There was a time when the Land of Israel was filled with teachers called nevi’im, and their students, b’nei ha-nevi’im. We call them prophets, but they were much more than that. They were spiritual seekers, men and women who left behind the vanities of the temporal world to live on mountaintops and in desert caves. There they meditated, strummed their instruments and chanted until entering a deep trance, visiting the higher worlds where things yet to come could already be perceived.

In later times, the sages of the Mishnah sat in circles, escaping their bodies to wander through heavenly chambers and perceive the secrets of the angels. Then there were the philosophers who sat in perfect stillness for endless hours contemplating existence and being, time and space. And the Kabbalists who attained visions and mystic union through meditation on combinations of Hebrew letters and connections of the sefirot.

But these were all special people, removed and aloof from the common person’s world. The ordinary man or woman, if inspired with love of G‑d, loved G‑d and did what was right to do. And if he or she felt no love, you still have to do what you have to do—either out of fear of punishment, anticipation of reward, or just plain habit.You cannot have love and awe towards an unseen Being you never think about.

Yes, our Torah says we must serve G‑d with love, with awe and with joy. But, as Maimonides wrote clearly, you cannot have such feelings towards an unseen Being you never think about. Emotions, the Zohar tells us, are children of the mind. Lasting, real emotions are born from a union of the mind with a higher vision beyond the mind. But if you are tied to the earth, the body and its pleasures, wrestling in the mud with incessant impulses, urges and desires, unsure how you are going to provide a meal for your family that day, how are you to sit and contemplate the mysteries of the universe and its Maker?

In the Presence of the Master

But then the Baal Shem Tov came and he taught that every one of us, no matter how entangled with this world, no matter how low it may have dragged us down, must awaken the innate love of our souls to serve the Creator with all our hearts. Wherever he went, he would share the words of the Zohar, sometimes in a whisper, sometimes yelling it from the top of a barrel in the marketplace: “G‑d wants your heart!”Eventually, someone had to write the do-it-yourself manual for us regular people.

In the presence of the Baal Shem Tov, no matter who you were, your heart caught afire with his love and joy. So too in the presence of his disciples, all luminous, radiant souls. But eventually someone had to write the do-it-yourself manual for us regular people to achieve that experience through our own hard work. Because it’s real only when accomplished through your own hard work.

That someone was Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, often known as the Baal ha-Tanya, after the small do-it-yourself manual he wrote that came to be known universally as the Tanya (the Aramaic word tanya is the first word of the book). He, however, called it Sefer Shel Beinonim, which could be translated as The Book for the Average Person. Or, more literally, The Book for Those In-Between.

A Guide For the Rest of Us

In between what? In between two conflicting personalities fighting it out inside a single body, a divine soul pulling upwards, and a beast pulling towards whatever feels good. This book was written to instruct us how to bring some heavenly peace and love into our down-on-earth battle zones. In other words, a book for the rest of us.

Much of the advice is radical and counterintuitive.

For one thing, we are told to embrace that inner struggle. Why? Because inner conflict is evidence that we are accomplishing something. If that beast inside you is not kicking back, it must be you’re not leading it anywhere. If you find it throwing you all sorts of wanton thoughts and wild impulses at you every time you try to do something good, that’s evidence that you’re riding the beast and it’s not riding you. Sit high in your saddle, remain the master, and you’ve already begun to tame your animal.

For another, we are told that closeness to G‑d is not reserved for those with access to the mountaintops. Closeness to the infinite is more about effort than altitude. The infinite G‑d can be found anywhere, at anytime, by anyone. On the contrary, it is in the lowest and most simple, the brokenhearted and the humble, that the Infinite Light may shine most pristine.

The stumbling blocks on the path to spiritual growth are sadness, feelings of inadequacy, unwarranted guilt, anxiety and a stuffed-up heart—and the prescriptions provided for these are almost always not what you would expect. Feeling inadequate? Stop setting unreasonable expectations—that’s pure arrogance. Disappointed with how life is turning out? Look deeper, see beyond your pain, and you’ll discover that all is for the good. Burdened by guilt? Leave that for a time when you can deal with it. At all times, serve G‑d with joy in all you do.

Meditation, Redefined

These were all foundational teachings of the Baal Shem Tov, clearly articulated and made readily applicable for all. Rabbi Schneur Zalman added a vital ingredient: He redefined meditation to make it accessible to this average, in-between warrior.Meditation had once been a jailbreak for the mind’s flight from the body. Now it became a way for the body to join with the mind.

Meditation had once been a jailbreak for the mind’s flight from the body. Now it became a way for the body to join with the mind. In Tanya, the goal of both meditation and prayer is to awaken a sense of love and awe that overflows and sweeps up the beast in its path. To fix up that animal.

To do that, Rabbi Schneur Zalman had to develop a way to explain the most esoteric Kabbalistic concepts—creation from nothing, the order of worlds and sefirot, the Infinite Light and the dissolution of being within that light, the soul and the purpose of its descent into a human form—to a beast. Meaning, not only to a G‑dly soul, but to a rational, human soul, and even to the beast pumping within the human heart, interested only in “what’s good for me.”

How did he do that? In major part by enlisting the human psyche as a map of the divine. We are constantly traversing worlds within ourselves, moving from the inner light of the soul through innumerable layers of desire, intellect, emotion, thoughts and words until radiating all the way down to the realm of real-life action. Our psyche even contains a magnificent model of creation ex nihilo—the emergence of articulate thought from emotion and intellect. By contemplating our own inner experience, we are capable of catching a glimmer of G‑d’s Infinite Light with our world and with ourselves. And that glimmer is all it takes to awaken the innate desire we all harbor to merge with that light, and our sense of awe standing before it.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught not only scholars, but also merchants, craftsmen and farmers how to contemplate ideas that were previously the domain of a select group of special souls. He brought many a stray soul back home, and they too learned to contemplate the divine. He called his method Chabad.

Meditation in Techno-Land

Rabbi Schneur Zalman lived and wrote on the cusp of modernity. The Tanya was composed as all of Europe was reverberating with the French Revolution. His heirs—six generations of them—succeeded in sustaining and developing his teachings through the rapid and often violent upheavals of the 19th and 20th centuries. Transplanting the meditative practice of Chabad from Eastern Europe to the high-strung, hyperactive techno-world of today has been challenging—especially when Chabadniks are scattered around the world, running a marathon to keep basic Jewish practice alive and well.If there ever was any era when Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s meditation-for-the-masses technique was most needed, it is today.

But if there ever was any era when Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s meditation-for-the-masses technique was most needed, it is today. Crowded between the tall concrete towers that hide us from G‑d-made nature, caught in a furious chase after career and status, our minds crammed with the noise of a thousand commercial messages per day, our emotions jaded by hyper-stimulation until we have lost the ability to cry, to stand in wonder, to love, to be real—what we need is a deep cognitive reframing of who we are and what is our world, a higher perception that provides not just purpose, but peace of mind and the fearlessness to carry out our purpose.

We have to redeem that gray matter in our skulls from the captivity of mass media. We have to reclaim it for our own good use, so we can transform our perception of life in this world, and thereby transform the world.

And once we have done that, we will learn to pray again: to stand within the empty hollow of the universe, our hands uplifted, our hearts bared, and call out with awe and with wonder, with love and with joy, “You.”

See Likkutei Torah, Bechukotai 47c. Sefer ha-Maamarim 5700, p. 92.
Maamar Beyom Ashtei Asar” 5732. Philosophy of Chabad, vol. 2.