The Rebbe’s Prescription for Anxiety

In the following article, Reb Zalman makes accessible some of the core practical teachings of the Alter RebbeRabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of Chabad-Lubavitch.  With Reb Zalman’s help, the Baal Tanya‘s teachings extend to universal applicability.  You will find at the end prescriptions for Anxiety.  The message from the Sefer Beinonim is pertinent to all, regardless of identifications or level of observance.  Please feel free to leave comments at the end with any thoughts or reactions.  Gabbai Seth Fishman, BLOG Editor

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi on

by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi


Anxiety And the Beinoni
The Psychology of Beinoni
The Rational Soul
Habad and Affect
The Vicissitudes of the Beinoni
The Remedy
Inner and Outer Reality

Anxiety and the Beinoni

The most far-reaching, psychological contribution made by Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi was his concept of the Beinoni / intermediate one. The word itself is as difficult to translate as is the concept. Some translators define it as “average person,” but that rendering is sociological fiction. Furthermore, Rabbi Shneur Zalman intended no such meaning. He understood Beinoni as a term for the individual who straddled somewhere between Tzaddik / saint and Rasha / wicked person. He therefore begins his teaching by defining Tzaddik and Rasha.


Rabbi Shneur Zalman was of the opinion that the term “Tzaddik” was a qualitative term, not a behavioral one.  The point here is that he was looking at the person’s deepest level.  If his opinion were that the term Tzaddik was a behavioral term, then it would merely mean “a person who behaves righteously more often than not.”  However, the deepest level of this person might sometimes also desire that which is not of God’s will.  He therefore spoke of “Absolute Tzaddik” and “Conditional Tzaddik” to capture this distinction and likewise for the concept of Rasha / the wicked one.

Absolute Tzaddik, in the qualitative sense, is one who has completely mortified her or his demons, so that there is not even so much as an unconscious inclination to invest libido, or energy, toward evil. The Absolute Tzaddik is not inclined and cannot even attempt such an inclination since all fascination for evil has been canceled. The Absolute Tzaddik‘s disdain for evil, however, is quiet and existential, and not fanatical.

In contrast, the Conditional Tzaddik, although not involved behaviorally in evil, nor inclined to invest libido toward it in any way, is nonetheless vulnerable to its potential. The abhorrence for evil is not absolute, and the fascination for it still lingers on at some unconscious plateau.

Yet, in both categories of Tzaddik, the vital and decisive principle is the Divine Soul (Nefesh HaEloki), which shares a common ontology with God. Thus, as a Tzaddik one could not act against God for it would be tantamount to acting against one’s own nature.


The Absolute Rasha is totally under the governance of body drives and emotional whims.  Such an individual identifies with the Animal Soul (Nefesh HaBehamit).  The Absolute Rasha is one with the will of the Nefesh HaBehamit / Animal Soul, and, not being reason-directed, completely blocks out any awareness of the manifestation of Divine Soul. However, the Absolute Rasha type is in a rare minority.

More common is the Conditional Rasha who is driven by impulse, can rationalize but is not quite rational, and who conforms to pressures both from  within and without.

These latter characteristics are ones with which most of us can easily identify.  We use reason as a tool for furthering the animal dimension of our nature, and yet we do not delegate the control over our emotions to our reason.  For example, on a subordinate level, we may be aroused to Tshuvah (penance), to engage in Torah study, or to perform Mitzvot (precepts), but not on a primary level. At best, we may be involved in these peripherally, momentarily enveloped in the holiness they vibrate.  But as we step back into our rasha condition, all of this disappears like an illusion — though at some level, a trace of the experience remains — and then, once again, the Nefesh Habahamit is in control.


Finally, there is the Beinoni, the one whose character figures somewhere in between Tzaddik and Rasha. The Beinoni is one who has both not sinned behaviorally, and not purged him or herself from evil.  And though, from time to time, the Beinoni‘s evil inclinations may fade out during such ecstatic experiences as prayer and the celebration of sacred festivals, eventually they fade in again and become restored to their original strength.

Not too many people are of this category.

To remain a Beinoni one has to make a decision entailing a recognition of the ontological definition of sin as idolatry, and to be able to keep repeating this decision.

