Understanding the Tanya
Volume Three in the definitive commentary on a classic work of Kabbalah by the world’s foremost authority
Understanding the Tanya guides the reader through one of the most extraordinary books of moral teachings ever written. The Tanya is a seminal document in both the study of Chasidic thought and of Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism. With a keen understanding of the profound struggles within the human soul, the Tanya helps us understand how we can raise ourselves to higher and higher spiritual levels.
Timeless in its approach, the Tanya addresses specific moral problems and dilemmas and delves into their root causes, distilling the universal predicaments of humankind and offering solutions that can change the way we view ourselves and conduct our lives. The Tanya explores the workings of the soul and examines the complexities, doubts, and drives within all of us as expressions of a single basic problem-the struggle between our Godly and animal souls
The internationally celebrated Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who has dedicated his life to the study, teaching, and writing of books that explain Jewish scripture, religious practice, spirituality, and mysticism is the author of this explanation and commentary on the Tanya.
The first book in the series, Opening the Tanya, introduced us to the beinoni, that person who is neither inherently righteous nor evil, but who seeks to reach moral perfection even as he struggles with animal soul. The second volume, Learning From the Tanya, offers a deeper description of the moral tensions within each of us. This third volume, Understanding the Tanya, continues where volume two left off in its page-by-page commentary on the linear sequence of Tanya’s original text.
Read an excerpt from Understanding the Tanya
Excerpt taken from Understanding the Tanya: Volume Three in the Definitive Commentary on a Classic Work of Kabbalah by the World’s Foremost Authority (Jossey-Bass, August 2007)
The subjugation of evil is God’s praise, for He is then glorified in all the worlds. This is the greatest praise possible, since it is the fulfillment of all creation and the ultimate purpose of our reality.
The divine service of an angel is a higher level of worship, more complete than anything that a human being could do. However, since an angel exists solely in the upper worlds, it cannot relate to physical entities and so cannot fulfill the highest purpose of creation. Only the lower man, who struggles with himself and who can yield to the sitra achra* and become lower than everything-when he is subjugating the sitra achra, he causes God’s glory to rise beyond all other praise, toward the original purpose of existence and beyond it.
Hasidic texts discuss at length two basic paths (or levels) in serving God: “subduing the sitra achra” and “transforming the sitra achra.”
In “subduing the sitra achra,” a person represses his inclinations and refrains from acting on his impulses.
On the other hand, when a person “transforms the sitra achra,’ he transforms his deepest desires so that they become one with God’s desires. In doing so, he transforms his attraction to the ordinary, whether material or spiritual, into a divine love.
The distinction between these two paths may be found in Pirkei Avot (2:4; see also Likutei Torah, Bamidbar 3b): “Make His will like your will, so that He will make your will like His will. And nullify your will before His will so that He will nullify the will of others before your will.”
“Make His will like your will” means that one who would otherwise desire the wrong things and would act on those desires if he were able instead forces himself to do God’s will as though it were his own.
“Nullify your will” means that a person completely erases his personal desire and instead aligns all desire to the divine will. If a person on this level were allowed to do as he wished, he would do exactly what God wants.
The path of transformation is usually considered the superior course. It is a level of expanded consciousness based on an inner identification with the divine.
Yet the Hasidic literature also presents the opposite view and finds that subjugation can sometimes surpass transformation. This perspective focuses not on the level a person’s consciousness and emotions reach but rather on the state of being that he draws down and manifests in his service of God.
When one transforms his desires, he achieves enlightenment, a true understanding-his inner being and outer deeds are one. But just because of that, the relationship is limited by one’s ability to comprehend. One can never understand beyond one’s capacity. But when a person subjugates desire-when his actions are not the expression of his inner understanding-it is possible for him to be influenced beyond the limits of his personality and of his understanding in general.
For example, a child’s mind is limited compared to an adult’s. It is not as developed physically and spiritually and cannot understand matters as deeply. However, it is precisely because of this limitation that a child can learn new languages more easily than adults can. A child absorbs information without the barriers formed by previous misconceptions. An adult uses concepts that are shaped by the language in which he thinks. He may find it difficult, sometimes even impossible, to shift from one conceptual framework to another-in this example, from one language to another. Although a child may not understand as the adult does, he can at any rate absorb the material.
In the same way, a person walking the path of subjugation can absorb elevated and holy matters that his intellect alone could not grasp.
Many Hasidic teachings (see Chapter 41 and also Likutei Torah, Bamidbar 39a, 73a) discuss the difference between a child of God, who walks on the path of transformation, and a slave of God, who travels the course of subjugation.
