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Spiritual Futures

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Torah law stipulates that “a person cannot grant ownership over something that has not yet come into existence.”[1] Thus, if a person sells the fruit that his tree is expected to produce, or a house that he is planning to purchase at some future date, the “sale” has no legal validity.

The reason for this has to do with the nature of kinyan (“acquisition”), a halachic term that refers to the point at which the ownership of an object is transferred from party A to party B. The method of kinyan varies (payment to the seller, drawing up a bill of sale, transferring the object into the domain of the buyer, etc.), but the bottom line is that the act of kinyan effects a change in the object: instead of belonging to A, it now belongs to B. Since a kinyan relates to the object itself, there can be no kinyan unless there is an object in the seller’s possession to which the kinyan can apply. A person might enter into a commitment to deliver a certain object to his fellow at a future date, but this remains a personal obligation rather than an actual “acquisition” (there are many legal differences between a personal obligation and an actual transfer of ownership).

However, there does exist a legal way for the buyer to fully acquire “something that has not yet come into existence”—the future fruits of a tree, for example—short of purchasing the tree outright. In the words of Maimonides, “A person can sell ‘a thing for its fruit’… This is not considered to be selling something that has not yet come into existence, since the thing exists, and he is selling the fruit-producing aspect of it. This is comparable to one who rents a house or field to his fellow, where he does not grant him the thing itself but rather the use of the thing.”[2]

In other words, just as a person can purchase half a tree, or one branch of a tree, he can purchase a certain aspect of a tree—its productivity. The tree itself has not been sold, but a certain “part” of it has. Thus, there is an “object” to which a kinyan might apply. The future yield of the tree is now unequivocally and irrevocably that of the purchaser (as opposed to a personal commitment of limited legal value). So if a person contracts to sell “the fruit that this tree will produce,” he has sold nothing; but if he stipulates that he is selling “the tree for its fruit,” the buyer acquires ownership over all future fruit, though the tree itself remains the property of the seller.[3]

The Torah, says the Zohar, consists of both a body and a soul. The “body” is its legal-pragmatic (“halachic”) aspect—the laws that regulate our physical lives. But every law has its spiritual counterpart in the soul of Torah (also referred to as its “mystical” or “esoteric” teachings), which relates the nature of G-d’s relationship with our reality, the “spark of G-dliness” that is the soul of man, and the purpose of life on earth.

The same is true regarding the laws of kinyan discussed above. Indeed, the concept of kinyan is often cited by the Torah in reference to man’s dedication of his life to G-d.[4] For though G-d is the creator and master of the universe, He has given man freedom of choice, granting him full possession of and jurisdiction over his life and environment; so when man chooses to devote his life to G-d, G-d is considered to have “acquired” or received a kinyan in His creation. Thus, the legal differences between selling future (non-existent) fruits, the tree itself, or “a tree for its fruit,” all have their counterpart in the spiritual dimension of Torah, particularly in man’s endeavor to serve his Creator.

The Human Tree

Tanya, the “bible” and most basic work of Chabad-Chassidic thought,[5]was named by its author, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “The Book of Intermediates.” In this book, Rabbi Schneur Zalman defined a new spiritual personality, that of the beinoni or “intermediate man,” which revolutionized the manner in which a person could approach the task of refining his character and dedicating himself to the service of G-d.

Prior to Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s “intermediate man,” it was generally assumed that there exist two types of moral character: the perfected individual and the non-perfected man; one who has eradicated the evil from his heart and one who has not done so. A person was either one or the other; and since the one is quite difficult to achieve, most were the other.

To illustrate these two types, let us examine the following two scenarios:

Scenario #1: Someone insults you, and you are seized with a strong desire to punch him in the face. With great effort you restrain yourself.

Scenario #2: Someone insults you, but you feel no urge to strike him. You see that your assailant is extremely upset, and you empathize with his frustration. You understand that a great many factors—from the way he was raised to the way his wife treated him this morning—have conspired to cause him to behave as he did. And who are you to be insulted, anyway? Come to think of it, there is a certain truth to what he has said about you, if only on the most subtle level. Instead of getting angry, you search your own heart: Why has divine providence led me to hear myself described in these terms? What can I learn from the experience?

The two scenarios have one thing in common: in both cases, you did not strike the man. You did not transgress the divine command, “You shall not avenge yourself on your fellow.”[6] But as far as what has transpired within you, they are worlds apart.

There is also a practical difference. In the first scenario, your self-control was a one-time occurrence. Two forces struggled within you—your anger and ego on the one hand, and your moral sense and altruistic self on the other. The fact that the latter overpowered the former was wholly incidental: nothing guarantees that this will again be the case should you again find yourself in the same situation. In the second scenario, however, there was only one possible outcome. Because you have uprooted the negative tendencies of your character, your behavior was the natural outgrowth of your inner state, and is certain to follow suit on all future occasions.

This is the spiritual equivalent of the law that “A person cannot grant ownership over something that has not yet come into existence.” The perfectly righteous individual is one whose very self has been dedicated to G-d. It is not only that his actions conform with the divine will; also his feelings, desires and mindset are utterly consistent with the divine desire. G-d has a kinyan not only in the product of his life but also in its very essence. And since the “tree” is divine property, the “fruits” it yields—and is destined to yield for all time—are likewise in the supernal domain.