This repeated decision means that a Beinoni can never act out in sin.  For to the Beinoni, each sin is akin to idolatry.  At the very moment a sin would have been committed, all of the Beinoni‘s energies would have had to have been drawn from the evil energy system of Q’lippah, the shells, rather than from the pure source of God.  The Beinoni recognizing this, having made the conscious and deliberate decision never to draw life energies from any source other than God, having constantly thereafter nurtured and reinforced this decision (often at great emotional expense), the Beinoni could never have acted out in sin.

While it sounds a difficult, seemingly impossible feat to be of this category, it can, nonetheless, be accomplished.

The Psychology of Beinoni

As all individuals, at some point, you, too, need to make a decision about your nature.  This philosophical and theological homework needs to be done consciously.

One input to this decision includes some images painted by others of your self — such as roles which others have forced upon you — and these are unconsciously interwoven with your self-identity. Consequently, you might be innocently inclined to direct your energies toward the fulfillment of the introjected roles.

Nonetheless, the overall image you maintain of yourself forms an essential identification:

  • You may decide, for example, that you are essentially an animal, a part of the animal continuum (the lioness, too, loves her cubs), etc.  By dint of this identity option, you are therefore a reasoning animal, your rationale perhaps serving as a vehicle for the enhancement of your animal behavior.  Once you have chosen this nature, however, you should not expect to transcend the animal continuum, nor would you have any reason to do so.
  • On the other hand, you might also opt to image yourself as a divine child of God, in which case you will perceive your body as an instrument for the divine life.
  • A third option involves identifying the divine and animal souls as one and the same.  This was the choice of the followers of Shabbatai Zvi, who con-fused these into a single antinomian heave, hoping to thereby avoid the strain of the constant struggles between the two.  As was borne out by history, such an attempt at antinomian monism ends in a demonic fiasco.

Before the advent of Hassidism, the middle option was the only available alternative for the Tzaddik, and only by an heroic exertion of will and with the help of God, were a select few able to reach this level.

Others, continued to fluctuate between the animal and the divine.

The Rational Soul

Rabbi Shneur Zalman proposed a fourth option, however:

  • The human being is Reason.

Indeed, our primary soul, the arena of our life force, is the Rational Soul (Nefesh HaSikhlit), the final arbiter for most of us.

The Rational Soul will align itself either with the Divine Soul (and here, only after much effort and with God’s help), or with the Animal Soul (by choice or default).

By this system, the will is free, driven neither by animal nor divine necessities, and able to choose to perform the will of God or to transgress it and rebel.

Though a person’s will is totally free, it is, nonetheless, contained by reasoning and conceptualizing in order to maintain a beneficial relationship with other people and with the universe.

The difference, then, between the vehicle of Rational Soul and that of Divine Soul is that with the Nefesh HaSikhlit alone one can only reach the God IDEA, but with the Nefesh HaElokit, one can reach God’s Self.

Habad and Affect

Nonetheless, all of this may indeed have had solely philosophical significance were it not for another decisive dimension:  

  • The energies of Mind/Reason (Mohin) influence the Affective Modes/Emotions (Middot).

In fact, each Middah is a consequence of a Sekhel / (Intelligence, Thought Sequence or Idea Syndrome), consisting of:

  1. Hokhmah (Wisdom) — essential and qualitative truth
  2. Binah (Understanding) — truth in relation to other Sekhels
  3. Da’at (Knowledge) — empirical truth

If Hokhmah alone were active in any given Sekhel, the thought would be but a mere fleeting abstraction of an evanescent “What”.

If Binah alone were operative, there would be a “How” without a “What”.

It is Da’at alone which provides the given, the “That”.

When I know all of these:  What is, How it is, and That it is, then I am involved in a meaningful situation in which I can act.

On the premise of these concepts, an innovative way of Avodah (divine service) becomes possible.  For we can then meditate on HOW God’s Goodness operates via Divine Providence (Binah) , and THAT God, out of the pure goodness of the Divine Nature, acts benevolently toward us (Da’at).

When exercised at the proper depth of consciousness, this meditation will inevitably move us to experience a flow of gratitude toward God.

This sense of appreciation issues forth from the Rational Soul, but, moreover, it forms a loving connection between the soul and God since the divine soul naturally loves its divine Root and Source. The resulting experience is one in which divine emotion blends with an “amor dei intellectualis“.

