from Learning from the Tanya (translator).
After having summed up in the previous chapter how every Jew has the ability to stave off his evil inclination, to apply himself to the service of God with uncompromising dedication and to always emerge victorious, the following chapters will engage in a discussion of the more practical, operative aspects of this campaign. At the epicenter of this topic stands one of the central tenets of Hasidism: the total negation of sadness and the positive value of joy.
Truly this should be made known
Similarly, it is important to make known...
as a cardinal principle,
... in regard to our behavior...
that as with a victory over a physical obstacle, such as in the case of two individuals who are wrestling with each other, each striving to throw the other - if one is lazy and sluggish he will easily be defeated and thrown, even though he be stronger than the other,
A variety of factors determines the outcome of every struggle, in addition to the relative strength of the forces involved. These factors affect the way in which a struggle is being engaged. If, for instance, a wrestler is awkward, if he does not move or respond quickly, then even if he is stronger than his opponent, it is probably that he will be defeated.
exactly so is it
... in the inner work of the soul as well.
in the conquest of one’s evil nature; it is impossible to conquer it with laziness and heaviness, which originate in sadness and in a heart that is dulled like a stone,
Two factors cause an indolence and sluggishness of the soul: depression and a dulled heart. Depression paralyzes the soul, making it unable to act, and a dulled heart paralyzes one’s feelings, making them inaccessible.
A dulled heart is not identical with a dulled mind. A dulled mind is the consequence of a constricted and closed intellect. It is essentially an inability to respond appropriately to intellectual challenges. But a dulled heart is a heart that is closed, an inability to respond to emotional stimuli. Although a person with a dulled heart may have experiences that are joyful or sad, upsetting or exalting, he does not respond appropriately.
but rather with alacrity which derives from joy and from a heart that is free and cleansed from any trace of worry and sadness in the world.
Only when a person lives and acts with celerity can he conquer his evil inclination. This celerity cannot emerge from depression. It comes only from joy, when everything is open, when there is no anxiety, no sense of oppressiveness. Quickness in action relates to the quickness of the inner soul, and that emanates from a positive spirit, from a person’s positive sense about what he is doing and about his obligations.
And so a question arises.
As for what is written, “In all sadness there would be profit” (Proverbs 14:23),
This verse has an implication ...
which means that some profit and advantage would be derived from it,
... from this sadness. Yet sadness is a negative trait, one that baffles our service of God and one that we must contest to the greatest extent possible.
the phrase, on the contrary,
–“There would be”–
indicates that sadness in itself has no virtue, except that some profit is derived and experienced from it,
In itself, depression is always negative, always a failure, always toxic. But sometimes we must use it, although with great caution. If a person falls unconscious, we may have to inject him with a small amount of a toxic substance in order to revive him. Although this is ordinarily a deadly poison, he needs it in order to return to consciousness, to restore movement to his limbs and be restored to life. The same applies to a person’s soul. At times, when our senses are asleep, it is necessary to utilize a trace of sadness to awaken our soul and inject it with the spirit of life. In order to overcome our torpor, which is worse than death, it may even be necessary to utilize a deadly toxin.
namely, the true joy in the Lord G-d which follows at propitious moments from genuine anguish
In itself, and even when used for holy purposes, sadness is not healthy. But at times it must be utilized, just as a pathogen may be utilized, to effect an extreme reaction. Once our heart has been saddened by something truly upsetting–by wickedness or sins–and when, as a result, we break the power of evil, then we cleanse ourselves of the falsehood within ourselves, and then we can experience a true joy, purged of falsehood.
An emetic is not tolerated by one’s digestive system, and it is unpleasant to take. But if one’s digestive system is congested, such a drug is useful. More precisely, it is not the emetic that is useful, but its action: it helps the body discharge the waste matter. Similarly, after sadness purges our system of its spiritual wastes, we come to the next stage: the relief of true joy. And that is the meaning of “in all sadness there would be profit.”
over one’s sins, with bitterness of soul and a broken heart.
Like any powerful drug, sadness must be carefully controlled and used only in the right way and at the right time. A person must manage his sadness, not the other way around. And the way to accomplish this is to designate specific times in which to allow oneself sadness.
