Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tanya Ch. 15 (Part 3)

“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


So again, the verse isn't speaking of different sorts of tzaddikim in fact so much as 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 decides 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 maintain our status, the higher our degree of benoni-hood.

[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. 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.

[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).

(c) 2007 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

(Feel free to contact me at feldman@torah.org )

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 www.torah.org entitled
"Spiritual Excellence" and "Ramchal"