A child does his father’s will because he loves the father and identifies with him and so nullifies his own will to that of the father. A slave, on the other hand, does the will of his master because he is forced to do so.
Without question, the son is on a higher plane than the slave (and a person who is a slave must strive with all his might to become a child of God). Even so, in one sense, the slave is superior to the child, for “‘the hand of the slave is like the hand of his master” (Gittin 77b)-a slave is not an independent being but a tool of his master.
When it comes to divine service, a person who takes on the role of slave accepts the yoke of God’s sovereignty with an unthinking, unconditional submission. In this, the slave’s self-nullification to God is superior than that of a son. The slave does not understand a thing, he has no conceptual limits, and so he can arrive at the highest level, where there are no limitations, a reality far higher than any mind can grasp. (Thus, as explained elsewhere, the term “slave of God” refers to a person who has reached the highest level that a person can attain-such as Moses).
On the path of transformation, one who works at transforming his character to align it with holiness does so, in the final analysis, out of egotistical motives. His motives may be elevated and refined and resonate with holiness. Nevertheless, he is still acting on his own behalf. His ego continues to exist and is stressed far more. Even when he is growing and striving toward the highest spiritual attainments, it is his ego that desires them.
We motivate a child by offering candy; when he is an adult, we motivate him by offering money or honor. Although the incentive changes, at its root it remains one and the same: the acquisition of something for himself. The same applies to a person who seeks spiritual growth.
But a person who subjugates his will to that of God sets aside his own desires. He does not identify with the divine will (among other reasons, because he has no “I,” no ego that can identify with the other). But precisely because of that, he truly serves God, because he is subjugating himself and his being to the divine One. His “I” has not changed; it has not been transformed; he still wishes to fulfill his desires-nevertheless, he does God’s will by controlling them. At that moment, his desires are nullified, for his “I” is nullified.
This correspondence is similar, although not identical, to that of the love of God and the fear of God (see Chapter 41 and also Torah Ohr 114b).
Fear of God (whether an exulted awe or a fear of punishment) parallels the act of subjugation and the role of the slave. It holds an advantage over the love of God, which mirrors the act of transformation and the role of the son.
Here is how: at its base, all love is an expansion of the lover’s personality. His “I” loves; it grows and spreads outward; he becomes an “I” of two people, of two groups, of the entire world. Any love for another always begins with an “I.” Therefore, love is limited by that “I.” That “I” may reach great heights-but it does not reach the heavens.
Fear, on the other hand, is a constriction, a gathering inward. A person who fears attempts to withdraw and hide. The result of fear is self-nullification. Even when it comes from nonenlightened impulses, it is still a nullification of private personality in a way that does not limit the flow from above.
Once, two great people were speaking. One said, “I have reached the seventh heaven!” The other replied, “I am so small that the seventh heaven comes down to me.” No one is great enough to reach the heavens. Indeed, the greater a person is, the more he prevents the heavens from descending to him. However, when a person is small, the heavens can reach him.
Fear is, in a sense, a feeling of hopelessness, the feeling that we can rely on no one. As long as a person has others to whom to turn, God will remain his last resort. He will trust in people, power, intellect, or love. When he has no other refuge, he will turn to God.
This helps us see the difference between “a person who serves God” and “one who has not served Him” (Malachi 3:18; see Chapter 15 and later parts of this chapter). “A person who serves God” is on the path of subjugation. He goes beyond his soul’s natural and usual desires and beyond all logic that he can understand. At the moment the sitra achra is subdued, when he controls it without reason or understanding (for there is no rationale to the path of subjugation), he draws energy from the Transcendent Divine, which is beyond all reason and knowledge.
The core of any mitzvah (whether the word is translated as “commandment” or “connecting bridge”) is based on this concept. If the mitzvot were nothing more than good advice, we could relate to them and understand them in some way. However, in that case, the mitzvot would not help us forge a connection to God. The creation of a connection, of a bridge across a gap of utter otherness, of a chasm that cannot be crossed, can be achieved only by the connection formed when one fulfills a commandment that is not dependent on understanding. It is only through a connection that we cannot identify, a connection that exists solely in the realm of subjugation, that we can make the transition to the Transcendent Divine, that primal entity whom we experience as Nothingness, lying beyond the entire structure of the existence of universes.
Only after this can the lights enter the vessels, when the path of transformation creates vessels and draws down the light of the Immanent Divine.
* Sitra achra (Aramaic: “the other side” or “the side that is not holy”) is a general term for evil, including all aspects of the universe that are opposed to Godliness. It is synonymous with kelipah.