In the previous chapters the Alter Rebbe discussed the distinctive merit of mitzvot performed by speech and action, for by means of them the vitalizing soul is elevated to holiness. The mitzvot have this ability for they are performed with the power of the vitalizing soul that vivifies the physical limbs that perform them, and with the physical tongue and lips etc. that utter the words of Torah and prayer.
Since the ultimate intent of the soul’s descent is not for the sake of the soul alone but in order to elevate the vitalizing soul and the corporeal body, this is accomplished specifically through mitzvot that require physical action and speech.
והנה, עם כל הנ״ל יובן היטב פסק ההלכה הערוכה בתלמוד ופוסקים דהרהור לאו כדבור דמי
In light of all that has been said above concerning the particular virtue of mitzvot performed in action and speech, in their elevation of the vital soul to holiness, one will clearly understand the halachic decision expressly stated in the Talmud and the Codes that meditation is not valid in lieu of verbal articulation.
ואם קרא קריאת שמע במחשבתו ובלבו לבד בכל כח כוונתו לא יצא ידי חובתו, וצריך לחזור ולקרות
Thus, if one recited the Shema in his thought and heart alone, even if he did so with the full power of his concentration, he has not fulfilled his obligation of reciting the Shema, by merely meditating on the words that comprise it; he must repeat it [verbally].
וכן בברכת המזון דאורייתא
The same is true of the grace after meals, ordained by the Torah,
Although the Torah does not state with regard to grace, as it does of Shema: “And you shall speak these words,” yet one cannot fulfill this duty by mere thought.
ובשאר ברכות דרבנן, ובתפלה
and [similarly with] other blessings, although they are merely Rabbinic in origin; and so too with prayer; although prayer is “a service of the heart,” it cannot be confined to the heart but must be articulated orally.
The Rebbe comments that this halachah poses no intrinsic difficulty, since one can no more ask why G‑d stipulated that a particular thought (Shema, prayer, and the like) must also be verbalized, than one can ask why the mitzvah was ordained at all. However, we must understand why it is that when a mitzvah is composed of both speech and thought the law states that verbalization without intent does fulfill the obligation; intent without verbalization does not.
For this reason, the Alter Rebbe continues the question, as follows:
ואם הוציא בשפתיו ולא כיון לבו, יצא ידי חובתו בדיעבד, ואין צריך לחזור
If, on the other hand, one spoke the words (of Shema, prayer, etc.) but did not concentrate his thought, he has, post facto, fulfilled his obligation (although he was initially required to concentrate), and need not repeat them with concentration,
לבד מפסוק ראשון של קריאת שמע, וברכה ראשונה של תפלת שמונה עשרה
except for the first verse of Shema and the first blessing in Shemoneh-Esreh where the law requires one to repeat them if he did not concentrate on their meaning while reciting them.
וכדאיתא ברפ״ב דברכות : עד כאן מצות כוונה, מכאן ואילך מצות קריאה וכו׳
It is thus written (Tractate Berachot, beginning of ch. 2): “Until here i.e., until the end of the first verse of Shema, the mitzvah is one of concentration, from here on the mitzvah consists of recitation...,” and one has fulfilled his obligation even if he did not concentrate.
How, then, are we to reconcile both halachot? Why is thought without speech not as acceptable as speech without thought? The answer lies in the discussion of the unique status of mitzvot performed in action and speech, as explained in the previous chapter.
והיינו משום שהנשמה אינה צריכה תיקון לעצמה במצות
This is because the [divine] soul does not need to perfect itself through mitzvot;
רק להמשיך אור לתקן נפש החיונית והגוף
rather, the goal of mitzvot is to draw down [G‑dly] light to perfect the vital soul and the body.
על ידי אותיות הדבור שהנפש מדברת בה׳ מוצאות הפה, וכן במצות מעשיות שהנפש עושה בשאר אברי הגוף
This is accomplished by means of the letters of speech, which the soul utters by means of the five organs of verbal articulation, and through the mitzvot of action which the soul performs by means of the body’s other organs.
The mitzvot involving speech and action, which utilize the power of the vital soul and the organs of the body, serve to elevate them. Since the ultimate goal is the perfection of the vital soul and the body, thought alone, being the province of the divine soul, cannot satisfy the demands of the mitzvot of speech; they require verbal articulation. Speech alone, however, without thought, is sufficient, since the vital soul and the body are elevated thereby.
* * *
From the beginning of ch. 35 until here, the Alter Rebbe has expounded the phrase “to do it,” — the conclusion of the verse, “For the matter (of observing Torah and mitzvot) is very near to you, in your mouth and in your heart that you may do it.” He explained that the mitzvot of action (and of speech, which is also deemed “action”) are of paramount importance, since it is through them that we achieve the goal of transforming this physical world into a “dwelling place for G‑d in the lower realms,” i.e., a place where G‑dliness will be revealed to an even greater degree than it is in the higher, spiritual worlds.
