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Tanya Navigator

Man as Verb

Man as Verb

The truth about the Tanya


Once upon a time, every book was about being perfect. Every book told you, "This is how you are supposed to be; now go and be that."

Then Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (the "Alter Rebbe," 1745-1813) wrote a book for "the rest of us." He even called it Sefer Shel Benonim--meaning, the book for the average guy. The first Book of Kabalistic Enlightenment for the Everyguy. (We call it Tanya because that's the first word in the book.)

As it turns out, for the average guy who wants to get life right there's really only one question. That's the question Rabbi Schneur Zalman poses at the beginning of his book--
Once upon a time, every book was
about being perfect
and then repeats in different forms at frequent intervals. Not surprisingly, that question lies at the core of all the typical maladies of "the rest of us": Guilt, depression, apathy and feelings of inadequacy.

Here's how Rabbi Schneur Zalman presents the question:

Before you were born, the sages taught us, they made you take an oath: "Be righteous. Don't be wicked. Yet, even if the entire world tells you that you are righteous, think of yourself as though you were wicked."

This requires clarification. Didn't we learn in The Ethics of the Fathers, "Never consider yourself wicked"?

Furthermore, if a person considers himself wicked, he will be disheartened and depressed and won't be able to serve G‑d with joy. On the other hand, if he does not become at all depressed from this, he could come to treat life as a joke, G‑d forbid.

Let's put this in modern language. Instead of righteous and wicked, let's use something that communicates the same ideas, but something closer to our modern psyche:

Here's a wild teaching from the ancient sages: They taught that before you were born, the Heavenly Court made you swear you would be a spiritually enlightened being and never be a failure. Then they told you that "even if the entire world guru-tizes you as the ultimate enlightened being, consider yourself a failure."

They couldn't possibly have meant this. After all, these are the same sages that taught us, "Never consider yourself a failure."

Furthermore, everyone knows that if you go around thinking, "I'm a failure, I'm a failure" you're bound to feel like a worm and its going to be pretty hard to get up and go to work in the morning. But the Torah tells us you have to serve G‑d with joy! How are you going to serve G‑d with joy if you think of yourself as a perpetual failure?

Well, you could just decide not to take failure so seriously. You could say, "So I'm a loser. Big deal. I still have to be happy." G‑d forbid to live such a life. A person living like that could end up doing anything.

Get the question? I didn't. Until, after some thirty years of studying the book, an old friend of mine who made good as a psychologist, Rabbi Dr. Y. Y. Shagalov, pointed it out to me:

The book addresses the big question: "Why shouldn't I be depressed?"

It's a question endemic to life on earth. It's a tension none of us can escape: knowing what we should be and knowing we will never reach it.

It's a tension none of us can escape: knowing what we should be and knowing we will never reach it. We see our failures every day—and even when we succeed, we still know inside that this is not the real thing. The real thing is in some Garden of Eden where we lived before we were born, but definitely not here. Yet we keep on expecting ourselves to be that perfect being that precedes life on this planet.

So we get tied up in knots over failure. And those knots just make it even harder to get anywhere—so we fail even more. And then they tell us to rejoice in our lot.

What's the answer? The answer is strewn across 53 short but pithy chapters that challenge every common intuition of normal human beings, using standard received wisdom to turn wisdom on its head. But that's okay, because my buddy psychologist turned me on to that, as well. If I were to sum it up in one line, it would have to be as follows:

Stop thinking about who you are and who you are supposed to be and start thinking of what you are supposed to be doing. Not what am I but where am I. "What am I" is: How do I feel about this? Have I achieved enlightenment yet? Are we there yet? "Where am I" is: What am I doing, speaking and thinking right now?

Actually, not to be insulting or anything, but the more you get yourself out of the picture, the better off you're going to be.

Take Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, one of the great teachers of the Talmud. On his deathbed, before his students, he broke into tears. "Why are you crying, our teacher?" they asked.

