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I Will Write It In Their Hearts - Volume 1
Letters from the Lubavitcher Rebbe

An explanation of the statement in Tanya: "It is impossible for the wicked to begin to serve G-d unless they first repent"

Translated by: Rabbi Eli Touger

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No. 54

This letter was addressed to Rav Eli Nachum Sklar, one of the distinguished members of the Lubavitch community.
B"H, [End of Adar I, 5703]
Greetings and blessings,

You have raised a question concerning the statement in Ch. 17 of Tanya: "It is impossible for rashaim (the wicked) to begin to serve G-d unless they first repent of [their] past [conduct]." Is the intent that they cannot actually "turn away from evil and do good" in actual practice? Or is the intent that they cannot follow the course [dependent] on the brain ruling over the heart? I.e., [despite] "meditating on the greatness of G-d," [such a] person will not be motivated to the observance of the mitzvos, but he may be motivated [to observance] if his power of kabbalas ol aids his intellectual meditation.

And you bring support for the second interpretation from the fact that:

  1. with regard to worldly affairs, e.g., in business, the wicked can use their minds to control their hearts. And thus it would appear that they too possess the nature for the brain to exercise control. It is only [- as stated in Tanya, loc. cit. -] that as a punishment [for their sins, this potential] does not have an effect with regard to the Torah and its mitzvos. Thus if one is aroused by another power, it will have an effect,

  2. If the intent is that there is no way the wicked can be motivated to the performance of mitzvos (before they repent), there is no place to speak about the wicked in this chapter which explains how "the matter [- the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos -] is very close ... to be performed." Instead, [the Alter Rebbe] should have completed the explanation of the term "very" in the verse. And then he should have stated that the verse does not apply to the wicked, because it is impossible for the wicked to begin to serve G-d....

It appears from your letter - for you did not explain [your intent] at length - you desired to indicate that by resolving this question according to the second interpretation, the verse "The matter is very close to you..." could be understood as applying also to the wicked. Therefore they are also mentioned in this chapter. Their observance of the Torah, however, is motivated by the influence of other powers which assist one's intellectual meditation.

Although I also agree that [your] second interpretation is fundamentally correct, both of the supports brought can be refuted.

  1. [Your intent appears to be that the fact] that the wicked are not in control of their hearts is a punishment for [their lack of observance of] the Torah and its mitzvos and therefore [it is relevant only in that sphere]. The fact that they demonstrate rational control of their conduct at other times is not relevant in the present context. For why should they be punished with regard to their financial dealings, their business, and the like?

    It would appear, however, that the punishment about which [the Tanya] is speaking is a natural outcome [of their conduct] and is not a matter which is arbitrarily dictated - for the wording in Tanya does not appear to support [the latter] interpretation. [On the contrary, it appears that a wicked person's lack of control of his heart is a natural result of his conduct.] To cite a parallel: Our Sages state:[1] When a person commits a transgression and repeats it, it becomes considered as if it is permitted to do so. Similarly, it would appear that even in the person's business dealings, his mind will not control his heart with regard to these matters. For example, when a person refrains from giving tzedakah and despite meditating about the matter, he will not change, it will certainly be obvious [in other contexts] that he is a lover of money, who can never be satiated with it.[2]

  2. With regard to the assistance granted by other powers, where is this concept mentioned in ch. 17? According to your explanation, the fundamental concept is not mentioned in the text.

[To summarize:] According to the explanation in this chapter, the verse "The matter is very close to you" does not refer to the wicked. As the chapter explicitly states: "The Torah did not speak about these [spiritually] dead people."

Nevertheless, the passage beginning "except for someone who is truly wicked" belongs in ch. 17. For that chapter explains that by nature, and by inherent tendency, the mind rules over the heart. This concept is necessary for the comprehension of the verse: ["The matter is very close to you"]. On this basis, [the chapter continues,] it is difficult to understand our Sages' statement[3] that the wicked are ruled by their hearts (which is mentioned in connection with the statement that "the righteous are in control of their hearts" which is also quoted in ch. 17). How is that possible? Seemingly, it runs against the laws of nature. [In response, the chapter continues to explain that] this is a punishment.

If so, it becomes difficult to understand the verse: How can it be said: "The matter is very close to you"? Since the brain does not rule [over the heart] - even though this is a punishment, [and not their nature - in actual fact, for these individuals, "the matter - Torah observance - is (not) close for them"]. [The Alter Rebbe explains that indeed] the Torah did not speak with regard to these people. And he continues reinforcing his statements, stating that not only is the matter not very close for the wicked, they cannot begin to serve G-d.