This goal will be realized when the energy of the vital soul and the body of every Jew will ascend from kelipat nogah to holiness. Thereby all of kelipat nogah, meaning the vitality of the entire world, will ascend to holiness, and automatically the three impure kelipot will cease to exist. Thus, there will be no obstruction of G‑dliness in the world; G‑dliness will radiate throughout; the world will be G‑d’s “dwelling place.”
Since the entire process hinges on the elevation of a Jew’s body and his vital soul, and since their elevation is accomplished only by means of the mitzvot of action, which require their power in performance of the mitzvot, therefore the mitzvot of action are, as said, of paramount importance.
In the discussion that now follows, the Alter Rebbe will examine the other side of the coin. He will explain the importance of kavanah — “devout concentration,” or “intention” — in the performance of mitzvot. As used in this context, kavanah refers to the motivating intention that by performing a mitzvah one is united with G‑d, Whose command and Will each mitzvah represents.
אך אף על פי כן אמרו: תפלה או שאר ברכה בלא כוונה הן כגוף בלא נשמה
Yet nevertheless, it has been said that prayer, or any other blessing, said without kavanah, is like a body without a soul.
This comparison of the words of prayer to a body, and of kavanah to its soul, means [as follows]:
כי כמו שכל הברואים שבעולם הזה שיש להם גוף ונשמה
Just as all the creatures of this world possessing a body and a soul
שהם נפש כל חי, ורוח בשר איש, ונשמת כל אשר רוח חיים באפיו מכל בעלי חיים
— meaning the Nefesh of every living being, the Ruach of all human flesh, and the Neshamah of all that has the breath of life in its nostrils among all living creatures —
וה׳ מחיה את כולם, ומהוה אותם מאין ליש תמיד באור וחיות שמשפיע בהם
G‑d animates them all, and creates them constantly out of nothingness by the light and vitality which He bestows upon them i.e., upon both the soul and the body; and in support of his contention that the body, too, has a G‑dly life-force (aside from the soul), the Alter Rebbe adds parenthetically:
שגם הגוף החומרי, ואפילו אבנים ועפר הדומם ממש, יש בו אור וחיות ממנו יתברך, שלא יחזור להיות אין ואפס כשהיה
— for even the material body, and furthermore even the very stones and earth which are absolutely inanimate, lacking even that sign of life found in plant-life, i.e., growth,— even the totally inanimate being has within it light and vitality from G‑d, so that it should not revert to naught and nothingness, as it was before it was created.
(Further in Tanya, the Alter Rebbe explains that every existing being would instantly revert to absolute nothingness, were it not for the G‑dly life-force constantly creating it, and keeping it in existence. Thus, even the inanimate beings contain a life-force, and so surely, do the bodies of living creatures.)
ואף על פי כן אין ערך ודמיון כלל בין בחינת אור וחיות המאיר בגוף, לגבי בחינת אור וחיות המאיר בנשמה, שהיא נפש כל חי
(The Alter Rebbe now concludes the sentence begun earlier:) Just as in all the creatures of this world possessing a body and a soul, there is, nevertheless, i.e., despite the fact that body and soul are alike in that they both contain a divine life-force, there is nevertheless no comparison or similarity between the quality of the light and life-force radiating in the body, and the light and life-force radiating in the Neshamah, which is the soul of every living thing.
It is axiomatic that the physical is incomparable to the spiritual (so much so, that philosophers agree that the evolution of the material from the spiritual is the most radical form of creation ex nihilo). The body, being physical, is thus incomparable to the soul, which is spiritual.
This difference between them is obviously due to the difference between the respective divine life-forces creating them. The Alter Rebbe will now explain in what way these life-forces differ. The difference is surely not one of varying degrees of revelation of the divine life-force — that in the body this life-force is in concealment, while in the soul it stands revealed. In this respect body and soul are alike. The veil of kelipat nogah, which obscures G‑dliness in this physical world as a whole, envelops both body and soul. Therefore, just as the body does not attest to the fact that it is the product of divine creative power, so does the soul of living creatures belie the fact that its life-giving properties are G‑dly. Thus, the divine life-force is concealed equally in body and soul. The difference between them lies, rather, in the intensity of G‑dly life-force that each contains: in the body the life-force is contracted, so that the body is a physical being; in the soul the life-force is freely bestowed, and the soul is therefore a spiritual, life-giving being.
In the Alter Rebbe’s words: