The Psychology in Tanya – Introduction

As Rabbi Shneur Zalman (the Alter Rebbe) says in the frontispiece of Tanya, the purpose of the book is to explain the verse in the Torah following Moses’ statement that the Torah is not hidden nor distant, it is not in heaven or across the sea. “Rather the matter is very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart—to perform it” (Deuteronomy 30:11-14). Moses appears to be saying that fulfilling all the commandments of the Torah is a simple task, whereas it actually appears to be a formidable challenge. The Alter Rebbe, therefore, wishes to show that, if properly understood, the challenge is well within one’s means to master.

When confronted with any challenge, a person has only one of two options: to cope with it or to avoid or escape from it. He makes his decision by consideration of two factors: (1) what is the magnitude of the challenge, i.e., what is the reality, and (2) what are my capabilities. If he sees that his capabilities are adequate, he may undertake to cope with the challenge. If he feels that the challenge, relative to his capabilities is too overwhelming, he will avoid it.

People may avoid the challenge of Torah either because their perception of reality is erroneous, or their assessment of their capabilities is erroneous, or both. To encourage people to cope with the challenge presented by the Torah, the Alter Rebbe presents the concept of reality as understood in Chassidic philosophy, and an analysis of the psychological composition of the human being. If these two are correctly perceived, one will see that indeed “the matter is very near to you—in your mouth and in your heart—to perform it.”

In my office, there is a huge poster of birds in graceful flight. The caption reads, “They fly because they think they can.” This is not quite correct. It is more correct to say that “They fly because they know they can.” If they had to think about flying, they would never do so. Birds have an intuitive awareness of their ability to fly. Man’s perception of his abilities to achieve is not intuitive. In fact, there are forces operative within a person that tend to eclipse his perception of his abilities. The Alter Rebbe seeks to remove these blinders and to enable us to discover our personality strengths.

Tanya begins with a passage from the Talmud that before the fetus emerges into the world, theneshamah (soul) is administered an oath: “Be a tzaddik (a righteous person); do not be a rasha(an evil person).” Some of the commentaries on Tanya explain that the purpose of this oath is that it empowers the person to fulfill his mission.

But in what way does an oath empower? The answer is in the Talmudic rule that if a person makes a vow that he will not sleep for three consecutive days, he is promptly given lashes for having taken G-d’s name in vain by swearing falsely, because it is physically impossible for a person to go three days without a moment of sleep. In other words, an oath can apply only to something that is within reality to achieve.

Therefore, when the neshamah is given the oath, “Be a tzaddik,” that indicates that this is within the person’s ability to accomplish. An oath is not given for something which is not within a person’s capacity to fulfill.

In addition to informing a person that one has the ability to achieve one’s mission on earth, the oath adds encouragement and incentive. One who understands the seriousness of an oath will exert greater effort to overcome obstacles that deter one from fulfilling ones mission.*

Torah identifies G-d with Truth (Jeremiah 10:10). Closeness to and identification with G-d can be only to the degree that a person lives in Truth. It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to know both the truth of reality and the truth of our own composition.

A number of expositions on Tanya already exist. The purpose of this book is to further clarify the Alter Rebbe’s concepts in the light of some psychological insights which may not have been presented in other works. Given the composition of the psyche as the Alter Rebbe understands it, it will also be evident that secular psychotherapy may fall short of addressing the psychological needs of the Jewish client.


* To better appreciate the gravity of an oath, I will share with you a story I heard from my father.

In one town, there were two Torah scholars that were bosom friends, Reb Meshulem, the local magistrate ( dayan) and Reb Chaykl, the local rabbi ( rav). The two regularly studied Torah together.

One day, as they were studying together, a woman came in and told Reb Meshulum that she had to leave town for a while, and would like to leave her money with him for safekeeping until she returns. She counted out three hundred rubles, which she gave to Reb Meshulum.

Several weeks later, the woman returned, and when Reb Meshulum looked into his desk drawer, he could not find the money. He carefully looked through all the drawers, but the money was not there. Thinking that perhaps he had put the money into a pocket of the kaftan he was wearing, he went through the pockets of every garment, but found nothing. He had his wife help him search through the house, but nowhere was the money to be found.

