The Tanya—or "Collected Talks," as its author, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, titled it—is meant to guide you to the wisdom you need to fulfill your purpose in life. But we don't all read the same words the same way. One reader finds familiar concepts in the terms of his standard lexicon, while another is entirely baffled by foreign ideas in obtuse Talmudic jargon. One reader navigates the streams of thought with comfort and ease while another feels like city boy dragged out on a safari.

Ideally, learning Tanya should be like having a private audience with Rabbi Schneur Zalman himself. You would bare your soul before him, he would hold his head in his holy hands and then speak to you as your own heart, in words custom-tailored for your mind and soul. That, writes the author in his introduction, is really the whole purpose of Tanya: to replace the experience of private communion with a tzaddik.

But now, you have this one thin volume, with the wisdom, soul and very being of the tzaddik squeezed into its pages, speaking directly to your unique soul, and its up to you to discover your pearl of wisdom in those deep waters. That's why the author instructs his disciples and followers in every city that they must assist those who cannot find their personal message in the words of Tanya. Yet, in the edition of Tanya sold at Barnes & Nobles there is no chassid enclosed.

Which all comes to explain what gives me the chutzpa to present this new translation of the Tanya into plain, common, contemporary English. In every if, then, and, but, comma and em-dash I tried to imagine: If the author was writing this to us today, how would he say it? The truth is, I don't really know. But the job has to be done, the angels weren't rushing in, so only this fool was left.

I kept as close as possible to the author's structure and voice, while arranging the text into shorter sentences, adding a word or phrase—perhaps even a full sentence here and there for clarity; spelling out clearly what is the question and what is the answer; avoiding clauses and sub-clauses and all the other peculiarities through which the typical educated 18th century Jew sailed smoothly, but are not quite the match for our 21st century cyberspace surfer. I also took the liberty of converting addresses to the third-person ("he must be happy" or "one must be happy") to the second person ("you must be happy") or imperative ("be happy!")

The serious student will go back to the original text—as he should—and likely mark with horror the travesties of inaccuracy I have committed herein. Nonetheless, I believe that Rabbi Schneur Zalman would approve. I did not treat this task lightly. Each chapter is a labor of weeks, even months, of careful editing and re-editing, honing each word, phrase and sentence to a careful balance of precision and clarity. Much was learned in plumbing the author's intent as I asked, "Why did he write it this way and not more simply?" Often I found my answer in a few enlightening words from one of the author's successors, most often the Rebbe's notes. Sometimes, it was the written comments of another of those who have taught Tanya and lived with it all their lives, some of whom may have been one of my own teachers and I hereby apologize for sleeping through that class. Sometimes it was just a matter of one of those forehead-slapping revelations that I had gotten it all wrong and good thing I noticed or else I would have really messed up this translation real bad.

Quite likely, I have messed up on occasion. I won't be the slightest embarrassed if you let me know. Nevertheless, my hope is that now, with the labor of struggle through unfamiliar jargon and syntax put to the side, all those who are searching will hear within the text the whispers of the tzaddik speaking to their hearts and minds, as though he was their own soul.

Here I'm presenting two excerpts. For myself, I have found chapters 26–28 to be the most practical chapters of the entire work, dealing with the ever-present plagues of guilt, anxiety and depression. The depth of insight into the human psyche is astonishing and the advice—though so much counter to our common intuition—will prove critical for anyone wrestling with Esau's angel. Personally, I have found 90% of what I need to know in life neatly packed in chapter 27 alone. But that's only when you mine the words for all their depth. Which is just what I am hoping this translation will aid you to do.

The first chapter I translated was chapter 36, partly because when I begin to learn Tanya with someone, that's where I start. And partly, because it is so revolutionary a chapter. In typical fashion, Rabbi Schneur Zalman presents a thorough paradigm shift in Jewish thought as though it were the established tradition to which everyone had always subscribed.

But they did not. In general, talk of our purpose and the purpose of Creation had much more to do with getting to heaven than with getting heaven down to earth. The Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria, was most responsible for this shift in thinking, when he presented the concept of tikun—repairing the primordial catastrophe that provides the backdrop of the cosmos. Yet even then, it is always framed within the context of the impact upon higher worlds. There are also hints to this new way of thinking in the writings of Rabbi Yehuda Loewe, the "Maharal of Prague." But nowhere before Tanya will you find it spelled out so clearly, in practical terms, as this chapter 36.

I would also like to thank my editor, Rabbi Yanki Tauber, for his often brilliant edits and comments—even for those with which I disagreed. And you, the reader, for providing the incentive to this writing, and hopefully the impetus to continue the work until it is complete.