Highlights from Learning From the Tanya

Excerpts taken from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's Learning From the Tanya: Volume Two in the Definitive Commentary on the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah (Jossey-Bass, 2005)

v      Kabbalah ("that which has been received" or "tradition") [is] the inner, mystical dimension of the Torah, corresponding to the level of sod ("mystical interpretations," the secrets of the Torah). As indicated by its name, a knowledge of Kabbalah is based on tradi­tions received from one's teachers, who received them, in turn, from their teachers. Kabbalah is not a separate area of Torah knowledge but rather the hidden, spiritual dimension of the revealed aspects of the Torah. Whereas the revealed aspects of the Torah, such as Halakhah (Jewish law) speak primarily about visible, physical things, Kabbalah speaks directly about spiritual entities. It speaks of the system of olamot (worlds) and sefirot (divine "attributes" or "emanations") through which God creates, sustains, and directs the universe; and it discusses the interaction between those spiritual entities and the per­formance of mitzvot (commandments) in the physical world. Hence, Kabbalah has been called the soul of the Torah.


All Torah study is based on an acceptance of tradition and on the principle that because the Torah is a divine gift, a person must make himself into a proper vessel in order to receive it. In the study of Kab­balah, however, these approaches are even more important. Because Kabbalah is the inner spiritual dimension of the Torah, the individual must study it in a way that engages his inner, spiritual dimension. A person who wishes to study Kabbalah should already have an inner understanding of the ideas, and he must pursue the study of Kabbalah in a spirit of purity and holiness, in order to become a suitable vessel. (p. 308-309)


v     The tractate of Chagigah [in the Talmud] teaches us that the distance from earth to heaven spans the course of five hundred years; the expanse of each heaven is five hundred years, as is the distance from one heaven to the next. Thus are the seven heavens, one above the other. Above the heav­ens are the holy angels, the chayyot, and "the feet of the chayyot mea­sure up to all." The feet of the angels, their lowest part, exceed in size all the worlds and heavens beneath them. The principle at work here is that the lower level of a higher world is always loftier than the upper level of the world beneath it. The sign of real development, then, is that one's previous level no longer holds true for him. When one gen­uinely grows, his personal truth now must surpass all his previous truths so that, by comparison, they are not true at all. The author demands from the beinoni (the "intermediate" individual) that he pursue his individual truth at all times. Yesterday's heavens should be today's earth, and he must know: there is a truth still higher than this. (p. 22)


v     Not everyone has the merit or the potential to become a tzaddik ("righteous" individual). It is not dependent on the measure of one's efforts but rather on the anatomy of his soul. [Only if one has] the internal parameters that are capable of a complete transformation from evil to good [can] one can become a tzaddik. The beinoni, in contrast, is a normal person like anyone else, one whose soul is not capable of such radical change. His distinction from others (who in one way or another are resha'im, "wicked per­sons") lies not in his soul's structure or content but that he takes advantage of the potential existing in all of us in the service of God. (p. 25)


v      When a person has a powerful desire to do something other than a com­mandment (even if it is not prohibited) he confronts a dual tempta­tion. There is the siren call of the temptation itself and-its constant companion-an additional seductive voice whispering: "In truth, this isn't a transgression. And certainly not a serious transgression." The basic principle at work here is that no one wishes to self-destruct, to undo his life's efforts for the sake of a transgression, small or large. No one would ever go astray were it not for the additional murmur in his ear: "Just for a minute. Do it. Afterward you can return to business as usual." That is why, in response to that additional seductress, the beinoni must say, "I will not be a rasha even for a moment." Yet this argument?is by itself insufficient. After all, why not be a rasha for a moment? If I can act like a tzaddik for a moment, then why not be a rasha for a moment? The author probes more deeply: What is the implication of being a rasha "even for a moment"? Being a rasha, in other words, is tantamount to being separated from God. (p. 27)


v     There are innumerable accounts of individuals who throughout their lives regarded Torah and commandments as irrelevant, who were utterly apathetic to what should be done and what not; but when the moment of truth arrived, they sacrificed themselves to sanctify God's Name. Every Jew, even the simplest and most unlettered, totally igno­rant of Torah and commandments and oblivious to the love and awe of God, is still a "lover of Your Name." True, his love of God is con­cealed, invisible during his lifetime. But when the ultimate test pres­ents itself, he will forfeit his earthly existence rather than be separated from his Source. (p. 29)