The Vicissitudes of the Beinoni

Even by living a life directed by religion, the Nefesh HaBahamit is still constantly nurtured and reinforced. After all, Kosher food, too, is pleasing to the Animal Soul.  In a similar manner, each time the Nefesh HaBahamit avoids any form of discomfort or exertion, its resistance becomes strengthened and the “substance (matter) overcomes the form.”

Anxiety and frustration (Atzvut), on the other hand, tends to dull the keenness of the perceptual judgment necessary for the Rational Soul to maintain a steady Beinoni mode. Atzvut evokes self-pity and, consequently, self-indulgence. Next, lethargy may set in (“acedia” is the scholastic term usually given for this malady). The Rational Soul is then no longer able to hold a firm grasp on a meditation, and the divine soul suffers Nefilat HaMohin (a falling of the mind), and Timtum HaMoah V’HaLev (a dulling of mind and heart). This form of depression, begotten by the unmitigated anxiety, does not yield to homiletics or meditative exercises.

The Remedy

Here, Rabbi Shneur Zalman suggested some remedial methods which might sound severe and drastic in comparison with the usually rosy-hued portrayal of Hassidism by neo-Hassidim.

When it came to salvaging the very delicate mode of Beinoni, he was fastiduous to not  give into illusions, as seen by his disqualification of a method from none other than the Besht used to raise up fallen drives, thoughts and images.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman’s successor, too, Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, showed great care with this topic, having authored three books on the subject, in which he prescribed a strenuous, painful program of intense penance, beginning with an exacting and austere discipline for those seeking to reach the optimal heights of prayer.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman suggested the following:

  • Convert your floating anxiety into objective bitterness and then integrate it into your sinful state. As a Beinoni, you need to turn all the potential energies of self-destruction toward the service of God.
  • Instead of sulking proudly in your inability to soar toward Heaven, rather than seething with paralyzing frustration and yielding to morose self-pity, you need to turn all these energies against your blocked Nefesh HaBahamit.
  • Having done that, you then need to sever your identification with your Nefesh HaBahamit and free the Nefesh HaSikhlit from its confinement to it.
  • Timing, too, is of utmost importance throughout this process, and all the necessary effort and exertion must not be expended prematurely.
  • You have to also weep over your lot of utter poverty and continuous inner struggle.
  • You have to become so broken in spirit that your only remaining reason for existing is God’s Creative and Commanding Will.
  • Nonetheless, this is your ultimate salvation, for after such uncontrollable weeping, one will be renewed by God.
  • Furthermore, the shell will be shattered and a fresh joy will now be able to come through and fill you, since it will have become thereby clear to you that God desires your service.
  • Your sensitivity, too, will be restored and you would once again render the decisions to impress the Form upon the Substance.

Regression, of course, is a possibility. Rabbi Shneur Zalman counseled the Hassid to desensitize him- or herself against frustration and anxiety by deliberately inducing these moods now and then through Itkaffia, the suppression of the Sitra Ahra (side of the “other-ness”), which is achieved by depriving the Nefesh HaBahamit of pleasure from physical organs or by slowing it down to a less manic pace.


Then there is It’hapkha, the transformative process of bitter into sweet, evil into good, darkness into light, a process usually responsive only to the power of the Tzaddik.

Nevertheless, the Beinoni has the ability to work with Itkaffia, a process in which the Nefesh HaBahamit is deconditioned and virtually replaced by the assertion of a more humane, more divine identity. In addition, there is a cosmic effect as well, as the Itkaffia process creates a rippling explosion of divine Light and Life of higher orders in all of the Universes.

Inner and Outer Reality

Unlike the mind of the average person, terribly splintered in all directions, the mind of the Absolute Tzaddik is divinely unified, and the Tzaddik‘s awareness is never split. In the same manner, the mind of the Absolute Rasha would also be whole, a complete animal’s tool. The Beinoni, however, is always caught in the split, always suffering from ambivalence even when making a conscious decision. Judged constantly by both the good and evil inclinations, the Beinoni is at all times aware of the inner dissent between the two, even when rendering a good choice. When a Beinoni, chooses to love God, for example, s/he cannot experience that love fully; s/he can only will it as strongly as is within hir power.  As a Beinoni attempting to love fully, s/he is at a further disadvantage because, being primarily self-directed, s/he is not much of a social creature to begin with.