Reb Meshulum realized that the only other person present was Reb Chaykl, so he asked Reb Chayl, “Did you see what I did with the woman’s money?” Reb Chaykl said that he was engrossed in the Talmud and did not see anything. Of course, it was beyond the remotest possibility that Reb Chaykl had taken the money.

However, since the money was nowhere to be found, Reb Meshulum began reflecting that Reb Chaykl had told him that he was desperately in need of money, because his daughter was of marriageable age, and without a dowry, there would not be any chance of her marrying. He began thinking, could Reb Chaykl’s desperation have overwhelmed him and broken down his resistance? This was absurd, but what other explanation could there be?

Reb Meshulum could not help himself. He explained the facts to Reb Chaykl, saying, “My dearest friend, I am as certain that you did not take the money as I am certain the sun will rise in the east tomorrow. I don’t have the slightest suspicion. However, inasmuch as you were the only person there when the woman gave me the money, halachah requires that you take an oath that you did not take it.”

Reb Chaykl turned pale. “Reb Meshulum,” he said, “give me a day to think it over.” The following day, Reb Chaykl brought Reb Meshulum one hundred fifty rubles.

This upset  Reb Meshulum terribly. Where could Reb Chaykl have gotten such an amount? His suspicion now took hold, and he said, “Reb Chaykl, the amount is three hundred rubles.” Reb Chaykl said, “Give me one more day.” The next day, Reb Chayl brought an additional one hundred rubles and said, “Please implore the woman to accept a promissory note for the remaining fifty rubles.”

From that day on, their friendship deteriorated. If Reb Meshulum saw Reb Chaykl from a distance, he would avoid passing him.

Months passed, and as Passover approached, Reb Meshulum was cleaning his study for Passover, and as he removed the mizrach (a framed drawing indicated that this was the eastern wall of the room) from the wall to clean behind it, the bundle of three hundred rubles fell. That was where he had hidden the money! Reb Meshulum emitted a loud, heartrending cry and fainted.

When his wife heard the cry, she ran into the study and found Reb Meshulum moribund. She called for the neighbors, and they were able to revive him. As he came to, he beat his head, saying, “What did I do? I vilified the tzaddik! I must run to beh his forgiveness.” He arose and ran to Reb Chaykl’s house, but found that Reb Chaykl had gone to the shul. Reb Meshulum ran to the shul, alighted the pulpit and tearfully  declared, “My holy people! I cannot be your rav any longer. I am a scoundrel! I tormented and vilified a tzaddik, an innocent person!”

Reb Chaykl went over to him and embraced him, trying to comfort him. “No! No!” Reb Meshulum cried. “Don’t come close to me! I don’t deserve to be in your presence! I falsely accused you and tormented you. There is no forgiveness for me. Gehinnom (Hell) does not have enough punishment for me!”

Reb Chaykl said, “Reb Meshulum, please listen to me. Under the circumstances, you had no alternative. I was the only other person in your study. Halacha required that I take an oath, and surely you would have believed me. But when you said I must take an oath, I trembled. An oath! There is nothing more serious than an oath. I ran home, took the few valuables we had and sold them. I was able to borrow some money, and that’s how I had the one hundred fifty rubles. When you said that it wasn’t enough, I sold all my sefarim (books) and was able to borrow more money, but there was no way I could possibly get fifty rubles more. I will be eternally indebted to you that you prevailed on the woman to accept a promissory  note for fifty rubles, because otherwise I would have had to take an oath. You have no reason for remorse, Reb Meshulum. You did what the halacha required. I am so thankful that you enabled me to avoid taking an oath.”

The Talmud says that when G-d gave the third of the Ten Commandments, prohibiting a false oath, the earth trembled. Inasmuch as the earth did not react this way to any of the other commandments indicates the utmost gravity of an oath. Hence, if one knows that one was given an oath, one is highly motivated to fulfill it.