The Beinoni

The Alter Rebbe referred to Tanya as the “book for beinonim.”  The word beinoni is usually understood to mean the median between two opposite poles. This is not the way it is used inTanya.


Citing sources in the Talmud, the Alter Rebbe lists five categories of people: (1) tzaddik(righteous  person) v’tov lo, a tzaddik who has good; (2) tzaddik v’ra lo, a tzaddik who has evil; (3) beinoni; (4) rasha (wicked person) v’tov lo, a rasha who has good; and (5) rasha v’ ra lo, arasha who has evil.


The terms tzaddik and rasha are not to be understood in their colloquial use as “a righteous person” or “a wicked” person. Anyone who has transgressed any halachic prohibition of either scriptural or rabbinic nature, or who has failed to fulfill a positive mitzvah, or who has been remiss in preventing others from wrongdoing, or who has idled away time that could have been used forTorah study is considered a rasha until such time as he has done adequate teshuvah. Inasmuch as a beinoni is not a rasha, he must be perfect in observance of every aspect of halachah. We would normally refer to such a person as a tzaddik, but in Tanya, a tzaddik is of different mettle.


A person has two drives: a yetzer tov, an internal force which opts for the good, and a yetzer ra, which opts for evil. The Talmud says that a tzaddik is someone who is ruled by the yetzer tov, arasha is someone who is ruled by the yetzer ra, and a beinoni is ruled by both. However, inasmuch as we have established that anyone who is remiss in even the slightest aspect ofhalachah is considered a rasha, a beinoni is someone who is in perfect compliance with everything required by halachah. Furthermore, since harboring a thought of sin is in itself a transgression of halachah, a beinoni is free of even sinful thoughts. In what way, then, does theyetzer ra share in ruling the beinoni?


The Alter Rebbe says that although one may not harbor a sinful thought, one may not be immune to having an impulse to sin. We can better understand the differentiation of the five categories by an understanding of the human mind.


There are some things of which a person is conscious. You are conscious that you are reading this book. If I were to ask you where you were yesterday or what you did this morning, you would no doubt be able to tell me. You were not thinking about these until I asked you, so this information was not in your conscious mind, but inasmuch as it was readily available to you, it was in yourpre-conscious mind.


However, there is information stored in your mind to which you have no voluntary access, no matter how hard you try. I have asked patients to name some of the children in second grade. They could not possibly recall any of their names, and would not be able to do so even if threatened by death. I then hypnotized them and regressed them to age eight, and they easily named a number of the students in second grade. Upon emerging from the hypnotic trance, they would say, “Wow! I haven’t thought of those names for forty years!”


Obviously, this information was stored somewhere in their minds, although they had no voluntary access to it. We say that such information resides in the subconscious, or more correctly, in theunconscious part of the mind. Although a person has no voluntary access to material in the unconscious, such material may appear in dreams or may be elicited under hypnosis. Although one has no awareness of material in the unconscious, psychology has demonstrated that this “hidden” material can influence a person’s behavior.


In the nineteenth century, psychology underwent a radical change with the introduction of the concept of “unconscious motivation” by Sigmund Freud, who proposed the idea that we may do things without knowing why we are doing them, but that although we are not aware of the reason for our behavior, there is a reason that is beyond our awareness, i.e.,in the unconscious.


It is interesting to know how Freud came by this idea. Freud was attending a demonstration of hypnosis by Ambroise Liebeault in Nancy, France. Liebeault hypnotized a subject from the audience, and gave him the suggestion that after he would awaken and return to his seat, at a given signal, he would stand up and open his umbrella. However, he would have no memory that this suggestion had been given to him while under hypnosis. This is a classic post-hypnotic suggestion.


After emerging from the hypnotic trance, the man returned to his seat, and Liebeault continued with his lecture. A few moments later, he made the gesture that was to serve as the signal. The man promptly arose and opened his umbrella. Liebeault asked him why he had done something so absurd as to open his umbrella indoors, and the man said that he could not explain his action. He just had an urge to do it, even though it made no sense to him. “Did anyone instruct you to do it?” Liebeault asked. “No,” the man answered.


The audience was probably amused by this demonstration, but Freud was much more than amused. He realized that there was in fact a reason why the man opened his umbrella indoors. He had been instructed to do so. But, if he could not remember the instruction, how could it motivate his action? It must be that ideas of which a person is totally unaware, or which are in the part of his mind that is unconscious, can affect a person’s behavior. From there on, it was only a matter of elaborating this concept.