It is possible to say that [in this chapter], he explained all the concepts that relate to a general understanding of the verse "And the matter is very close," and then in ch. 18, he begins an additional explanation [focusing on the word "very"].

One might mention parenthetically that the statements here with regard to rashaim also contain an allusion. For there are two interpretations of the meaning of the subject in the verse: "This mitzvah is not in the heavens,... for the matter is very close to you." The interpretation given in ch. 17 - and which is also reflected in Eruvin 54a, and in the conclusion of the Midrash Rabbah to Parshas Nitzavim - is that it refers to the Torah and its mitzvos as a whole, our Divine service performed throughout the year. [This] Divine service is [motivated] by the love and fear [of G-d], as [inspired by] the immanent and transcendent powers within the soul: i.e., [loving G-d] "with all your heart," [how the matter] is close, referring to ordinary love, as explained in the chapters until [and including] ch. 17, and how it is "very close," [loving G-d] "with all your might," [which depends on the potential which] when concealed is referred to as "the hidden love." The explanation of this path of service begins in ch. 18.

The wicked do not have a connection to [the path of] Divine service [that depends on love which results from meditation]. On a simple level, this is because they violate His will and are worse than the kelipos. Indeed, it is said: "To the wicked, G-d says: 'Why are you speaking of My statutes?'"[4] On the contrary, through their observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, they are temporarily adding power to the kelipos, as the Alter Rebbe rules in Hilchos Talmud Torah 4:3. See also Iggeres HaTeshuvah, ch. 6, and Kuntres U'Mayon, maamar 7.

With regard to the statement "The Torah did not speak about these [spiritually] dead," see Iggeres HaTeshuvah, ch. 7, which explains that they are referred to in this manner because their life-energy is drawn down from a place of death. This is also the reason why their observance of the Torah and its mitzvos adds power to the kelipos as stated in ch. 6 of that source.

The second interpretation of the verse "The matter is very close to you" is that it refers to the mitzvah of teshuvah as stated in the maamarim based on this verse in Likkutei Torah. This also relates to the immanent and transcendent powers within the soul: "close," and "very close." It is clearly understood that this interpretation also applies to the wicked. The lower level of teshuvah which is mentioned in ch. 17 refers to the immanent power of the soul, the level of "close." And the level of sublime teshuvah refers to the transcendent [powers], the level which is "very close," the power of mesiras nefesh which transcends intellect, the hidden love [every Jew possesses within his heart]. This quality is discussed in ch. 18 and onward, as explained in the maamarim cited above.

To return to the question [discussed at the outset]: Can a rasha - according to the definition of rasha in Tanya - "turn away from evil and do good" in actual practice? Clearly, he can. This is obvious from events which occur every day and from many stories and statements of our Sages. [Certainly,] such people can observe the Torah and its mitzvos with regard to matters in which they do not feel confrontation from the yetzer hara, as stated in chs. 15 and 39. Moreover, even when it is necessary for them to battle their yetzer hara, and it is necessary for them to meditate intellectually, [they can observe the Torah and its mitzvos] without repenting for their previous conduct. Are we to say that a person who has erred and sinned when faced with a great and prodigious battle with his yetzer hara - and is therefore called an utter rasha - can be expected at that time to succumb to everything to which his yetzer hara entices him?

It is clear that this is not the opinion of the Tanya, as reflected by the statements in chs. 11 and 30. And even here [in ch. 17,] it is clear that this is not the intent, for the text reads "unless one is truly a rasha.... And that this is a punishment for their great and prodigious sins." [Thus it follows that a person who is not "truly a rasha" and who has not committed "great and prodigious sins" is not punished in this manner.]

With regard to the definition "truly a rasha," the Biurei Tanya (which is mimeographed and which is attributed to Reb Shmuel Gronem [Esterman]) states that the statements here refer "to the statements in ch. 1 'that which is said at large ... that when a person is equally balanced between [sins and merits], he is called a benoni.' Thus a person whose balance is weighted towards sin is considered as a rasha."

This explanation arouses questions. For it is unlikely that [in ch. 17, the Alter Rebbe] is referring to his statements in ch. 1. For there, he writes that "This is only a borrowed term ... but with regard to the true definition...." From his statements there with regard to a tzaddik and a benoni, we can appreciate that similar concepts apply with regard to a rasha. Thus it is unlikely that he would refer to a source where he wrote the very opposite.

