Tree of Life, Tanya Book. (© Gil Dekel) ליקוטי אמרים, ספר של בינונים, פרק א’ תניא

בספ”ג דנדה משביעים אותו תהי צדיק ואל תהי רשע

In this first ‘Perek’ (chapter) of the Tanya book, we are being referred to the end of the third chapter of the tract page from a different book – the Talmud tract called ‘Niddah’. In the tract of Niddah, the Gmara talks about the laws of purity, of women particularly; then it goes on to talk about the embryo of the child in the mother’s womb, and the birth of the child.

This particular statement is known as a ‘Baraita’  ברייתא , which is a gathering of statements that add further information to the ‘Mishna’. These statements are not considered ‘Mishnah’, the most authoritative statements, rather they add to it.

The Baraita were gathered at the time of Rabbenu Ha-Kodesh  רבינו הקודש  in order to complement and add additional value to the teachings of the Mishna. It was Rabbenu Ha-Kodesh who initially got the permission to compile them into the Gemara. He did not compile Baraita himself, rather his Talmiddim (students), Rev Yekhia  רב יחיא  , Rev Yashaya  רב ישעיה , and others who gathered the Baraita.

Now, the ‘Neshama’, the soul, before it comes down into the body, whilst in Heaven, is administered a ‘Shevua’, an oath. It is made to take a vow of “you shall be a Tzadik and you shall not be a Rasha.” The heavenly court says these words, and the Neshama has to say “Amen”, which is a form of agreement, an oath, in the Jewish legal system.

The Gemara gets very spiritual here; it talks about what is happening to the soul before it comes to earth.

As we’re going to see, the Rebbe himself says very clearly that not everybody has the ability to be a ‘Tzadik’ (complete righteous person). So, now we ask: why the Rebbe is writing that the heaven is making a person’s soul take a vow to be a Tzadik, when it is clear that it is not within the reach of the majority of people?

By having a soul take the oath to being a Tzadik, the soul is given the tools and powers needed to fulfil its mission on Earth. The vow for being a Tzadik charges the soul and invests in it the holy energy it needs in order to come to earth and fulfil its work here.

A second, simpler, question is: why waste words? Why the repetition in this oath? If you make a person vow to be good, then clearly that implies they agree not to be bad; so why do you have to make them vow further not to be bad, “and you shall not be a Rasha”, after they have just vowed “you shall be a Tzadik”? This is superfluous. We ask what is the purpose of this?

The purpose is to remind us that we can all pretend to act good – we can behave ‘properly’ as a pretence. For example: a person is driving, and he sees the police nearby. He then reduces the speed, because he knows the police is watching and he does not want to get a ticket. So, he drives slower because he is afraid to get a ticket. A different person drives correctly according the law because that is the right thing to do. He does so regardless of the police being around or not. He does not pretend to be good. He does the good thing out of goodness.

Pretence in doing good makes the person a Rasha. So, The Alter Rebbe writes here that the soul takes a vow to be good, and not wicked – to be pure in thoughts, word, and deed. The soul commits to that purity, and is given the Godly power to come to earth and act.

Tree of Life, Tanya Book. (© Gil Dekel)

The Tree of Life, Tanya Book. (© Gil Dekel)

ואפי’ כל העולם כולו אומרים לך צדיק אתה היה בעיניך כרשע

The Gemara goes on and says something that may seem a contradiction: “And even if the whole world in its entirety would say to you ‘you are a Tzadik’, you should hold yourself in your own eyes to be like a Rasha.” In other words, you’re made to vow to be a Tzadik and not to be a Rasha, yet once you are on earth, you should not consider yourself to be a Tzadik. You should always consider yourself to be ‘Ka Rasha’ – like a Rasha. ‘Ka’ means in Hebrew ‘like’ or ‘as’.

Even if everyone is going to tell you that you’re a Tzadik, you shouldn’t believe what they say, and instead you should see yourself as a Rasha. We’re not talking about ‘Chanifa’, flattery; we’re talking about reality, about people who truly believe that you are Tzadik, and they say so.

