HaRav Shneur Zalman MiliadiRav Shneur Zalman (September 4, 1745 – December 15, 1812) of Liadi, was the founder of Chabad hassidism and the author of many works, among them Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Tanya and the Siiddur Torah Or . Chabad became a worldwide Jewish spiritual outreach movement.
In the previous chapter the Alter Rebbe taught that the Beinoni should not be distressed by the occurrence of sinful thoughts in his mind. On the contrary, he ought to rejoice, for by repulsing these thoughts and promptly averting his mind from them, he fulfills the commandment of “not going astray after one’s heart,” and thereby crushes the spirit of the sitra achra, consequently causing intense Divine pleasure.
However, this reasoning can only be applied when such thoughts occur to the Beinoni while engaged in his material pursuits. If, however, they occur to him while occupied in the service of G‑d (e.g., while praying or studying the Torah), they are certainly no cause for rejoicing, since they distract him from his divine service. How is he to deal with them in this case? — This is the subject of ch. 28.
ואפילו אם נופלים לו הרהורי תאוות ושאר מחשבות זרות בשעת העבודה בתורה או בתפלה בכוונה
Even if lustful imaginings or other extraneous thoughts occur to him during his service of G‑d — in Torah or in prayer with kavanah,
אל ישית לב אליהן, אלא יסיח דעתו מהן כרגע
he should pay them no attention, but avert his mind from them immediately.
וגם אל יהי שוטה, לעסוק בהעלאת המדות של המחשבה זרה
Nor should he be so foolish as to engage in “sublimation of the middot” of the extraneous thought,
as is known — that one can overcome extraneous thoughts by elevating their source.
For every such thought stems from one of the middot of the animal soul. For example, the middah of love in the animal soul gives rise to one’s lustful thoughts; the middah of fear gives rise to hatred, and to fears inappropriate to him; and so on. It is therefore written  that when one is disturbed by such a thought, he should determine which middah is its source, and should then refocus that middah on the spiritual aspects of the object of his thoughts. For example, if the extraneous thought is a desire for some physical object, one should contemplate that the desirability of the object which he craves is actually a manifestation of the Divine power that made it desirable — beautiful, tasty, or whatever. Therefore, rather than applying his desire (i.e., his middah of love) to the object’s physical sheath, he should direct it to the G‑dliness that underlies it. He will thereby elevate the corresponding middah of his animal soul to its Divine source, and thus destroy the evil in the thoughts caused by the middah, leaving only the good — the “sparks” of holiness embedded in them. This is what is meant by “sublimating themiddot” in order to overcome extraneous thoughts.
For the Beinoni, however, such an exercise would be sheer foolishness, as the AlterRebbe explains presently.
כי לא נאמרו דברים ההם אלא לצדיקים
For such things were intended only for tzaddikim,
שאין נופלים להם מחשבות זרות שלהם כי אם משל אחרים
in whom there do not occur any evil thoughts of their own evil middot, but only from the middot of others.
Since the tzaddik has transformed the middot of his animal soul to good, no evil thoughts can arise from them. Any evil thought that may arise in his mind stems from the middot of others. For another individual, whose soul-root is connected with this tzaddik, finds himself in difficulty combating his own evil middot, and requires his assistance. This person’s evil thought is therefore planted in the mind of the tzaddik,though in the form of mere abstract “letters of thought,” without any feeling of evil attached to it. The tzaddik, recognizing the source of this thought, redirects it towards the spiritual realm (as explained above), and thereby elevates the middah whence it stems, thus enabling his fellow-Jew to overcome his own evil middot. But only the tzaddik can accomplish this, since he himself possesses no evil middot.
אבל מי שנופל לו משלו מבחינת הרע שבלבו בחלל השמאלי
But as for one, i.e., a Beinoni, to whom there occurs an evil thought of his own, from the evil that is lodged in the left part of his heart i.e., the evilmiddot of his animal soul,
איך יעלהו למעלה והוא עצמו מקושר למטה
how can he raise it up to the spiritual realm when he himself is bound below by his desire for the material?