It appears to me that the reference is to ch. 11 and the word "truly" comes to negate [a type of rasha mentioned there, one who]: "At infrequent times, the evil [within him] prevails ... and he is called a rasha at that time... and afterwards, the good prevails." Support for this interpretation can be brought from the fact that with regard to rashaim of this type, it is not appropriate to speak of "their great and prodigious sins."

Also, it is possible to say that ["truly"] refers to the statement in ch. 13 that the term true can be applied if a quality does not depart, [and instead, remains continuously] (either in actual fact, or at least in potential. See Likkutei Torah, the beginning of the maamar entitled: Ki Savou which states that: "Even after prayer, a trace remains....") Similar concepts apply in the opposite realm: one who is "truly a rasha" is a rasha who does not prosper [as defined in ch. 11, (truly a rasha in actual fact,) or also a rasha who regrets [his sins], but does not have the power to overcome the evil (truly a rasha - in potential). The concept still requires explanation.

Regardless of the intent of the phrase "truly a rasha," explanation is also required with regard [to the following concept]. Every sin and transgression brings about a barrier of separation [between a person and G-d], for all sins are against G-d's will. And thus, this causes [the sinner] to receive his life-energy from the sitra achra, the place of death. Thus the reasons why the Torah did not speak about [such individuals] appears to apply to an ordinary rasha as well. [Thus not only one who is "truly a rasha," but any rasha appears to be prevented from serving G-d.]

Perhaps this can be resolved based on what is stated in ch. 24, "If so, a person who sins ... at the time ... [is utterly removed from the Sublime holiness]... but after the act of sin ... [his animal soul ... and his body] return, ascend [from the sitra achra], and draw close to the holiness of the G-dly soul." [When making these statements, the Alter Rebbe] does not mention repentance [as a prerequisite]. See also Iggeres HaTeshuvah, ch. 6, which speaks of "the time and the moment when a person performs evil."

The statements in chs. 39 and 40 [which mention repentance as a prerequisite] apply only with regard to the elevation of the Torah and mitzvos he performs, but his body and his animal soul ascend on their own accord.

The maamar entitled Tzaaku VeHavayah Shomeiah, 5631, cited in the Biur Tanya mentioned above, states that the statements of ch. 17, that within a benoni, the mind controls the heart, applies only to the person who studies Torah in preparation. For the Torah is called peace,[5] and "establishes peace in the sublime company,"[6] i.e., one's mind and one's heart. [Through this, we can understand why the verse "For the matter is very close..."] states "in your mouth" before "in your heart." [Studying Torah with "your mouth" grants a person control over his "heart."] ([In that maamar,] a distinction is not made between being "in control of one's heart" and "the brain controls the heart.") Explanation is necessary whether it is possible to interpret the words of the Alter Rebbe in this manner. For immediately after stating that "this matter is very close" and easy for every person, the Alter Rebbe explains the reason: because he is in control of his mind, and when he meditates, he will give rise to love and fear. And the brain rules over the heart inherently and instinctively [unless one is wicked]. [The inability to control one's heart] is a punishment.

In the maamar entitled Ki Karov, 5678, and the maamar entitled Anochi, Anochi, 5699, the first portion of ch. 17 is clarified. [These maamarim] explain that three concepts are stated here: "their hearts are in their control," "the mind controls the heart," and "they are controlled by their hearts." [These three states] correspond to the levels tzaddik, benoni, and rashi. The verse mentions first "in your mouth" and then "in your heart," because for benonim, their Divine service depends on meditation on the comprehension of G-dliness and the arousal of love and fear. Therefore, this must be preceded by study, for otherwise, on what will the person meditate and what will arouse him? (This is stated in the maamar entitled Anochi. The maamar entitled Ki Karov echoes the statements in the maamar entitled Tzaaku.)

This also must be stated: The fact that a benoni has the power for his brain to control his heart and for it to be "very close to you" is speaking in general. There are, however, times that even when a person meditates, he cannot rule over his heart, as stated at length in ch. 29. Also from ch. 29, one can appreciate [another concept applying to] benonim: The statements in ch. 12, that a benoni "never committed a transgression ... and was never called wicked, even for one moment" [are to be interpreted figuratively]. The person's present spiritual state has no vestige from the sin and there is no factor which will lead him to sin ever. Nevertheless, a person who once committed a sin may truly be called a benoni. Although this is not obvious from the wording [in ch. 12], it is apparent from the statements regarding benonim in ch. 29: "in particular when he recalls [the sins of his youth]."