If people actually perceive you to be a Tzadik, and these are people whom you respect, you might feel inclined to think that they are right. But the Gemara warns us and says, no, you must not think that. It doesn’t matter what people say to you. Some people may genuine judge you to be a Tzadik from your actions, yet they do not know your inner thoughts. So, in your own eyes, you must consider yourself to be ‘Ka Rasha’, because you must do the inner work of becoming pure. You must not allow the ego to get hold of you.

Seeing oneself ‘Ka Rasha’ means that the person is asked to always aspire to be better; to always be in charge of his thoughts, words, and deeds.

Alter Rebbe explains that a person should not think himself to be Rasha. Rasha is quite different to ‘Ka Rasha’. Alter Rebbe now brings another statement in a different setting; the setting of Pirkey Avot, the famous ethics of the fathers, which we read traditionally on Shabbat.

וצריך להבין דהא תנן [אבות פ”ב] ואל תהי רשע בפני עצמך

Here, we have the statement quoted from our sages, Avot, the fathers. The statement says: “And you shall not be a Rasha in your own esteem [Avot chapter B]”.

The Gemara in the Niddah said you should be a Tzadik, but be in your own eyes like a Rasha, ‘Ka Rasha’. And Avot says, you shall not be a Rasha in your own esteem.

וגם אם יהיה בעיניו כרשע ירע לבבו ויהיה עצב ולא יוכל לעבו’ ה’ בשמחה ובטוב לבב

The Alter Rebbe explains why a person should not see themselves a Rasha. The good person, “if he would consider himself to be like a Rasha” as it is stated in Niddah, “he would feel bad in his heart”. He’ll become depressed, and therefore, “He will not be able to serve God with joyfulness, with a good heart.”

So we can see what the ‘Avot’ meant. Considering oneself to be a Rasha, like it says in Niddah, is likely to lead the person to getting depressed. We all know that the gateway to all forms of deprivation and descending into the depths of lowliness is when a person loses self-esteem.  The person begins to regard himself as lowly, as worthless. He gives up and thinks: ‘Why should I even bother to try and be a decent human being when it’s clear that I’m really a wicked person? If I’m wicked, I might as well give in and be wicked. Why fight any longer?’

Therefore, we can understand clearly why in Avot it says you must never consider yourself to be a wicked person; because that could lead to a person not being able to serve God with a good heart. When there’s no joyfulness, there’s no alacrity, and no strength or resistance to fight back any longer. Such state of mind may result in all types of wickedness.

ואם לא ירע לבבו כלל מזה יכול לבוא לידי קלות ח”ו.

However, there is another situation that can follow from this, which the Alter Rebbe points out: a situation where a person doesn’t feel bad at heart ‘Mize’  מזה  (by this). If a person does not feel bad at all from the fact that he’s doing bad, then this is not good either. If a person can sin, behave in an incorrect way and still not feel that it is wrong, that’s no good. That can make a person become too laid back, ‘Kal’  קל  . The person says ‘what do I care, it’s not a big deal. I don’t care.’

So we can see that neither path is really good… Getting to feeling very bad about oneself and how wicked one is, is certainly not the way. A lack of self-esteem, lack of self-worth leads a person to giving up trying to control himself. On the other hand, not feeling bad about wrong doings indicates a loss of standards and values, which is also no good.

So that’s the laying out of the questions here, which are based on two ‘Mamorei Hazal’, the writings of our sages, Hazal  חז”ל , which seem to come in conflict with each other. The Alter Rebbe say that we can understand both sides of the coin, and what is the resolution? We do not know yet; this will be clarified as we continue.

It is from this point of conflict that the Alter Rebbe launches into the main theme of the study of this book, which is to understand what the Beinoni is; and for this, he now quotes further sources from the Gemara.

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20 Jan 2012.
© Gil Dekel. My thanks to my teachers.

Likkutei Amarim – Tanya, Bi-Lingual Edition, Revised, ISBN 0-8266-0400-5, ‘Kehot’ Publication Society, NY. 1993 [© 1984].
This is lesson for page 2 in this book.