In the final analysis, the Beinoni works always with his or her will.  There is, of course, much more to a person than will. Even if one wills something, is it true? Is it honest? Is it authentic? Genuine? Saturated with too much experience, the Beinoni is not free from dissonant dissent and will, only a few moments after asserting the will to love God, experience the full emotional impact of a coarse temptation.

Does this mean, however, that the Beinoni is a hypocrite? “No,” says Rabbi Shneur Zalman, because reality is not determined by the Meaning put forth by humankind.  It is determined by the Meaning which issues forth from Torah (“The Holy One Blessed Be God looked into the Torah and Created the world”). The Beinoni, then, tunes in to objective transcendental reality, independent of his or her own inauthenticity.

In a more profound way, the Beinoni‘s nature is more fully authentic, in that it is the very nature of the divine soul to offer ALL of herself to God, and that includes the doubts, the ambivalence, the contradictory experiences. Moreover, this ontological underpinning comprises the basis for meditations which can bring about profound emotive results.

The question, of course, is: Can any Jewish person do all this? And to that Rabbi Shneur Zalman responds with a resounding “Yes”.

Yes. You need only to arouse your natural love, which is so powerful that a Jew cannot be persuaded or threatened to apostasy. Even the Yetzer HaRa’ (evil inclination) must constantly reckon with this omnipotent love for God and its resultingly aggressive preservation of Jewish characteristic and identification which constitutes the very power of Jewish survival.

Thus, regardless of how far from the path the modern Jew may have strayed, there is still the affirmation of: “I am still a good Jew.”  Or, to quote from the Tanya: “I am still standing in my Jewishness” — still a Jew in “good standing.”

  • Having apostasied, a Carmelite monk insists on being a Jew.
  • Having turned to Bahai, Christian Science, Vedanta, some Jews will still say: “I am still a good Jew”.
  • Others will consider Jews as a race, a people, a nation, a culture, all in order to be able to claim that they are “good Jews”.

And the great paradox is, that they indeed are, for in that one moment they realize their self-deception and “do Tshuvah (penance).” They could easily have returned to their basic nature in a short moment, without having had to create anything new in themselves.

But the Beinoni must not allow him or herself to be fooled, for in the realm of the Beinoni, every deviation from God’s will is tantamount to a deviation from Judaism and thus a contradiction of his or her very nature. The Beinoni must therefore take the existential stance to oppose even minor apostasies by equating them to the ultimate apostasy.

The way of the Beinoni, then, is costly. And it would therefore also seem that it is a mode only for a select few rather than for the average person. But the Master stresses the opposite.

In Chapter 14 of Tanya, Rabbi Shneur Zalman writes:

“The Beinoni‘s mode is the measure of every person. Let everyone aspire to it. For anyone can become a Beinoni at any time.  The Beinoni does not abominate evil altogether, for this is a matter of the heart and not the same all of the time.

“But to forsake evil and do good in actual behavior, deed, word and thought is something given to the human choice. For even when the heart covets and craves a physical passion — whether permitted or forbidden — one can prevail over it with one’s willpower and say to the heart:

‘I do not desire to be a Rasha for even one moment, for under no condition do I wish to be severed and separated from God, as sins are wont to do. Rather, I desire to unite my Nefesh, Rua# and Neshamah (animative, emotive and intellectual manifestations of the Divine Soul) in the manner as they are invested in the three blessed garments of God: Action, Word, and Thought. And I perform this by unifying God with Torah and the performance of Mitzvot out of the love for God which is implanted deep within my heart as well as in the heart of all of Israel who are called Lovers Of Thy Name.  Why, even the most lightheaded can offer his or her soul for the sanctification of God’s Name. Am I any less of a person? Indeed, how can I, too, become as lightheaded so that I may be able to do the same? Ah, but the truth is that a spirit of folly has entered such persons, making it seem to them that despite their sins they are still garbed in their Jewishness. They think that their souls are not distanced thereby from the God of Israel. They also forget that implanted deep within their hearts there is love for God. But as for me, I do not will to be such a fool as they, and deny the Truth.'”

Leave a Reply