the pious (Ibid. Introduction) -- "couldn’t prophesy unless (they had) acquired all the intellectual virtues and *most* of the more significant personal ones" (Ibid., ch. 7, italics added), indicating that they were not without their flaws, however minor.

Hence, many would argue against RSZ's position and posit that *no one* is uttery righteous.

Another point to be made is that we might wonder how the world manages to go on if the great preponderance of us are rashaim. After all, weren't many in antiquity destroyed as a consequence of their immorality, like the people of the Generation of the Dispersion and of Sodom?

For Rambam records that "If a country's inhabitants' merits outweigh their offenses, the country is considered righteous; while if its inhabitants' offenses outweigh their merits, it's considered evil. And the same is true of the world at large, as well" (Hilchot Teshuva 3:1). He then goes on to report there that "when the offenses of (the world's) inhabitants outweigh their merits, *it's to be destroyed immediately*" (Ibid 3:2, italics added). Since the world hasn't been destroyed, it might stand to reason then that humanity as a whole is in fact more righteous than wrongful.

Rambam does provide us, though, with an insight about the state of things that might help to explain this conundrum. He points out that "the determination of all this isn't based on the number of offenses or merits (we each commit) so much as *their relative worth*. For there are some merits that compensate for several offenses ... and ... some offenses that compensate for several merits" (italics added). After all, not everything we do and experience is laid out plain and mathematically explicit.

His point is that the determination of the value of our thoughts, utterances, and actions "can only be made by All-knowing G-d; since only He knows the relative worth of our merits and offenses." Thus it could indeed be argued that we're less wrongful than we appear to be since we do still exist.

(c) 2007 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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