It would therefore be foolish for the Beinoni to attempt to rid himself of extraneous thoughts by engaging in the sublimation of his middot.
אך אף על פי כן אל יפול לבו בקרבו להיות מזה עצב נבזה בשעת העבודה, שצריך להיות בשמחה רבה
Nevertheless, he must not be downhearted, nor feel dejected and despicable because of this occurence of extraneous thoughts during his service of G‑d, when he ought to be most joyous.
אלא אדרבה, יתחזק יותר ויוסיף אומץ בכל כחו בכוונת התפלה בחדוה ושמחה יתירה
On the contrary, he should draw fresh strength, and intensify his determination with all his power, to pray with concentration, with even greater joy and gladness,
בשומו אל לבו כי נפילת המחשבה זרה היא מהקליפה שבחלל השמאלי, העושה מלחמה בבינוני עם נפש אלקית שבו
in the realization that the foreign thought which occurred to him derives from the kelipah of the left part of the heart, which wages war within the Beinoni against the Divine soul within him.
ונוד דרך הנלחמים וכן הנאבקים יחד
It is known, that it is the way of combatants who seek to destroy one anotherand similarly of wrestlers who aim merely to topple one another,
כשהאחד מתגבר אזי השני מתאמץ להתגבר גם כן בכל מאמצי כחו
that when one is gaining the upper hand, the other likewise exerts himself with all the resources of his strength in order to prevail.
ולכן כשנפש האלקית מתאמצת ומתגברת להתפלל
Therefore, in the battle between the divine soul and the animal soul, when the divine soul exerts itself and musters all its strength in prayer, thereby to weaken or even vanquish the animal soul,
אזי גם הקליפה מתגברת כנגדה, לבלבלה ולהפילה במחשבה זרה שלה
the kelipah of the animal soul too gathers strength to counter it, aiming to confuse and topple the divine soul by means of a foreign thought of its own.
The animal soul, sensing danger in the divine soul’s increased efforts in prayer with devotion, contrives to jar one’s concentration by conjuring up assorted foreign thoughts in his mind. Thus, the appearance of an extraneous thought during prayer indicates that one’s devotion was of sufficient quality to give the animal soul cause for concern; and this realization itself should gladden one and encourage him to continue his efforts.
ולא כטעות העולם שטועים להוכיח מנפילת המחשבה זרה, מכלל שאין תפלתם כלום
This refutes a common error. When a foreign thought occurs to some people during prayer, they mistakenly conclude that their prayer is worthless,
שאילו התפלל כראוי ונכון לא היו נופלים לו מחשבות זרות
for if one prayed properly and correctly, so they mistakenly believe, no foreign thoughts would arise in his mind.
והאמת היה כדבריהם אם היתה נפש אחת לבדה, היא המתפללת והיא המחשבת ומהרהרת המחשבות זרות
They would be correct if there would be but one soul within a person, the same soul that prays being also the one that thinks and ponders on the foreign thoughts.
For in this case, if the G‑dly soul were truly immersed in the prayers, there would be no room within it for foreign thoughts.
אבל באמת לאמיתו הן שתי נפשות, הנלחמות זו עם זו במוחו של אדם
but in fact there are two souls, each waging war against the other in the person’s mind.
The mind is thus not only the battleground, but also the prize, the object of the battle between the two souls, for:
כל אחת חפצה ורצונה למשול בו ולהיות המוח ממולא ממנה לבדה
Each of them wishes and desires to rule and pervade the mind exclusively.
וכל הרהורי תורה ויראת שמים מנפש האלקית, וכל מילי דעלמא מנפש הבהמית
All thoughts of Torah and the fear of G‑d come from the G‑dly soul, while all thoughts of worldly matters derive from the animal soul.
