True, we find a principle that saving a life overrides other prohibitions, though not the prohibition of idolatry, and similarly, the law sometimes calls for one to commit a transgression rather than be killed, whereas with idolatry, incest, and murder, the law requires that he submit to death rather than commit any one of the three.

וּמַה שֶּׁפִּיקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ דּוֹחֶה שְׁאָר עֲבֵירוֹת, וְגַם "יַעֲבוֹר וְאַל יֵהָרֵג"

This would seem to indicate that the Torah itself distinguishes between idolatry and most other commandments, while the Alter Rebbe previously stated that the adultress who makes such a distinction has been blinded by a “spirit of folly,” for in reality, every sin tears one away from G-d in the same way as idolatry.

In the following paragraph, the Alter Rebbe states that there is no contradiction here. The requirement or non-requirement to sacrifice one’s life for a prohibition does not reflect its intrinsic worth.

This fact that saving a life overrides other prohibitions is because, as the Sages explain, “The Torah declares: ‘Desecrate one Shabbat for his sake so that he may live to observe other Shabbatot.’”11

הַיְינוּ, כְּפֵירוּשׁ חֲכָמֵינוּ־זִכְרוֹנָם־לִבְרָכָה: "אָמְרָה תוֹרָה, חַלֵּל עָלָיו שַׁבָּת אַחַת, כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשְׁמוֹר שַׁבָּתוֹת הַרְבֵּה",

When the medical treatment of a patient involves an activity normally forbidden on Shabbat, the Torah requires that we desecrate the Shabbat to cure him so that he may live to observe Shabbat in the future. Thus, the precept of Shabbat has not been waived in the face of an external consideration. It is in the interests of the Shabbat itself (i.e., the patient’s future observance of Shabbat) that we desecrate this one Shabbat,

It is not because of the relative leniency (of the Shabbat) or gravity of the sins (such as idolatry) that one is waived while the other is not.

וְלֹא מִשּׁוּם קַלּוּת הָעֲבֵירוֹת וְחוּמְרָן.

(12This contention is supported by the following fact: Violation of the Shabbat is a grave offense and comparable to idolatry with regard to the law of Shechitah by anyone who habitually violates a particular precept, as codified in Yoreh Deah, Section 2.

[תֵּדַע: – שֶׁהֲרֵי שַׁבָּת חֲמוּרָה וּשְׁקוּלָה כַּעֲבוֹדָה זָרָה לְעִנְיַן שְׁחִיטַת מוּמָר לְדָבָר אֶחָד – בְּיוֹרֶה דֵעָה סִימָן ב',

There, the Shulchan Aruch states that one who regularly desecrates the Shabbat is unfit for Shechitah, as though he habitually practiced idolatry.

A habitual sexual offender, on the other hand, does not have the same law applied to him as a habitual idolator, indicating that the violation of Shabbat is graver than sexual offenses.

מַה שֶּׁאֵין כֵּן בְּמוּמָר לְגִילּוּי עֲרָיוֹת.

Yet, the consideration of life overrides Shabbat but not the sexual prohibitions.

וַאֲפִילוּ הָכֵי, פִּיקּוּחַ נֶפֶשׁ דּוֹחֶה שַׁבָּת וְלֹא גִּילּוּי עֲרָיוֹת;

Thus, it cannot be argued that the requirement to sacrifice oneself for the sexual prohibitions is due to their gravity, for we see that the desecration of Shabbat is even graver than them with regard to Shechitah. Hence, we must conclude that the laws governing self-sacrifice are no measure of the relative gravity of the mitzvot.

Rather, it is a Scriptural decree that consideration of life overrides other sins but not the three cardinal sins—idolatry, sexual offense, and murder.13)

אֶלָּא דִּגְזֵירַת הַכָּתוּב הוּא].

The sinner, however, who does distinguish between the gravity of the various transgressions, sacrificing his life for the prohibition of idolatry but not even restraining his desire for others, surely has his thinking clouded by the “spirit of folly” of the kelipah, which obscures his hidden love of G-d, for in reality, every transgression creates the ultimate separation between the sinner and G-d.