He replied, "Know my children, that I see before me two paths upon which they take those who leave this world. One is to eternal reward and one is not so good. And I do not know on which path they will take me!"

Come on, Rabbi Yochanan! Until now you never thought about this?

No, he didn't. He never had time. All his life, Rabbi Yochanan was only thinking, "What is the best thing for me to invest myself into right now?" Only at his final moments did he take time to think into, "So where am I? What will be with me?"

That's something Rabbi Schneur Zalman once advised someone. It was a businessman—who was also a scholar and a chassid. He was bemoaning his financial losses, which did not allow him to pay his debts or fulfill his commitments to his family. "All I ask is that G‑d provide me with the means to be upright and discharge my obligations to others!" he cried.

To which was responded, "I'm hearing a lot about what you need. Can we hear something about why you are needed?"

Who needs you? The world needs you. Otherwise you wouldn't have been put here. That's what all these challenges of life are about—they are the world beckoning you, "Take me on! Change me! Transform me!" You're here on a mission—not to be Superman or Wonderwoman—or even Super Soul—you're here on a mission impossible to wrestle in the dirt with the real world, from inside a very limiting body, with a frail human personality—in order to transform all those things into something Divine.

Sure you're going to fall flat on your face once in a while. The ultimate goal is something we can never reach on our own. Most of us end up with a pound of failures for every ounce of success. But what makes that your business? Your business is to keep the ship afloat and on course over the turbulent seas. Collateral damage? Seasickness? You try to avoid it, you fix it when it happens—but it goes with the territory.

Now you're going to say, "But what about finding myself? What about discovering the essence within?"

Who says that yourself is the real you? Maybe the real you is not a subject, not an object, but a verb? So I'll let you in on a little surprise: Who says that yourself is the real you? Maybe the real you is not a subject, not an object, but a verb? In other words, maybe the real you is to be found not in who you are but in those things you need to do. Because when G‑d conceived of you, that's what He had in mind: a little creature, with a piece of His consciousness inside, doing these neat things. In that Divine Image He created you and in that you will find your true self—and Him, as well.

That's why Rabbi Schneur Zalman goes to great lengths to demonstrate that as lofty and divine our inner soul may be, it can never touch its essence until it is "dressed within the clothes of Torah and mitzvahs." "Clothes make the man," they say (I don't know why they never say that about women) and so it is with that G‑dly essence within you.

Want to find your essential self? Do something that will bring some light into the world. There you are—your very essence. Not in the light, not in the something, but in the "do."

Rabbi Tzvi Freeman, a senior editor at, also heads our Ask The Rabbi team. He is the author of Bringing Heaven Down to Earth. To subscribe to regular updates of Rabbi Freeman's writing, visit Freeman Files subscription. FaceBook @RabbiTzviFreeman Periscope @Tzvi_Freeman .
Artwork by Sarah Kranz.
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Mark Los Angeles May 29, 2015

It's not all about me, but it kind of is Hi Rabbi.
Thank you for the beautiful writing. Whenever my life gets complicated, I remind myself that I am here to serve a purpose besides gratifying myself or gaining something myself. My purpose is to help someone else, and in doing this, I help myself. Reply

Yosef Brooklyn NY November 21, 2013

genius Wow! If only more people understood and explained chassidus in this way our world would be filled with the light of Moshiach.

Thank you rabbi Freeman may Hashem give you strength to continue "being" with the great work which you "do", in "contributing" light to the world. Reply

valerie ohio January 6, 2013

man as verb profound as always. thank you for this encouraging teaching. Reply

Mrs. B.R. March 16, 2012

Thanks Rabbi. Reply

Anonymous Spokane, Washington December 15, 2011

Great to read on our birthday. Reply

Vince Toronto, Canada December 30, 2010

Inspired Rabbi - that's a very inspiring article - I am just learning Kaballah and this like the action part of it.

