Highlights from Opening the Tanya

Excerpts taken from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz's Opening the Tanya: Discovering the Moral and Mystical Teachings of a Classic Work of Kabbalah (Jossey-Bass, 2003)

Who is the beinoni?
"Beinonim means 'intermediates.'...The aim of the mussar (moral teaching) books, and the ideal to which they strive to elevate the human being, is the ideal of the tzaddik, 'the perfectly righteous individual'; they assume that it is attainable. In contrast, Tanya was written for intermediates, for those who have not attained the station of tzaddik, though they are not transgressors (resha'im, 'wicked persons'). The ideal of the tzaddik is, in a certain respect, withdrawn as a mandatory attainment for everyone - not everyone can achieve this, and not everyone is expected to. Instead, the beinoni is presented as the ideal that everyone can and must attain."

Should one strive to be a beinoni?
"The intermediate person is not merely the median, the halfway point between utter evil and utter goodness; neither a compromise nor a composite, the beinoni is in a class alone?The Tanya sees the state of the beinoni as a legitimate, ongoing one, describing a person whose inner essence and spiritual path is the subject of a lifelong struggle - a struggle that might never reach decisive resolution. It describes this person as an elevated individual - as one who, in a certain sense, is in an ongoing struggle and endures the perpetual pain of imperfection."

Is there such a thing as complete evil?
"Nothing exists that does not possess a spark of good. Goodness and holiness are, in essence, synonymous with divinity; and because God is the ultimate and exclusive source of existence, it follows that anything that is completely devoid of good is, by definition, absolute nothingness."

What qualities does a person need to reach spiritual heights?
"A person might be clever, intelligent, even brilliant in other matters yet be confused in mind and conceptions regarding the service of the Almighty. To know how to serve God is not merely a matter of learning and intelligence; it involves the most sublime heights and the most sensitive depths of the soul. These are matters in which a person can easily err and deceive himself; they are extremely involved and complex, so the slightest deviation in the soul or mind can leave a person in complete darkness?An individual who is neither wise nor learned can nevertheless possess an extremely lofty and holy soul; on the other hand, a very wise and learned man might possess the lowliest of souls. A person can be extremely accomplished in all areas and at the same time be completely dysfunctional in all that pertains to holiness."

If God fills the world, what does it mean to return to Him?
"We have the concept of teshuvah ('return'). What does it mean to return to God? Is not 'the entire world filled with His glory'? If man is always in the presence of God, how can he return to Him? Yet, to quote the prophet, man can be in a state in which 'they have turned their backs to Me and do not face Me.' When a person turns his back on someone, he might be in close proximity to that person - they might even be pressed against each other back to back - yet they are as far apart from each other as they can possibly be. Teshuvah, then, is a shift in orientation: a person turning to God, after having spurned him."

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