The Alter Rebbe now goes on to say that if a difference is indeed to be drawn between the various sins, it is only with regard to their effect after they have taken place.

After the sinful act, however, if the sin is of the type that carries neither the penalty of karet (spiritual extinction of the soul) or death at the hands of heaven,

אֶלָּא שֶׁלְּאַחַר מַעֲשֵׂה הַחֵטְא, אִם הִיא מֵעֲבֵירוֹת שֶׁאֵין בָּהֶן כָּרֵת וּמִיתָה בִּידֵי שָׁמַיִם,

in which case the divine soul does not completely perish and is not entirely cut off from its source in the living G-d,

שֶׁאֵין נַפְשׁוֹ הָאֱלֹהִית מֵתָה לְגַמְרֵי וְנִכְרֶתֶת מִשָּׁרְשָׁהּ בֵּאלֹהִים חַיִּים,

except that through this sin, its attachment to its source and its connection with it has been weakened somewhat—in the case of such a sin, the Alter Rebbe concludes (after a parenthetical note), the animal soul and the body can rise out of the kelipah and unite with the holiness of the divine soul.

רַק שֶׁנִּפְגַּם קְצָת דְּבֵיקוּתָהּ וַאֲחִיזָתָהּ בְּשָׁרְשָׁהּ בְּחֵטְא זֶה,

The difference between—on one hand—the sins carrying the penalty of karet or death at the hands of heaven and other sins is explained elsewhere14 as follows: The connection of the divine soul with its G-dly source is comparable to a rope woven of 613 strands, each strand representing one of the commandments. Every sin severs a corresponding strand. When one strand is broken, the entire rope is weakened but not severed entirely. The penalties of karet or death at the hands of heaven, however, cut the rope entirely, so to speak.

In the following note, the Alter Rebbe states that the varying degrees of severity in the punishments imposed for various sins correspond to the blemish caused by each sin. The purpose of punishment is not the punishment per se but purification of the soul from the blemish which the sin brought about. Thus, the greater the blemish, the more severe the punishment.

Corresponding to the extent and specific nature of the blemish caused by the sin in the soul and in its source in the supernal worlds,

וּלְפִי ﬠֵרֶךְ וְחִלּוּקֵי בְּחִינוֹת הַפְּגַם בַּנֶּפֶשׁ וּבְשָׁרְשָׁהּ בָּﬠֶלְיוֹנִים,

are the various purifying processes and punishments in purgatory or in this world (i.e., the suffering of the soul in purgatory or one’s suffering in this world, whose purpose is to purify the soul),

כָּךְ הֵם חִלּוּקֵי בְּחִינוֹת הַמֵּירוּק וְהָעוֹנֶשׁ בְּגֵיהִנֹּם אוֹ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה,

for each transgression and sin its appropriate punishment, for the purpose of cleansing and removing the stain and the blemish caused by that specific sin.

לְכָל ﬠָוֹן וָחֵטְא עוֹנֶשׁ מְיוּחָד, לְמָרֵק וּלְהַﬠֲבִיר הַלִּכְלוּךְ וְהַפְּגַם.

Similarly, the blemish caused by the sins carrying the penalty of death at the hands of heaven or karet varies from one sin to another.

וְכֵן בְּחַיָּיבֵי מִיתָה וְכָרֵת, אֵין פּוֹגְמִין כּוּלָּם בְּשָׁוֶה:

(To return to our original point:) After the sinful act, in the case of those sins which do not carry the punishment of karet or death at the hands of heaven, the sinner’s animal soul, which animates the body and is clothed in it, as well as his body itself,

הֲרֵי גַּם נַפְשׁוֹ הַחִיּוּנִית הַבַּהֲמִית הַמְלוּבֶּשֶׁת בְּגוּפוֹ, וְכֵן גּוּפוֹ,

return and rise from the sitra achara and kelipah whereto they descended when the sin was committed, and they draw closer to the holiness of the divine soul that pervades them.