But one who has not made over his mind and heart as the exclusive province of G-d, is limited by the here and now. He can choose to act righteously and dedicate the product of his life (his thoughts, words and deeds) to the Almighty. But his future deeds cannot be considered as “sold” to G-d. Since the “tree” has not been deeded over, no divine kinyan can be effected in its yet-to-materialize fruits.

According to this, there are two paths through life. There is the sure, tranquil path of the perfectly righteous man who has succeeded in remaking his very character and personality—a path that few can aspire to and even fewer achieve. And there is the path of the imperfect soul whose life is an endless battle—a battle in which defeat is always a possibility and, in the long run, a statistical inevitability. A path which runs along the edge of a moral precipice, in which the slightest misstep or lapse in vigilance sends one hurtling into the abyss.

Is there no other way? Is there no middle ground between utter perfection and perpetual self-doubt? Is there no way to gain control over one’s life short of remaking one’s inner self?

Such was the moral landscape of man until Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi wrote the Tanya and introduced us to the “intermediate man.”

Between Perfection and Iniquity

In Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman describes how by a process of inculcation, meditation and prayer, the “intermediate man” neutralizes the evil in his heart. He does not eliminate his negative impulses and desires—only their ability to dictate his behavior. When the insult is hurled in the face of the “intermediate man,” the desire to retaliate is as strong as in any ego-driven heart; but it is countered with an awareness of what constitutes his own true good that is so strong and deep that the negative desire is certain to be repulsed.

Imagine a smoker who has been most blatantly confronted with the fact that his habit is killing him. Imagine that he studies the facts and the statistics, meditates upon them at length, and so completely identifies with this knowledge that he most graphically sees with his mind’s eye the cigarette smoke eating away at his lungs each times he draws a puff. He also devotes many hours to contemplating his pleasures and joys, his love for his family, his desire for life. Will this person smoke? His craving for cigarettes remains—nothing has altered the physiology of his nicotine-addicted body. But the depth of his awareness ensures that this craving will never translate into deed.

The “intermediate man” is one who has enlisted his mind[7]—his capacity for learning, understanding, contemplation, affirmation, awareness and identification—as a potent weapon in the battles of the heart. By studying, contemplating and appreciating the divine reality and what constitutes his own ultimate good, the “intermediate man” secures his integrity with a mental fortress certain to repel the evil in his character.

The “intermediate man” must still wage a perpetual battle against his negative traits and desires, struggling to sustain the degree of awareness that prevents their actualization on the behavioral level. Every day, he must refurbish this awareness, worn down by the onslaughts of material life, with new hours of meditation and prayer. But he is secure in the knowledge that as long as he maintains this state of mind, he will yield no ground to the (still undiminished) forces of darkness in his soul.

Thus, the “intermediate man” is one who, in the words of the Tanya, “has never sinned, and will never sin in his life.”[8] Of course, a person might reach the state of “intermediate” after an iniquitous past. Nor is it categorically impossible for the “intermediate man” to fall from his station—the Talmud tells of a High Priest who became an apostate after eighty years of perfect righteousness.[9] What Rabbi Schneur Zalman is saying is that the “intermediate man” is one who has attained a degree of moral security in which the possibility of sin does not exist. This is not merely a person who does not sin, but one who cannot sin.

In other words, the “intermediate man” is one who has granted G-d akinyan also in the future product of his life by deeding over to Him “the tree for its fruits.” He has not granted Him the “tree” itself, for he has not conquered and transformed “the inclination of the human heart for evil from birth.”[10] But he has made over that aspect of self that is the immediate source and determinant of his behavior, creating a state of mind that guarantees his conscious thoughts,[11] words and actions as the exclusive province of his Creator.

The state of “intermediate,” says the author of Tanya, is the requisite “state of every man, to which every man should aspire; for every man can, at any time and hour, be an ‘intermediate.’” Not every man can achieve perfection; not every man can reconstruct his natural self and present to G-d the “tree” in its entirety. But every man can grant G-d a kinyan in his life that is rooted in his inner self. Every man can gain absolute dominion over his moral life by asserting the inherent supremacy of mind over heart and instituting an internal dynamic that allows only his positive drives to come to fruition.

Based on the Rebbe’s talks on various occasions[12]

Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Talmud, Yevamot 93a.

[2]. Mishneh Torah, Laws of Sales, 23:1.

[3]. For a full discussion of the laws related above, see Talmud and commentaries, Yevamot 93a and Bava Metzia 16a; Mishneh Torah, ibid., chs. 22-23; Tur/Shulchan Aruch and commentaries, Choshen Mishpat 209; Talmudic Encyclopedia, vol. VII, pp. 30-37, 53-57.

[4]. See Ethics of the Fathers 6:10—“G-d has acquired five acquisitions (kinyanim) in His world…”—and the verses cited there; Talmud, Kiddushin 82b: “I was created to serve my Acquirer (koni—He who has a kinyan in me)”; et al.

[5]. This past Kislev 20 (December 1, 1996) was the 200th anniversary of the Tanya’s first publication in 1796.

[6]. Leviticus 19:18.

[7]. His CHaBaD—an acronym for the mental faculties of chachmah, binahand daat (conception, comprehension and application)—hence the name of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s philosophy and the Chassidic movement he founded.

[8]. Tanya, ch. 12.

[9]. Talmud, Berachot 29a.

[10]. Genesis 8:21.

[11]. As opposed to his instinctive thoughts, which are still fed by both the good and evil elements in his character.

[12]. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXVII, pp. 176-182.

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