It has been taught (Niddah, end ch. 3): An oath is administered to him [before birth, warning him]: "Be righteous and be not wicked; and even if the whole world tells you that you are righteous, regard yourself as if you were wicked."
This requires to be understood, for it contradicts the Mishnaic dictum (Avot, ch. 2), "And be not wicked in your own estimation." Furthermore, if a man considers himself to be wicked he will be grieved at heart and depressed, and will not be able to serve G-d joyfully and with a contented heart; while if he is not perturbed by this [self-appraisal], it may lead him to irreverence, G-d forbid.
However, the matter [will be understood after a preliminary discussion].
We find in the Gemara five distinct types—a righteous man who prospers, a righteous man who suffers, a wicked man who prospers, a wicked man who suffers, and an intermediate one (Benoni). It is there explained that the "righteous man who prospers" is the perfect tzaddik; the "righteous man who suffers" is the imperfect tzaddik. In Raaya Mehemna (Parshat Mishpatim) it is explained that the "righteous man who suffers" is one whose evil nature is subservient to his good nature, and so on. In the Gemara (end ch. 9, Berachot) it is stated that the righteous are motivated by their good nature,... and the wicked by their evil nature, while the intermediate men are motivated by both, and so on. Rabbah declared, "I, for example, am a Benoni" Said Abbaye to him, "Master, you do not make it possible for anyone to live," and so on.
To understand all the aforesaid clearly an explanation is needed, as also to under-stand what Job said [Bava Batra, ch. i], "Lord of the universe, Thou hast created righteous men and Thou hast created wicked men,..." for it is not preordained whether a man will be righteous or wicked.
It is also necessary to understand the essential nature of the rank of the Intermediate. Surely that cannot mean one whose deeds are half virtuous and half sinful, for if this were so, how could Rabbah err in classifying himself as a Benoni? For it is known that he never ceased studying [the Torah], so much so that the Angel of Death could not over¬power him; how, then, could he err to have half of his deeds sinful, G-d forbid?
Furthermore, [at what stage can a person be considered a Benoni if] when a man commits sins he is deemed completely wicked (but when he repents afterward he is deemed completely righteous)? Even he who violates a minor prohibition of the Rabbis is called wicked, as it is stated in Yevamot, ch. 2, and in Niddah, ch. I. Moreover, even he who has the opportunity to forewarn another against sinning and does not do so is called wicked (ch. 6, Shevuot). All the more so he who neglects any positive law which he is able to fulfil, for instance, whoever is able to study Torah and does not, regarding whom our Sages have quoted, "Because he hath despised the word of the Lord... [that soul] shall be utterly cut off...," It is thus plain that such a person is called wicked, more than he who violates a prohibition of the Rabbis. If this is so, we must conclude that the Intermediate man (Benoni) is not guilty even of the sin of neglecting to study the Torah. Hence he could have mistaken himself for a Benoni.
Note: As for what is written in the Zohar III, p. 231: He whose sins are few is classed as a "righteous man who suffers" this is the query of Rav Hamnuna to Elijah. But according to Elijah's answer, ibid., the explanation of a "righteous man who suffers" is as stated in Ra'aya Mehemna on Parshat Mishpatim, which is given above. And the Torah has seventy facets [modes of interpretation].
And as for the general saying that one whose deeds and misdeeds are equally balanced is called Benoni, while he whose virtues outweigh his sins is called a Tzaddik, this is only the figurative use of the term in regard to reward and punishment, because he is judged according to the majority [of his acts] and he is deemed "righteous" in his verdict, since he is acquitted in law. But concerning the true definition and quality of the distinct levels and ranks, "Righteous" and "Intermediate" men, our Sages have remarked that the Righteous are motivated [solely] by their good nature, as it is written, "And my heart is a void within me," that is, void of an evil nature, because he [David] had slain it through fasting. But whoever has not attained this degree, even though his virtues exceed his sins, cannot at all be reckoned to have ascended to the rank of the Righteous (tzaddik). This is why our Sages have declared in the Midrash, "The Almighty saw that the righteous were few, so He planted them in every generation,..." [for,] as it is written, "The tzaddik is the foundation of the world."
The explanation [of the questions raised above] is to be found in the light of what Rabbi Chayim Vital wrote in Sha'ar ha-Kedushah (and in Etz Chayim, Portal 50, ch. 2) that in every Jew, whether righteous or wicked, are two souls, as it is written, "The neshamot (souls) which I have made," [alluding to] two souls. There is one soul which originates in the kelipah and sitra achra, and which is clothed in the blood of a human being, giving life to the body, as is written, "For the life of the flesh is in the blood." From it stem all the evil characteristics deriving from the four evil elements which are contained in it. These are: anger and pride, which emanate from the element of Fire, the nature of which is to rise upwards; the appetite for pleasures— from the element of Water, for water makes to grow all kinds of enjoyment; frivolity and scoffing, boasting and idle talk from the element of Air; and sloth and melancholy— from the element of Earth. From this soul stem also the good characteristics which are to be found in the innate nature of all Israel, such as mercy and benevolence. For in the case of Israel, this soul of the kelipah is derived from kelipat nogah, which also contains good, as it originates in the esoteric "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil." The souls of the nations of the world, however, emanate from the other, unclean kelipot which contain no good whatever, as is written in Etz Chayim, Portal 49, ch. 3, that all the good that the nations do, is done from selfish motives. So the Gemara comments on the verse, "The kindness of the nations is sin,"— that all the charity and kindness done by the nations of the world is only for their own self-glorification, and so on.