v    When one performs a commandment and actually senses that "the reward of the commandment is the commandment," he sees that it is not only by doing one commandment that he earns the merit to do another, but that the reward of the commandment is the command­ment itself. The very delight and spiritual wealth that he experiences through the commandment is his reward in this world. Not everyone has the fortune to attain such a level. (p. 32)


v     How could Job say that God created people who were, from the start, resha'im or tzaddikim, if we believe that the choice to be righteous or wicked is in man's own hands? Yet according to what the Tanya has explained, we can understand this as follows. "You did create tzaddikim": You created a group of people who have the potential to be tzaddikim; "You did create resha'im": You also created a group of people without the potential to be tzaddikim. And the lat­ter are the very ones who are able to become beinonim. Accordingly, there are two distinct types of individuals. There are tzaddikim, a rare breed with souls equipped for the transformation of their human essence, to the extent of being intimate with God in the love of delights. These individuals have the potential to reach a level in which they experience the world to come-the reward for their efforts-here in this world. The second category, which comprises the rest of humanity, will never achieve wholeness because they, in their hearts, resemble resha'im. Nonetheless, by valiantly waging God's bat­tle in a lifelong struggle within themselves, they can be like complete tzaddikim; and their reward in the world to come is vast. (p. 32)


v     The story is told of a young man at the dawn of Hasidism who became attracted to its teachings, fled from his household to the rebbe, and remained there several years before returning. His father-in-law was furious, but at the same time rejoiced at his return. "Tell me," he asked, "you spent so much time with your rebbe, what did you learn?" "I learned that God is everywhere," replied his son-in-law. His father-in-law bristled: "Are you making fun of me?" He called over his maid and asked, "Where is God?" "Everywhere," she answered. He turned to his son-in-law: "So, for this you spent all those years?" "She says," his son-in-law answered, "but I know." A distinction like this can require many years; sometimes even a lifetime is not enough. (pp. 68-69)


v    The approach that one can and should generate internal feelings, or something approximating them is the [Tanya's] central proposition. [The author] expand[s] on this with regard to faith, as well. This is a service to God based on exercise - physical exercise but primarily spiritual exercise: the soul's patiently repeated efforts to arrive at eventual truth. This technique conflicted with the nearly universal Hasidic demand for spontaneity, for strongly and immediately felt emotion. The author of the Tanya may have been unique in denying the need for spontaneity, seeing it as nice when possible but not cru­cial. The model of the beinoni, practically speaking, is someone who is not spontaneous, whose love is self-manufactured; and if the love is not actualized, then at least there should be a rationale for love, an inner resolve of its necessity. Of this inner resolve, the author says, "The thing is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may do it." For what is expected is not a transformation of one's soul but a redirection of one's actions and thoughts toward realizable and effective goals. And this is possible for every person. (pp. 93-94)


v      [Tanya] touches on a topic that borders on the dangerous, a point so fundamental and dynamic, and yet never exhausted. It is a well so deep, so powerful, that one can draw on it forever. But because it is so very powerful, it may never again allow for day-to-day exis­tence. After exhausting all the external sources, we try another source, entering into the basic, the fundamental source, into the nucleus of the very existence of matter. We draw power from the atom. But as with the explosion of nuclear energy, which is the inherent basis of matter, the explosion of the potential that is found equals the very foundation of the soul?This spiritual "nuclear bomb" comes into play at the moment of martyrdom, the sanctification of God's Name. At the moment of the full realization of its poten­tial, life itself is swept away by its overwhelming power. What the author tells us, though, is that one may tap this potential for daily life. The conundrum: How does one make use of something so unequiv­ocal, so ultimately "yes" or "no"? Without it, one risks emotional vacu­ity; with it, one leaps beyond all boundaries. How does one receive from a hidden source that, when revealed, can be devastating? How is one to harness, apportion, and live with it? (p. 97)


v    Among the unusual qualities of the Tanya, and of Chabad Hasidic philosophy in general, are the frequent transitions between intellec­tuality and cerebral efforts, an appreciation of intellectual love and awe, on one hand, and on the other, a heavy reliance on qualities beyond the threshold of consciousness. Compare this with the other schools of Hasidism-Kotzk, for example, with its emphasis on sharpening emotional aptitude, raising it to ever-higher levels, with the intention that man live in a constant state of outburst. Such a path is within the realm of possibility; there are people capable of doing this, but they number an elite few. Then there was another down-to-earth Hasidic school that demanded no revealed love and awe whatsoever. Because every Jew certainly possessed a holy neshamah (soul), one could rely on it without having to reveal its attributes.