Thanks for sharing.
Peace Reply

Anonymous brokllyn, ny December 1, 2010

Wow! I have learnt Tanya but I always thought it was some spiritiul book that has no connection to my persenol life. It's amazing how you brought everything down to earth! Thank you!! Reply

Rosa Brooklyn, NY November 28, 2010

Your article Hello Rabbi freeman,

I read the article in the Five Towns Jewish Times, and of course, I thought it would be on the site and I had to share it with friends. Incredibly insightful and inspirational; hits on so many of my dilemmas, and struggles and offers wonderful solutions. I own an English version of the Tanya and may have to revisit it, as I found it a bit esoteric. Rabbi Freeman, you are an amazing writer, and teacher, and I am thankful to have read this during a particularly hard time in my life, grappling with the issues you discuss. Reply

Anonymous Philadelphia, PA November 26, 2010

Man as verb Thank you R. Freeman! I always felt the key to avoiding depression is to involve oneself in something. It sound like the existentialist manifesto, "Il faut s'engager", one must involve oneself to truly be alive. Reply

Ann Houston November 25, 2010

Yes Well said, Tzvi. Thank you.
Well said, Tzvi. Thank you! Reply

Gene November 24, 2010

Yes Thank you Tzvi. This fits so well with the journey. Where was all this wisdom when I was a lad? More knowledge more wisdom more understanding! And spirit to enlighten Reply

Elaine Beloeil, Qc via January 30, 2010

Be righteous. Don't be wicked. If one was to be righeous all the time, then is He or She not also PERFECT. I beleive that only G-d is PERFECT. The reason why we should see ourself as wicked if everyone else sees us as righteous is that one should not see Himself or Herself as an equal of G_d. Reply

Dodi Madison, WI January 10, 2010

Thank You Thank you Tzvi for your teachings. This article really hit a nerve. Reply

Sevak Yerevan, Yerevan/Armenia January 4, 2010

The same... I've just remembered I've read sthg like this in Bhagavat Gita. Unfortunately, I can't "show" the direct place (and it makes my comment less precious and interesting), but there were such sentence: "My due (deed) is to continue to do something on this land"... Reply

Susan Yellowknife, Canada December 9, 2009

Man as a Verb I just stumbled upon your website and read this article. Although I am not of Jewish faith, I found your message to be quite universal .... spiritually meaningful. Thank-you. It, once again validates to me that we all have little bits of "The Truth" and not to worry so much about the messanger as the message. Thank-you, Reply

Yakira raleigh, nc September 15, 2009

Man in the Verb Yet another great article by Tzvi with a very important message!!! Reply

Edythe April 1, 2009

MOVEMENT Interesting. Physicists asking what's the essence of the physical world are concluding that the smallest particals are movements. And 2 centuries ago your rabbi said that the essence of humans is also movement. Reply

Elaine Beloeil, Canada via December 23, 2008

Wow, thank-you ! I am not jewish, but I love everything that is !
G-d has called ALL jewish people to BE His people, how fortunate they are. Do you realize that He has given you all wisdom that travels the world. I often wondered why so many people speak against the "Jewish people"...simply because they know deep down inside that you are His people. And we the others can chose to hear G-ds wisdom comming form YOU ALL.
A little advise: DO SPEAK, the world needs to hear, even if they say NOT Reply

Tzvi Freeman (author) July 10, 2008

Re: What can I do (Pincus) Have you seen a doctor? And if you have seen a conventional doctor and he couldn't figure it out, have you seen a naturopath? Reply

Pincus Brandt July 9, 2008

Rabbi Freeman, what can I do? I already asked and I need help.
I use all my strength each day just getting up and getting dressed and leaving the house to go to work. I leave work exhausted, hardly able to breathe or move, and arrive home hardly able to warm something for dinner, or to eat it. I don't watch TV. I don't read. I am not taking care of my body or of my home.
I can't DO anything. I am barely able to BE. Reply

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