This also resolves a question which might arise from ch. 14, which states: "The attribute of a benoni is the attribute of every person.... For every person has the potential to be a benoni at any time and any moment. [Were the statements in ch. 12 to be interpreted literally, this could not be true, for people who had sinned could never become benonim.]

See also HaTomim, Vol. VIII, sec. III, ff. It appears that there, the statement in ch. 29 cited above was not taken into consideration.

Another point can be made: In ch. 17, the Alter Rebbe explains the levels to which the expression "the matter is very close to you" applies, implying that it does not apply to [people on] other levels. This does not negate the possibility that in a special instance and at a given time even a person who is "truly a rasha" can observe the Torah and its mitzvos through meditation and a battle with his yetzer hara. The statement "It is impossible [for him] to begin to serve G-d" means that [this is impossible] in an ordered and structured manner, [but] not as a temporary and special measure. (Or it might be explained that the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos by one who is "truly a rasha" before he repents is not considered as the service of G-d, because until the person repents, his Divine service is increasing the power of the kelipos.)

To complete the letter, I will also add some other notes regarding this chapter.

"The Torah is eternal": [One might ask:] What is the intent of this phrase? Perhaps the intent is that one should not state that although the phrase "This mitzvah" applies to our generations as does the Torah and its mitzvos as a whole, the phrase "It is not wondrous for you, but instead the matter is very close to you" was addressed only to the generation which entered Eretz Yisrael, and the like. With regard to the [later] generations [whose spiritual level is] lower, this does not apply. [The verse therefore teaches] that we were commanded with regard to this [as well]. As our Sages commented (Eruvin 55a): "If the Torah was in the heavens, we would have to ascend [to take it]. See also ch. 25, which states: "And with this it is understood...."

"To love G-d... Is fear a small matter? Certainly [this question applies] with regard to love." Since the verse states merely "in your heart," perhaps its intent is that it refers to fear alone? For the place of fear is also in the heart. See Likkutei Torah, the third maamar entitled Ha'azinu, sec. 1. And thus this would remove the power of the question: "Certainly [this question applies] with regard to love." The question becomes even stronger based on the statements later on which interpret the word[s] "to perform it," as referring to the love which motivates a person to observe the mitzvos. "When the person meditates..., he will conceive love... and this is man's entire purpose, as it says:[7] 'Today to perform them.'"

And ch. 42, states: "Any person from Israel, whoever he may be, when he meditates ... fear will become fixed in his heart for the entire day," i.e., the fear which leads to the observance of His mitzvos, "turning away from evil and doing good." And the conclusion of ch. 43 states: "The pattern of ordered service which is dependent upon man's choice must start first with the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos as motivated by the lower level of fear.... Afterwards, the light of love will shine on him." See also Kuntres HaAvodah, sec. 3, which states that the observance of the Torah and its mitzvos, "turning from evil and doing good," is dependent on fear. Certainly, a person must also arouse his hidden love [for G-d] as stated in ch. 41, [but fear is the first step]. Thus the question remains unresolved.

"This matter is very close and easy for all people" - See ch. 42 which states that "the soul requires prodigious, awesome, and redoubled toil... one must meditate on this for an extended time every day." Only then is it possible for a person to come to the lower level of fear. If so, love certainly requires such an effort. And yet in this chapter, [the Alter Rebbe] writes that it is very close and easy for everyone to attain. This requires explanation.

"The mind controls the heart" - The physical cause for this phenomenon is explained in ch. 51: "For even the heart receives from the brain, and therefore the brain has an inherent control over it."

With regard to our Divine service, the control of the brain refers to the service of iskafia, [subjugating one's natural tendencies], as explained in the maamarim which clarify the concept of the kelipah of Amalek, the maamar entitled Zachor, in Torah Or, and others.

This control affects only the external dimensions of the heart, but not the inner dimensions, as stated in Likkutei Torah, the maamar entitled VeHayah BaYom HaHu, sec. 3.

With the blessing "Immediately to teshuvah, immediately to Redemption,"

M. Schneerson



  1. (Back to text) [Yoma 86b.]

  2. (Back to text) [Cf. Koheles 5:9.]

  3. (Back to text) [Bereishis Rabbah 34:10.]

  4. (Back to text) [Tehillim 50:16.]

  5. (Back to text) [Rambam end of Hilchos Chanukah.]

  6. (Back to text) [Sanhedrin 99b.]

  7. (Back to text) [Devarim 7:11.]

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