One day, about 200 years ago, there was a fire in hell.
The whole place burned down. It was bound to happen sooner or later, with those infernal fires burning night and day and the old devils getting careless over the years.
So they called in a troop of architects, contractors and interior designers and built a brand new gehenna. They redid the whole thing, from the landscaping to the ceramic in the bathrooms. But then the righteous folk upstairs in heaven started complaining. "The wicked guys get a new, modern complex, while we're housed in this 5000-year-old dilapidated place? Is this heaven's idea of justice?" It was decided that the righteous were right. The wicked were relocated to the old paradise, which now became the new hell; and the holy folk moved into the old gehenna, which became the new heaven.
Chassidim used to tell this story to illustrate what happened when the founder of Chabad Chassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, published his Tanya in 1796.
On the cover page of Tanya, the author states that he is saying nothing new; all this book is, Rabbi Schneur Zalman insists, is a "collection of sayings" by authors and teachers of Torah of previous generations. Indeed, everything stated in Tanya can be found in earlier sources. But as collected and presented by Rabbi Schneur Zalman, they constitute nothing less than a revolutionary understanding of our inner self and our purpose in life.
Before the Tanya, the human condition was a spiritual hell. It was a place of dissonance, self doubt and, above all, a crushing sense of futility over the never-ending conflict between instinct and understanding. Why is it -- the
typical human asked him/herself a hundred times a day -- that I desire things I don't want to desire? That I need to force myself to do what I've already decided I want to do? That I'm attracted to things that revolt me, and shy away from things I consider good and desirable? Am I such a weak and confused creature that I don't know my own mind and cannot act on my own
Before the Tanya, the typical human being often felt as if there were not one, but two selves residing within his or her body: a lower self that lusts and obsesses and grabs and greeds; and a higher self that commits and shares and is capable of awe and makes space in itself for higher truths. The typical human being yearned for tranquility, for inner quiet, for a resolution of the unending struggle within his fragmented heart. But the yearned-for tranquility never came.
In Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman affirmed: yes, there are two selves inside us, and yes, they are engaged in constant battle over control of our lives. We each posses a self-focused "animal soul" which instinctively desires and craves that which preserves, nourishes, enhances and perpetuates itself. And
we each have at our core an upward-focused "G‑dly soul" that
is aware of its source in G‑d and strives to reunite with it as a spark craves to be absorbed in the great fire from which it emerged. Our every action, word and thought, our every motive, craving and desire, is an outcome of this ongoing battle within our hearts.
And then Rabbi Schneur Zalman drops his bombshell: this struggle, these conflicting desires, this confusion and self-doubt and inner turmoil, is not a spiritual hell. It is a spiritual heaven.
Indeed, says the Tanya, there do exist perfectly righteous individuals -- called tzaddikim -- who have resolved the conflict, whose two souls strive in harmony, whose "selfish" self has been trained and sublimated and brought in sync with their G‑dly self. But these individuals are few and far between -- a handful in each generation, perhaps a handful in the history of humankind. The rest of us are what Rabbi Schneur Zalman terms beinonim ("intermediates") -- typical human beings. The rest of us are
spiritual warriors, whose calling in life is to fight the battle with integrity, with gusto and with joy.
Why are there tzaddikin and beinonim? Because G‑d desires both:
There are two types of pleasure before G‑d. The first is from the complete
nullification of evil and its transformation from bitterness to sweetness and
from darkness to light by the perfectly righteous. The second [pleasure] is when
evil is repelled while it is still at its strongest and mightiest... through the
efforts of the beinoni... As in the analogy of physical
food, in which there are two types of delicacies that give pleasure: the first
being the pleasure derived from sweet and pleasant foods; and the second, from
tart and sour foods, which are spiced and prepared in such a way that they
become delicacies that revive the soul... (Tanya ch. 27)
If your inner life is tranquil, if no demons plague your thoughts and no dichotomies rend your being, then one of two things are true: either you are a tzaddik, or else you are a beinoni who abandoned the battlefield. So unless you are so supercilious as to consider yourself a perfectly righteous tzaddik, this inner quietude should greatly alarm you. For what meaning, significance and joy can there be in a life that brings no pleasure to G‑d?
Once upon a time, there was a heaven and a hell. Then, one day about two hundred years ago, the old heaven became the new hell, and the old hell was refurbished as the new heaven.