The Benoni

Author: Nissan Dovid Dubov  || Source:

To what level may one personally aspire? This is not a question of towering achievements in academia, business, or profession, but rather of personal development and refinement of character. Is it imperative—or even possible—for every individual to become the proverbial Tzaddik? The Talmud states that each person is obligated to wonder “when will my actions reach those of my forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” But is every individual truly to aspire to such awesome heights? In Tanya, the classical work of Hassidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi develops a phenomenal response to this age old question and revolutionized the Jewish world with the concept of the Benoni.

Traditionally, three terms were used to describe a person’s status:

  1. Tzaddik—“the righteous person.”
  2. Benoni—“the intermediate.”
  3. Rasha—“the wicked person.”

Classically, a Tzaddik is a person who had more spiritual credits than debits, a Rasha has more debits than credits, and a Benoni has a balanced scale. On Rosh Hashanah we are placed on the Divine weighing scales and hope and pray to be inscribed in the book of the righteous.

Such a simple approach is however problematic. What are the terms of self-appraisal? True, the heavenly court is able to see individual circumstance, human nature, and individual challenges, but considering the very complicated nature of the human psyche, compounded with each generation’s difficulties and specific geographical location, etc., how is any person to be truthful with themselves and completely delineate where they truly are on this scale? Furthermore, what of the failures of character? How are we to cope with the seemingly never ending cycle of decision to change and subsequent failure? Are we Tzaddikim (pl. Tzaddik) at the time of triumph and Reshaim (pl. Rasha) at the time of debacle?

The matter calls for clarification, and the Tanya provides a superb insight into the human condition. The author admits his book was not written for academic purposes, but rather as a written collection of advice that he dispensed to thousands of chassidim who sought his guidance in the most intimate of spiritual problems. In fact, originally he called his book Likutei Amarim, literally “a collection of sayings.” But the book goes beyond a mere anthology of advice, develops the concept of the Benoni, and deals with many of his spiritual maladies.

As discussed previously, in the view of Rabbi Schneur Zalman, a Jew is composed of two separate and distinct souls, each of which has a separate infrastructure of soul powers.

The first is called the Nefesh HaBehamit (the animalistic soul), which animates the body. In essence it is a soul of the flesh, and its powers of faith, pleasure, will, intellect, and emotion seek to fulfill bodily desires. It is not intrinsically evil, for that is the way G-d created it. Without it, we would have no desire to sustain our bodies or even to have children.

The second soul is called the Nefesh Elokit (the G-dly soul) which is truly a spark of the Divine, or as termed by Job, a “part of the One Above.” This Nefesh Elokit also possesses soul powers of faith, pleasure, will, intellect, and emotion, however unlike the Nefesh HaBehamit, all these soul powers are focused upon G-d and yearn for the spiritual.

Just as a naked body needs clothing, the soul powers need “garments” to express themselves. These are the processes of thought, speech, and action. The thinking mind is somewhat of a no-man’s land between the two forces of the soul powers of the Nefesh Elokit and the Nefesh HaBehamit, and each vies for control. In Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s definition, if the thinking mind is in total possession of the Nefesh Elokit and the Nefesh Elokit manages to subdue and eradicate the Nefesh HaBehamit, then the person is a Tzaddik. If the Nefesh HaBehamit has taken possession and the Nefesh Elokit is subverted, the person is a Rasha. This does not necessarily mean the person is evil or wicked, rather it means that they are driven by self-centered and egotistical drives.

Here is where the radical definition of the Benoni comes into consideration. The Benoni is one whose Nefesh Elokit controls the thinking mind, but the Nefesh HaBehamit has in no way been refined or sublimated. On the contrary, the Nefesh HaBehamit is constantly attacking and seeking entry into the thought process, only to be held at bay by the Nefesh Elokit.

The net result is a human being who is actually controlled by the Nefesh Elokit, and who obeys the Mitzvot in thought, speech and deed, but yet is constantly challenged in a running battle with the darker side of his character. The Benoni may stay his or her entire life in such a condition. He need not be depressed about the inability to refine his Nefesh HaBehamit, for that is beyond his capability, as not every person is capable of reaching the level of refinement of a Tzaddik. Still, every person can and should try to become a Benoni.