The Tanya's method, though, attempts to follow both approaches: to rely on the neshamah, albeit concealed, and to draw strength from it, constructing a conscious world of love and awe through the intellect. The two methods are interrelated. Most of the avenues of serving God with the intellectually oriented love and awe that this book explains require an additional and deeper foundation that enables one to have such thoughts, so that they will have an effect on the indi­vidual. Without this basis, even someone quite capable will never reach such thought. At the same time, someone who possesses this capacity for thought and has a supportive environment, even though he may be limited intellectually, can reach the highest levels of thought, a synergy of thought and soul. And though the range of his mind is circumscribed, if he nevertheless works hard to develop his concepts to their fullest, his self-transformation can dwarf the accomplishments of the wisest of men with their profound knowledge.


There are people with quite modest gifts and a minimal understand­ing of the rudiments of Hasidism, but whatever they manage to grasp-they live. On the strength of that enthusiastic inspiration, they can attain great sanctity and a purity of deed of the highest order. Sanctity is not necessarily bound by cerebral ability. The greatest intellect may be housed in the least holy of garments, and vice versa. What counts is not the level of thought but the ability to actualize it. And the power to do this-to enter the world of thought, however lofty, and make proper use of it-flows from that single unfathomable point: the love hidden within every Jew's heart, the inheritance from our forefathers. (pp. 97-98)


v     Where knowledge ends, faith begins. The connection to the divine by way of faith is possible also for those utterly without understand­ing and perception of God, for faith is independent of comprehension or knowledge and unaffected by their absence. Faith derives its nur­ture from a completely different source, one connected to the soul's chokhmah (wisdom)-a place wholly beyond awareness and understanding. And for this reason, faith reaches beyond intellect.


Understanding requires intelligence; believing is something that even a simple person can do. The point here is not to extol simplic­ity but to praise faith, which even an unlettered person can embrace. The demands made of intellect, the myriad stages of cognition through which one must struggle, have no bearing on faith. One can believe in matters whose complexity far exceeds his understanding, for although comprehension is configured by a thousand perceptual boundaries and dimensions, by the individual's knowledge and intel­lectual capabilities, faith's borders are free. Free of intellectuality, unrestrained by analysis, faith is unshackled to soar beyond intellect.


In no way does this suggest that a man of understanding is disadvantaged in matters of faith, only that faith issues from a source apart from comprehension. To create the internal imagery for "God stands over him" requires intellect and understanding; whereas the one who has faith needs no pictures. He believes, and his belief requires no knowledge of what he believes. (p. 108)


v      Yet [it is explained] elsewhere that one should not be satisfied with faith alone. One who "believes everything" indiscriminately is liable to misuse faith to throw off all bonds. Ein Yaakov presents the account of a thief who prays to God for success before breaking in. This is a dear proof of the thief's faith, without which he would hardly pray; but his faith does little to disturb his choice of profession. Faith does not connect directly to the soul's internal network. It is discrete from everything that we understand, know, and feel. It has no signif­icant influence within the soul; for that reason, it does not influence man's day-to-day conduct-except for those extraordinary circum­stances when business as usual comes to a halt, when all the walls and restrictions collapse. That is why we must not be content with faith alone in our relationship with God; we must engage as well our indi­vidual intellectual and meditative capabilities, to build bridges between chokhmah and binah, between faith and comprehension-although it should be emphasized that comprehension can only build a link with faith. Faith stands alone, independent and separate, whether one is unschooled or filled with wisdom. Faith comes from the soul's essence, not from its powers of intellect and cognition-from chokhmah and not from binah. (pp. 108-109)


v      In the instant when a Jew senses that his link to the supernal sanc­tity is threatened, a very different operating system starts up, one that is somewhat akin to our survival mechanisms when danger comes close. Restraints disappear, together with aches and pains, preconceptions and concerns. In an inelegant analogy, this works like posthypnotic suggestion. A person receives a sign, hears a particular word, sees a specific sight; and forces beyond his conscious will begin to direct him. His previous life, his experiences, all that he thought and knew are pushed aside, and he acts in a completely different manner. At that culminating moment, the chokhmah of the nefesh (spirit) inundates his entire being. His thinking moves beyond accustomed patterns; his actions shift to another mode. A previously unknown force surfaces and guides him.


