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," 1745-1812) 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 Every guy. (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!"

Related Content
Lessons In Tanya
Today's Tanya Lessons
Subscribe to the Daily Tanya

Recommended Books
Lessons in Tanya
Opening the Tanya

Related Audio Classes
Tanya Audio Classes

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."