חוֹזְרִים וְעוֹלִים מֵהַסִּטְרָא אָחֳרָא וּקְלִיפָּה זוֹ, וּמִתְקָרְבִים לִקְדוּשַּׁת נֶפֶשׁ הָאֱלֹהִית הַמְלוּבֶּשֶׁת בָּהֶם,

The divine soul always believes in the One G-d and remains faithful to Him even while the sin is being committed.

הַמַּאֲמִינָה בַּה' אֶחָד. וְגַם בִּשְׁעַת הַחֵטְא הָיְתָה בְאָמְנָה אִתּוֹ יִתְבָּרֵךְ,

For it is only the animal soul, via the body, that performs the sinful act.

But at that time, [the divine soul] was in a state of veritable exile in the animal soul, which derives from the sitra achara which causes the body to sin and drags it down with itself to the lowest depths,

רַק שֶׁהָיְתָה בִּבְחִינַת גָּלוּת מַמָּשׁ תּוֹךְ נֶפֶשׁ הַבַּהֲמִית מִסִּטְרָא אָחֳרָא, הַמַּחֲטִיאָה אֶת הַגּוּף וּמוֹרִידָתוֹ עִמָּהּ בְּעִמְקֵי שְׁאוֹל,

so low, in fact, that it is even lower than the impurity of the sitra achara and the kelipah of idolatry (May G-d preserve us!).

לְמַטָּה מַּטָּה, תַּחַת טוּמְאַת הַסִּטְרָא אָחֳרָא וּקְלִיפַּת עֲבוֹדָה זָרָה, ה' יִשְׁמְרֵנוּ.

An exile’s foreign surroundings restrict him from expressing his abilities and ideas. Similarly, the divine soul (which is in exile within the animal soul when one sins) is unable to express itself in mastery of the body and in harnessing it for the service of G-d by reason of the foreign environment of the kelipah.

There is no greater exile than this exile of the divine soul within the animal soul that is brought on through sin. It is a plunge “from a lofty roof [to a deep pit].”

וְאֵין לְךָ גָּלוּת גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה – "מֵאִגְרָא רָמָה כוּ'",

For, as explained earlier,15 the source and root of all Jewish souls is in the Divine wisdom, and G-d and His wisdom are one and the same…and sin plunges the soul from this lofty plane to the depths of exile within the sitra achara.

וּכְמוֹ שֶׁנִּתְבָּאֵר לְעֵיל, דְּשֹׁרֶשׁ וּמְקוֹר נַפְשׁוֹת כָּל בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל – הוּא מֵחָכְמָה עִילָּאָה, וְהוּא יִתְבָּרֵךְ וְחָכְמָתוֹ אֶחָד וְכוּ'.

It is comparable to one who seizes the king’s head, drags it down, and dips his face in a privy full of filth—the ultimate in humiliation, even if he does it only for a moment,

וְהוּא, כִּמְשַׁל הָאוֹחֵז בְּרֹאשׁוֹ שֶׁל מֶלֶךְ, וּמוֹרִידוֹ לְמַטָּה וְטוֹמֵן פָּנָיו בְּתוֹךְ בֵּית הַכִּסֵּא מָלֵא צוֹאָה, שֶׁאֵין לְךָ עֶלְבּוֹן גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה, אֲפִילוּ עוֹשֶׂה כֵּן לְפִי שָׁעָה;

for the kelipot and sitra achara are called “vomit and filth,” as is known.

שֶׁהַקְּלִיפּוֹת וְסִטְרָא אָחֳרָא נִקְרָאוֹת "קִיא צוֹאָה", כַּנּוֹדָע:

Similarly, when one seizes the divine soul, which stems from Divine wisdom (“the king’s head”), and through his sins forces it into the kelipah (“a privy full of filth”), he brings upon his soul the most unspeakable humiliation—even if he does so only for a moment (for afterward the soul rises out of its exile).

We thus see that the differences between the various sins apply only after the sin has been committed. During the act, however, every sin tears one away from G-d. Since every Jew is endowed with a hidden love of G-d, by virtue of which he wishes to be constantly united with Him and never to be separated from Him, not even for a moment, he can employ this hidden love in fulfilling all the mitzvot and in avoiding every sin—as the Alter Rebbe concludes in the following chapter.