At this moment, the Jew is on such a completely different plane of existence that it is said that the martyrs who die to sanctify God's Name transcend suffering. The author directs this strength and poten­tial of every Jew to cleave to God-to the extent of martyrdom- toward another objective: not only to give up one's life to sanctify God but also to live for Him. To this end, the author places the mind-set of sanctifying God as a constant focus throughout life. The attitude toward every commandment-or transgression-is a matter of per­sonal decision: Am I for God or against Him? The decision need not be reserved for extraordinary crises; it is germane to every conclusion one reaches: Is he in favor of the commandment or against it? In favor of the transgression or against it? And at the moment when one becomes conscious of this-that this, too, is the moment of truth- his decision is no longer in doubt. Someone ready to die to sanctify God's Name will surely be prepared to forgo some desire in order to sanctify Him. Nevertheless, as the author explains, a problem arises. Isolating life's moments second after second, day after day, and basing them on sanctifying God is no easy process. To live with this aware­ness is hardly effortless, not just for a single moment but constantly, at every instant of one's lifetime. (pp. 113-114)


v     Constriction creates a world of concealment. So our world is a real­ity that is not nullified vis-?-vis the divine light of Ein Sof. For such a reality to exist, there must be a vast distance between us and God, and a dense concealment of His presence; for if we were to be directly aware of the divine presence in everything, then there would be no more world. The reality of this world is a play of light and shadow, of revela­tion and concealment of the divine light. The moment that the light of Ein Sof is revealed, the game is over. Then there is only the one light.


In the last moments of Rabbi Schneur Zalman's life, as he was flee­ing Napoleon and taking refuge in a cabin in an out-of-the-way Russ­ian village called Pyena, he asked his grandson, "What do you see?" His grandson replied, "I see the cabin, the wooden wall, the beam in the ceiling." R. Schneur Zalman answered him, "And at this moment, I see only Divinity!"


A person who sees only divinity is no longer a participant in the game of the world. For him, the world is no longer a world, for it no longer conceals divinity. Even the greatest tzaddikim need at least the possibility of not seeing divinity directly. That clear sight will consti­tute the reality of the end of days, when people will see that "This is our God!" Then there will no longer be any meaning to concepts such as free will or eternal life. The present structure will melt away and lose all its meaning, and the world will become a transformed reality where nothing is hidden. (p. 170)


v      By way of analogy, when an adult plays hide-and-seek with a child, the child usually hides where the adult can easily find him, but the adult pretends not to see. He creates the illusion that there is both concealment and visibility; for if everything were revealed, the game would be over. In this sense, human life consists of man "hiding" from God and God hiding from man. In order that the game may con­tinue, God cannot say, "I know everything"; for if He knows everything, why is He playing? In actuality, both hide: "Is it possible that a person will hide in a hiding place and I will not see him?"; and "You are indeed a concealed God." This mutual concealment is a part of the nature of the world, which enables it to continue to exist without being annihilated, because both the Creator and the created can hide from each other. When it will grow clear to mankind that the two can­not hide from each other, the world will cease to exist. (pp. 171-172)


v     The expression [from the Tanya] "darkness is like light" (literally, "like darkness, like light") indicates a total correspondence between the two: not only is the dark like the light, but the light is like the dark. The entire con­cept of concealment does not exist for God but only where there also is revelation, namely, the created worlds.


This can be compared to a one-way mirror. One surface is opaque to some degree, yet the other side is completely transparent. A person who stands on the opaque side sees nothing besides his own image and perhaps vague indications of what is behind the mirror. But for the person who stands on the transparent side, there is no barrier. He sees clearly: "darkness is like light."


Another, more precise analogy appears in the works of the early sages. When a person poses a riddle, because he knows the solution, all of the complexities of the riddle are dear to him. For him, the ques­tion and the solution are one. But the person to whom he poses the riddle is in a different place. This person experiences concealment, a thick curtain separating the riddle from its solution. Both people are involved with the same question; but to one, it is completely opaque; to the other, it is completely transparent. (p. 172)


v     Ours is not the best of all possible worlds. Rather, it would be more accurate to say that ours is the lowest of all worlds-but with one important caveat: it is the lowest of all worlds that can be recti­fied. Our world stands in a delicate balance, at the final verge; it is the lowest stage where the possibility of ascent still exists. Had it been just a little bit worse, ours would have been a world without hope, a world that is itself hell. Judaism is said to be optimistic. That is so, but its optimism must be understood against this background. It is an optimism that does not claim that our world is entirely fine and good; it acknowledges that the world is entirely black and evil-but that this world can nevertheless be corrected, that it still has hope. And that is true optimism. (p. 225)


Back to The Tanya