Monday, February 19, 2007

Tanya Ch. 15 (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. 15


We've spent the last several chapters defining a benoni and contrasting him with a rasha and a tzaddik. But we're going to go beyond that from this point on and begin explaining how a benoni -- how each one of us -- is to serve G-d, knowing what we do now about a benoni's potentials and limitations (see Biur Tanya).

It will become clear from here on that at bottom the benoni's life is one of ever-faithful, ever-fresh, forever on-going acts of Divine service. But not only is that so, but he'd also be expected to grow level by level without ever stopping either (Biur Tanya), much the way a professional in any field would need to keep advancing in his craft if he's ever to reach his full potential.

In any event, let's first try to illustrate just what sets one benoni apart from the others in his "profession"; what makes one more successful than another in his Divine service. And we'll do that by explaining a curious verse that will illustrate it for us.


We're told that there’ll come a time when we’ll see for ourselves “the difference between a tzaddik, a rasha, one who serves G-d, and one who doesn’t serve Him” (Malachi 3:18). But that's odd, because it seems to differentiate between a tzaddik and “one who serves G-d”, which we wouldn’t expect; and a rasha and someone who doesn’t serve Him, which seems self-evident. RSZ’s point will be that there’s a distinct difference between tzaddikim and those who serve G-d (as he understands the latter) [1].

According to RSZ, “one who serves G-d” is someone who does so on an ongoing basis [2], who's always battling his yetzer harah, forever trying to expunge it from his being, and always making sure that he never thinks, utters, or does anything wrong [3]. That's to say that “one who serves G-d” is the benoni par excellence. For as we’ve come to learn by now, a benoni isn’t a tzaddik. Hence, as RSZ understands it, the verse is underscoring the difference between a tzaddik and a benoni.

For a tzaddik would be termed “a (fully accomplished) servant of G-d” rather than someone who’s continuously working at serving Him, in that he’s impeccable in his service to G-d and a bona fide servant of Him. (Much the way a full-fledged, consumate Talmudist is an out-and-out “Talmudic scholar” rather than a “student of Talmud”). For the tzaddik would have already won his war against the yetzer harah and have fully expunged it from his being [4].

But as we'll see, there'll prove to be real distinctions between people who "merely", so to speak, serve G-d on an ongoing basis.


[1] The Talmudic statement upon which this entire chapter is based is the following one. We’ll present it entirely here and explain only the beginning, then we’ll explain it in full further on in the chapter.

Once again, the verse cited reads “ you will ... see the difference between a tzaddik, a rasha, one who serves G-d, and one who doesn’t serve Him”. Like us, the Talmudic scholar Bar Hehe wondered about the wording of the verse, and he asks:

“[But isn’t] a tzaddik equivalent to ‘one who serves G-d’ and isn’t a rasha equivalent to ‘one who doesn’t serve Him’?”

So, why doesn’t the verse just read, “you will ... see the difference between a tzaddik and a rasha”?

The reply to this question will prove to be the premise upon which the rest of the chapter will be based.

“[Hillel] responded thusly: ‘one who serves G-d’ and ‘one who doesn’t serve Him’ *both* refer to the utterly righteous; but an utterly righteous individual who reviews his chapter [i.e., the chapter of Mishna he’s concentrating upon] a 100 times can’t be compared to one who reviews it 101 times.”

“Said [Bar Hehe]: But can it be that because of one [more review of the same chapter] that [an utterly righteous individual] is called ‘one who doesn’t serve G-d?

“[Hillel] responded: “Yes, go and determine that [for yourself] from [what’s commonly practiced in] the mule-drivers market. For [mule-drivers agree to transport goods for a distance of] 10 parasangs for 1 zuz, but [only agree to transport goods a distance of] 11 parasangs for 2 zuz (Chagiga 9b).

[2] I.e., RSZ takes the term “serves” to represent the present-continuous case, as if to say that he’s someone who serves and serves, and continues to serve G-d (because he has to, since unlike a tzaddik he hadn’t perfected his service, as we’ll see).

[3] Interestingly, the Hebrew term for "serves" in the verse, oved, can imply reworking something over and over again until it becomes utterly new, much the way we'd rework or tan hides until they become parchment, for example. It can also imply softening something and making it pliable (Likut Perushim, footnote 1). As such, that would come to alert us to the fact that we'd need to rework and redo ourselves if we're ever to become benonim; and to soften our "heart of stone" and make it a "heart of flesh" (see Jeremiah 11:19-20).

In fact, even utter tzaddikim have to always change their routines and grow greater and greater; and the truth be known, a tzaddik who doesn't do that is lower is said to be lower to a degree than a benoni who does in fact change and grow (Maskil L’Eitan).

[4] That's not to say that tzaddikim don't grow, for they certainly do (see previous note and Berachot 64A). It's just that since they're no longer preoccupied with the yetzer harah they're free to pursue growth in Torah and mitzvah observance in purer, unimpeded ways (Biur Tanya).

Indeed, it's remarkable how much ground we lose *just trying not to fall back* when we're still subject to the promptings of the yetzer harah.

(c) 2007 Rabbi Yaakov Feldman

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