Truthfully, most people are in the level of the imperfect Rasha, in which during our spiritual moments the Nefesh Elokit takes control of the mind, such as during prayer and Torah study, while at other times the Nefesh HaBehamit is in control. The whole of Tanya is designated to explain how it is possible for each and every person to strive to the level of Benoni; a level at which there is adherence to all the commands of G-d on an operational level despite forces of rebellion and ego existing on a subconscious level. Rabbi Schneur Zalman calls his book a Sefer Shel Benonim (A Book for the Benoni) and bases it on the belief that to become a Benoni is within the reach of every person. He explains in depth how close and accessible it is for each individual to gain control of the mind even though the soul powers of the Nefesh HaBehamit are lurking in the background, waiting for a crack in the individual’s defenses.

Such a presentation gives hope to the average person struggling with desires and lusts. For example, one may have been created with a very strong and passionate sexual drive and find it very difficult to drive all lewd thoughts from the mind. In such a position some become depressed about his or her inability to refine and stop such nonsense. It must be noted that we do not refer here—or elsewhere in this discussion— to clinical depression, which is a medical state and needs medical attention. This feeling of helplessness and self-loathing is tragic for a number of reasons, one of which is the lack of energy and will a person in the depressed state has to continue the battle against the lesser self. However, in the world of Rabbi Schneur Zalman the Benoni is not expected to have the ability to eradicate his Nefesh HaBehamit. What is certainly within his capacity is to contain the Nefesh HaBehamit and never let it actually take over of the faculties of the soul. Although he may constantly be challenged with such thoughts, he has the operational capacity to exclude them from the mind.

Whenever a lewd thought enters the mind, the Benoni rejoices at the opportunity to be able to fulfill the Mitzvah of “Do not turn astray after your heart and after your eyes.” He realizes he is not a Tzaddik and still has a very animalistic nature. He is not at all surprised that this drive has not gone away, and he takes great precaution that such thoughts never gain a foothold in the mind.

The Tanya gives lengthy prescriptions how to deal with the daily challenges of the Nefesh HaBehamit. He demands service of G-d with joy amidst deep contemplation of an imminent and compassionate G-d, who is actively there aiding a person to overcome his darker side. The lowest realm is not only in this world, but in every human being, for we are composites of a Nefesh Elokit and a Nefesh HaBehamit and may oscillate from ecstatic spirituality to crass hedonism. The Benoni fulfills the purpose of creation by placing a “yoke” on the Nefesh HaBehamit and goading it in the service of G-d. The concept of Dirah BeTachtonim is primarily fulfilled in the human being themselves, and then by extension to the world around them.

Hassidism enjoins us to communicate intellectually with the Nefesh HaBehamit, explaining why it would be advantageous to go along with the Nefesh Elokit.

There is a beautiful parable quoted from the Zohar about the son of a king who had been educated in the finest tradition.

One day, the king decided to test his son in order to see if his education would stand up to a challenge. He hired a harlot to seduce his son and told her that he would reward her handsomely if she succeeded. She tried and failed. The prince passed the test and the king was delighted. But he was not only pleased with his son. He was also pleased with the harlot since she had failed. So too, the King G-d employs the Evil Inclination to seduce us. When the Evil Inclination fails, G-d is delighted with us and with it. The opposite would have been true as well should the Evil Inclination succeed. When the Evil Inclination succeeds, all lose. The task of the Nefesh Elokit is to communicate to the Nefesh HaBehamit and teach that if they both heed G-d, it’s a positive situation for both, for there is no fleeting pleasure that is worth sacrificing eternity.

We should take comfort in knowing that though this generation is facing enormous challenges, this generation is also the epoch of Mashiach. To stay on course, a Jew today has to have tremendous self-sacrifice. Through deep contemplation within prayer, he should develop an attitude that everything has been created by G-d, and there is nothing else but the Divine will. He should view the vanities of the world with contempt and realize their shallow lure. Such self-sacrifice elicits a powerful response from Above. He is granted Heavenly aid and assistance that transcends reason. In the words of Rabbi Meir of Premishlan, “when a Jew is connected Above he does not fall below.”

No person may excuse himself from Divine service by saying that he has been created with too strong an evil inclination.

Everyone has free choice and G-d does not demand the impossible from his creations, nor does G-d send us challenges that are without purpose. If G-d has asked us to perform the Mitzvot in the knowledge that we have a Nefesh HaBehamit then we must be fully capable to do so. If we feel we cannot, we must request Divine assistance to reinforce our own efforts.