Monday, January 08, 2007

Tanya Ch. 12 (Part 1)

“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. 12


Now, since it's the "benoni" state that offers us the most hope, in light of the fact that so few of us are or will ever actually be tzaddikim, let's explore it in depth and contrast it with the tzaddik and rasha states.

A benoni is depicted as someone whose animalistic biases are still there within and haven’t be transmuted to goodness as they had been in a tzaddik’s heart, all right. But they nonetheless never vanquish or conquer his G-dly biases (the way a rasha's animalistic biases do) [1]. And as a result, the benoni is said to *never sin*, be it in thought, speech, or in action; and he’s able to funnel all his thoughts, utterances, and actions into mitzvot instead of sins [2].

So let's examine the benoni's makeup in more depth.



[1] The nub of untoward thoughts do occur to the benoni though, which distract him from Torah study and from his mitzvah-life and have him long for worldly things, as we'll see later on in this chapter. But they don't *vanquish or conquer* him (Likutei Biurim), though they certainly do gnaw away at his being on some level.

[2] Curiously, the benoni is actually portrayed as being someone who has "*never sinned in his life* nor *ever would*". We're never told that a tzaddik never sinned or never would, so how could that be! Is a benoni then greater yet than a tzaddik? He's really not, by definition; so what's RSZ's point?

Part of the answer lies in something we'll learn in ch. 14. RSZ writes there that anyone can *become* a benoni at any time, which means to say that the benoni state is a fluid rather than a fixed one: no one is born a benoni and no one is denied the opportunity to become one. Thus we can say that when one does indeed become a benoni he rises above and severes his personal ties to all past sins, and that that new lofty states affirms that he'll never sin in the future either (Likutei Biurim, Maskil L’Eitan, Tanya M'vuar). And that's why he can be said to have never sinned or to never sin.

But some frankly see this explanation as rather far-fetched (Likutei Biurim). After all, we're advised to reiterate all our past sins year after year in our confessions on Yom Kippur (see The Gates of Repentance 4:21), which seems to affirm that our sins are never fully gone, on one level; and we're likewise taught to never rest assured that we won't ever sin in the future (see Pirke Avot 2:4 and ch. 30), thus we can never be sure we'll never sin in the future.

So we'd offer another explanation, based on a statement made in ch. 7. We're taught there that when we sin, our souls attach itself on to the other side and we become removed from G-d. Now, could there be anything more daunting or exasperating for anyone trying to draw *closer* to G-d than that?

"What could I possibly do to reverse that and return to G-d?" such a person would wonder. What we're told he -- or any one of us in such straits -- could do is *long* to return to Him. But not just simply and honestly -- rather, "with an intensity *that even the righteous can't muster*"; an intensity that's truly "heartfelt and thoroughgoing" (ch. 7).

The point is that a benoni is thus the ideal and true penitent at bottom.

He's someone who had gone awry in the past, come to realize how far off the mark he'd wandered, then managed to undo and *redo* himself. And that while he'd indeed distanced himself from G-d, it was that very distance that had him draw close; i.e., his "illness" itself had enabled him to produce enough "antibodies" to be fully healed. So in a certain sense a benoni could be considered greater than a tzaddik. Since "the reward conforms to the efforts made" (Pirke Avot 8:23) and the benoni has in fact worked harder at his service to G-d than a tzaddik (see Biur Tanya; and Hilchot Teshuvah 7:4,7).

(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"