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Be a Tzadik, be a Mensch
By Nachum Mohl
I recall my mother harping on me every time I did something that caused her some anger, "why can't you be a mensch?" Perhaps this would have had an impact on me if I knew Yiddish. But being the humble fellow that I am, I just kept quiet and tried to behave in a manner that my mother would accept for a short while. It is only now, years later that I know that a mensch is an upstanding, responsible person. Back then, I sort of understand that a mensch was something that I wasn't.
We find that the admonishment of the Talmud is reminiscent of the admonishment of my mother. In tractate Nidah 30b the Talmud relates that before a child is born he is administered an oath, "be a tzadik and not to be a rasha." This is similar to my mother wanting me to be a mensch. If the son does not know what a mensch is, then how can he become one? Similarly, if the soul did not understand these words, tzadik (righteous person) and rasha (evil person), of what significance would be the oath? We can deduce from this that the soul must understand these terms.
Then the Talmud continues, "that even if the entire world says that you are a tzadik, you must consider yourself to be a rasha." Now this really requires a bit of understanding. Let us assume that the person is not a tzadik and the world is saying that he is a tzadik. What difference should it mean to the person? He knows the truth about himself. Conversely, if he is in reality a tzadik then why should he consider himself to be a rasha? Either way that we look at it, it lacks understanding and can be confusing.
In addition, what good is this oath? If you force someone to take an oath can he not later ask a chacham (wise man, rabbi) to exempt him from the responsibility and obligation to fulfill the oath? Forcing a person to take an oath cannot guarantee that the person is later bound by it.
In reality, what the Talmud is saying is something deep.
First, the soul that is coming into the world must accept upon himself the obligations of the oath as a condition for coming into the world. If the soul does not accept the obligation of the oath, then he is refused entrance into the world. So the soul has no ability to ask that the oath be repealed since it is conditional for his entrance into this world.
Now before the soul can enter this world, it must take this oath. It is a precondition for entering life that it should be a tzadik and not a rasha.
The second part of the statement in the Talmud, "that even if the entire world says that you are a tzadik, you must consider yourself to be a rasha," seems strange. Now if a person is a true genuine tzadik why should he have to consider himself as a wicked man? Is the purpose of the Talmud to teach us that a perfectly righteous man must consider himself a rasha and how much more so, we simple and plain folk!
The answer is there are really two concepts, two meanings, of what a tzadik is and a third concept, close to a tzadik, a benoni.
One definition of a tzadik is related to the perception the world has, the relative tzadik. The layman's definition of a tzadik is a person who engages chiefly in studying Torah and performing mitzvos and does not do any sins. This is the popular concept of most that is prevalent in the world. But if this be the definition of a tzadik then the Talmud does not make sense!
It a person is a tzadik as defined above why should the Talmud instruct him to consider himself as a rasha? What benefit would come from having such a perception of ones self?
But there is another definition or meaning of what a tzadik is. This second meaning is the absolute tzadik. The first definition above is what can be called the relative tzadik. It is the difference between the two definitions that brings clarity to what the Talmud is saying.
The Talmud comes to inform the soul that even if the world sees you doing only Torah and mitzvahs and calls you a tzadik, it is not a conclusive fact that you are tzadik. Of course if you do not do any sins, it means that you are not a rasha. It could be very possible that you are in another category, a benoni!
The difference between the tzadik and the benoni is very slim. Both occupy themselves only in Torah and mitzvos, but the tzadik has either killed his yetzar hara (the evil impulse or desire to do evil) or has it so completely controlled that it may not harm him.
The benoni, on the other hand, is engaged in a vicious and powerful fight with his yetzar hara. One false move and the yetzer hara could triumph. The benoni is the average fellow; he is fighting against his yetzer hara.
One of the most successful tactics of the yetzer hara is to convince the person that indeed he has reached the level of a tzadik. Therefore the benoni must look at himself closely, that just as he is capable of thinking thoughts of a rasha, so too is he capable of doing acts that are in the category of a rasha.
True, if you were a tzadik you would not be hampered if all were to call you a tzadik, you would realize that it is the truth. The above question may have prompted the famous Rabbi Schneur Zalman to write the Tanya. The Tanya is a book that was written some 250 years ago and is a mystical explanation of the relationship between the soul, the person and G-d.
We have assumed that the level of the tzadik is defined by the externalities of being totally occupied by only Torah and mitzvas. It is only after we have learned the Tanya that we realize that the level of the tzadik is much deeper. The level of the tzadik is based on the fierce inner struggle that burns inside of man between his G-dly side and that of his evil impulses. This is substance that distinguishes between a true tzadik and a benoni, one who only appears as a tzadik.
This is the main teaching of the Talmud. We must never let ourselves be convinced that we are righteous because our exterior being is totally occupied with the study of G-d's law and the performance of his commandments. It is only once the inner battle has been won, and the enemy, our evil impulse, has been vanquished that we may consider ourselves to be a tzadik.
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