In the previous chapters, the Alter Rebbe discussed the difference between the tzaddik and the Beinoni. The tzaddik has no evil inclination. Since there is no longer any evil in his own soul, evil holds no attraction for him. In the Beinoni, however, the evil remains strong. The Beinoni therefore finds evil desirable, and it is only through the constant vigilance and struggle of his divine soul that he is able to prevent his animal soul from implementing its desires in thought, speech and action.

ובזה יובן מה שכתוב

With this distinction in mind, we may understand the verse:1

ושבתם וראיתם בין צדיק לרשע, בין עובד אלקים לאשר לא עבדו

“And you will return and see the difference between the righteous man and the wicked one, between he who serves G‑d and he who serves Him not.”

The Talmud2 raises the question: The term “righteous man” is identical with “he who serves G‑d,” and “the wicked man” is obviously “he who serves Him not.” Why, then, does the text repeat the contrast? In answer, the Talmud states: “Both ‘he who serves G‑d’ and ‘he who serves Him not’ are fully righteous; yet one who reviews his studies one hundred times cannot compare to he who reviews his studies 101 times.”3

However, this answer seems to clarify only the second set of seemingly repetitive terms — “the wicked man” and “he who serves Him not.” Far from being wicked, “he who serves Him not” is so described only because he reviews his Torah studies no more than 100 times. Yet we remain with the difficulty posed by the first set of identical descriptions — “the righteous man” and “he who serves G‑d.” In fact, the above-quoted Talmudic interpretation of the verse adds yet a third category: “he who serves Him not,” yet is also righteous! It is this difficulty that the Alter Rebbe now resolves, based on his previous distinction between the tzaddik and the Beinoni.

שההפרש בין עובד אלקים לצדיק הוא שעובד הוא לשון הוה, שהוא באמצע העבודה

The difference between “he who serves G‑d” (oved) and a righteous man (tzaddik) is that “he who serves G‑d,” written in the present tense, describes one who is still presently laboring in his divine service.

שהיא המלחמה עם היצר הרע, להתגבר עליו, ולגרשו מהעיר קטנה

This service consists of the struggle against one’s evil nature with the aim of overpowering it, and banishing it from the “small city” i.e., the body, which is like a city whose conquest is the objective of both the good and the evil nature,4

שלא יתלבש באברי הגוף

so that it should not vest itself in the organs of the body through evil thought, speech or action.5 Doing battle against his evil nature is the avodah (“service”) of “he who serves G‑d.”

שהוא באמת עבודה ועמל גדול להלחם בו תמיד

This constant battle with one’s evil nature truly entails much effort (“service”) and toil.

והיינו הבינוני

This is the Beinoni.

It is he who must wage this battle; it is the Beinoni who is called “he who serves G‑d,” for he is actively engaged at present in his service.

אבל הצדיק נקרא עבד ה׳ בשם התואר

The tzaddik, on the other hand, is designated “a servant (eved) of G‑d,” as a title conferred on the person himself; it is not merely a description of one’s active role as is the designation “one who serves.”

כמו שם חכם או מלך, שכבר נעשה חכם או מלך

The term “servant” is similar to the title “sage” or “king”, bestowed on one who has already become a sage or king.

כך זה כבר עבד וגמר לגמרי עבודת המלחמה עם הרע, עד כי ויגרשהו וילך לו, ולבו חלל בקרבו

So, too, he (the tzaddik) has already effected and completely accomplished his “service” of waging war with the evil in him. He has banished it and it is gone from him, leaving the seat of evil nature in his heart6 “void within him.” Having completed this task, the tzaddik has earned the title “servant of G‑d.”

We now see that the expressions “a righteous man” and “he who serves G‑d” are not repetitious; “he who serves G‑d” is not a description of a tzaddik but of a Beinoni.

The Alter Rebbe now goes on to discuss the difference between “he who serves G‑d” and “he who serves Him not,” who, as the Talmud declares, is not wicked.