Freud was a scientific thinker. He could not accept that anything happens without a cause. Inasmuch as he did not believe in G-d, he could not accept that anything was caused by G-d. However, he would have agreed in principle that a person who believes in G-d may ascribe causation to G-d. What Freud could not accept was that there were “accidental” happenings that occurred without any cause.


This led to his famous Psychopathology of Everyday Life, from which we derive the term “Freudian slip.” Freud argued that if a person tries to unlock his office door and finds that he had “accidentally” used the key to his house, that this mistake had meaning. I.e., although consciouslyhe wanted to enter his office, in his unconscious he wanted to be home, and it was this unconscious ideation that caused him to use the wrong key. Freud claimed that every “mistake” has some meaning.


This was indeed a novel concept. It had generally been assumed that we do things because we have a reason for doing them, and that we know what the reason is. The idea of “unconscious motivation” broke new ground, and was not widely accepted.


But is this really “new ground?”  Some three thousand years earlier, the Torah stated that if a person committed a sin unintentionally, he had to bring a sin-offering to gain forgiveness. But why was there a need to be forgiven? He had not sinned willfully.


Suppose a person had been traveling, lodging in a different motel every night, and Friday night at home, he awakens in middle of the night, has no idea that it is the Sabbath, and puts on the light. He has committed a sin of violating the Sabbath. Why is he held responsible for his act if he was not aware that it was Sabbath? Because the Torah holds a person responsible for actions of which he is not conscious! In other words, for behavior that was motivated unconsciously!


There is an interesting argument in the Talmud about a person who was separated from his Jewish parents at birth and was raised in a gentile environment. He was totally unaware that there is such a thing as Sabbath on which certain actions are prohibited, and so for years he did many things which are prohibited on Sabbath. At age thirty, he discovers his roots, and becomes aware that he had many times violated the Sabbath. Some of the Talmudic sages contend that he must seek forgiveness, because he had in fact sinned. One sage, Munbaz, makes the following statement. “The Torah refers to an intentional violation as a sin, and also to an unintentional violation as a sin. Just as the intentional violator had knowledge that he was committing a sin, so the unintentional violator could not be considered as having committed a sin unless he had some knowledge that it was a sin” (Tractate Shabbat 68b). A person who never knew there was an entity such as Sabbath cannot be said to have committed a sin. An unintentional sinner, therefore, must have had knowledge that it was a sin. But since he was unaware of it, where did this knowledge exist? There can be only one answer: in the unconscious.


There can be no other conclusion. The idea of unconscious knowledge and that it can motivate behavior was evident in the Torah more than three thousand years ago.


The Alter Rebbe states that there can be a tzaddik who has reached so lofty a level of spirituality that any impulse to sin has been totally extirpated from his mind, even from the unconscious. The impulse to sin has literally been destroyed. It would be impossible for a sinful impulse to emerge even in a dream. This is a tzaddik who has only a yetzer tov, hence he is  tzaddik v’tov lo, all he has is tov. Ra has no existence whatsoever within him.


There may be a tzaddik who is indeed ruled by the yetzer tov, and an impulse to sin never occurs to him. That is, he is never aware of an impulse to sin. However, it is conceivable that an impulse to sin might exist in his unconscious mind. The yetzer ra does have a presence, albeit it is in the unconscious, to which he has no voluntary access. He, too, is ruled by the yetzer tov, hence he is a tzaddik, but inasmuch as the yetzer ra exists in the unconscious, he is a tzaddik v’ra lo, atzaddik who does have an element of ra within him, although it is dormant. Although the ra may never manifest itself, even in thought, it may nevertheless have subtle influences on a person’s thought and actions.


There is also a person who never harbors a sinful thought, but it is possible that he may have a momentary impulse to sin of which he is aware. He promptly banishes this thought, not allowing it to have a presence in his conscious mind, and certainly never allowing it to be expressed in action. This person’s yetzer ra has access to his pre-conscious mind, but not to a presence in his conscious mind, because the moment it seeks entrance to the conscious mind, it is repelled.  However, inasmuch as the yetzer ra does have momentary access to the conscious mind, it can be said that it shares with the yetzer tov in ruling this person.


It is evident that to an external observer, the tzaddik v’tov lo, the tzaddik v’ra lo, and the beinoniare indistinguishable. Their distinctions are wholly internal to them.