Elsewhere, the author elaborates on the practical aspect of generating sadness, and how to localize it, in order to use it at one’s will. Siddurim of previous times used to instruct, “here one weeps.” People’s difficult circumstance and bitter lives always provided sufficient reason for weeping, but a person could not cry constantly. And so at certain points in his prayer, he was given permission, and at those points, people would weep copiously.
Everyone has sufficient reason–has suffered sufficiently, has sinned sufficiently–to experience sadness and bitterness.
But that must set that aside for the appropriate time. It should not arise spontaneously, at the times that are congenial to one’s evil inclination, but it should be summoned when we desire it.
When such sadness arises spontaneously, that is usually a sign that it is being generated by one’s evil inclination. A tzaddik told, “Once, when I was about to recite the prayers, I began to grieve over my sins: What kind of person I? I am so contemptible, so wretched, so sinful. But then it occurred to me: do I have such thoughts when I am about to eat? No! And so I understood that this was no other than an artifice of my evil inclination.”
For thereby the spirit of impurity and of the sitra achra is broken, as also the iron wall that separates him from his Father in Heaven (cf. Berachot 32b, Pesachim 85b),
Sometimes a person cannot arouse his heart–there is something in the way, a curtain dividing him from God. It is we ourselves who create this curtain. As the verse states, “For your sins have divided...” From God’s standpoint, there is no barrier.
That wall of sin, of the spirit of uncleanness and the sitra achra, is an iron curtain that nothing pierces. Behind it, a person goes through life pleased with himself, pleased with his understanding, pleased with his plans, and never experiences the slightest hint of self-reflection. He may read devotional tracts on fear and love of God, he may attend lectures delivering ethical reproof–he may deliver such lectures as well–but none of this affects him, because a wall stands between him and such feelings, preventing them from reaching him. When a person reaches this state–“you grew fat, you grew corpulent, you kicked” (Deuteronomy 32:15)–he is covered in a layer of “the fat that covers the liver” (Exodus 29:22): an opacity that coats his heart and allows no feeling of life to penetrate. He may know everything intellectually, he may even have a sense that something is wrong, but the unending flow of life does not allow him to truly experience it. And so, even though he acknowledges the importance of the love and fear of God, they remain external to him. Although they are necessary, they stand inactive. A person in such a situation has to break down this wall. And it can only be broken when his heart is broken–broken like a clay pot that, having been contaminated, can be purified only when it is shattered. At times a person is given divine assistance–not that he should seek it or take pride in it, but there may be no other way.
Such a breakdown in one’s life may be tragic, but it has more power to affect a person than endless words of reproof. Many people have discovered that only after a negative event, only after a crisis, were they he open to a new insight, to faith, and that then, for perhaps the first time in their lives, they experienced a feeling of genuine joy.
What does a crisis accomplish? A crisis breaks the iron curtain and allows a person to feel. There are many people in the world who act, speak, go through the motions of life, yet are in a state of anomie, unable to truly experience love–love of others or love of God; and unable to experience fear–fear of others and fear of God. The entire range of their lives is conducted on two dimensions. Such a person comes and goes, enters a scene and leaves a scene. Things in his life are constantly changing, but he never has a genuine experience.
Such a state can be challenged only by a crisis. Only then is a person open to the possibility of living experience. From the moment that he experiences his pain, he can begin to experience the entire world. In the end, perhaps, he will see the world as it is and people as they are. But prior to that, behind the iron curtain, his relationships are mechanical–not a true connection between himself and others, between himself and God.
But after the crisis, he is like a person who has suffered burns. As the old skin peels, he begins to feel with the new skin. Although he feels pain, he has pleasant sensations as well. A new sensitivity has been created, open to everything.
In contradistinction to a number of optimistic philosophies, it appears that it is more difficult to arrive at true feeling via positive experiences than via negative experiences. This is not a pleasant thought to contemplate, but clearly negative experiences are extremely effective in piercing the iron curtain. Whereas positive experiences only increase a person’s self-satisfaction (for they indicate to him that everything is well and that he can proceed as he has always been), a negative event, a crisis, arouses him. Because it is difficult, because he cannot bear it, he is forced to change.