Similarly in our case, thoughts of prayer are from the divine soul, while foreign thoughts stem from the animal soul. Thus, the occurence of a foreign thought during prayer is no indication of a fault in the prayer. In fact the opposite may be true, as the Alter Rebbe explained earlier with the analogy of two combatants.
But if there are indeed two separate souls, why should the extraneous thoughts of one interfere with the devotions of the other? — They would not interfere, answers the Alter Rebbe,
רק שהאלקית מלובשת בה
except that the G‑dly soul is clothed within it — within the animal soul.
Therefore the G‑dly soul cannot ignore foreign thoughts rising from the animal soul; and thus foreign thoughts disturb one’s devotion in prayer.
והוא כמשל אדם המתפלל בכוונה, ועומד לנגדו ערל רשע, ומשיח ומדבר עמו כדי לבלבלו
This is, to use an example, like a person who is praying with devotion, while facing him there stands a wicked heathen who chats and speaks to him in order to confuse him.
If the other’s intention were not to disturb him but merely, say, to ask him a question, then he could rid himself of the disturbance simply by responding to the questioner. But when the intention is to disturb his prayers, he will gain nothing by responding; if he answers one question, he will promptly be asked another.
שזאת עצתו בודאי שלא להשיב לו מטוב ועד רע, ולעשות עצמו כחרש לא ישמע
Surely the best advice in this case would be to answer him neither good nor evil, but rather to act as though he were deaf, without hearing.
ולקיים מה שכתוב: אל תען כסיל כאולתו, פן תשוה לו גם אתה
and to comply with the verse,  “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you too become like him.”
כך אל ישיב מאומה ושום טענה ומענה נגד המחשבה זרה
Just as in the analogy of the heathen who disturbs one during prayer, so toowhen foreign thoughts enter one’s mind while praying he should answer nothing at all, nor should he engage in argument against the foreign thought, i.e., he should not occupy himself with mental discussions on the best strategy for countering the foreign thought,
כי המתאבק עם מנוול מתנוול גם כן
for he who wrestles with a filthy person is bound to become soiled himself.
Similarly, in the process of fighting the foreign thought, one’s mind becomes filled and tainted by it. He should therefore not seek to grapple with it.
רק יעשה עצמו כלא יודע ולא שומע ההרהורים שנפלו לו, ויסירם מדעתו
Instead he should pretend not to know nor hear the foreign thoughts that occurred to him, should dismiss them from his mind,
ויוסיף אומץ בכח כוונתו
and strengthen still more the power of his concentration.
ואם יקשה לו להסירם מדעתו מפני שטורדים דעתו מאד בחזקה
If, however, he finds it difficult to dismiss them because they distract his mind with great intensity,
אזי ישפיל נפשו לה׳, ויתחנן לו יתברך במחשבתו לרחם עליו ברחמיו המרובים
then he should humble his soul before G‑d, and supplicate Him in his thought to have compassion upon him in His abundant mercies,
כרחם אב על בנים הנמשכים ממוחו, וככה ירחם ה׳ על נפשו הנמשכת מאתו יתברך
like a father who takes pity on his children who stem from his brain — and so too should G‑d be compassionate on his soul, which derives from G‑d’s “mind” — the attribute of Chochmah, as explained in ch. 2,
להצילה ממים הזדונים, ולמענו יעשה, כי חלק ה׳ ממש עמו
to rescue it from the  “turbulent waters,” i.e., the thoughts which disturb the soul. This He should do for His own sake, since truly  “His people is a part of the L-rd.”
In order that one should not incur Divine judgement as to whether he is worthy of G‑d’s compassion, the Alter Rebbe advises that one should beseech G‑d’s mercies for His own sake. Since the soul is “a part of G‑d,” in aiding the soul he actually helps Himself, so to speak. The question of whether one is deserving of such aid thus becomes irrelevant.
Another interpretation sees the words, “This He should do for His own sake…,” not as part of the worshiper’s plea, but as a guarantee: G‑d will certainly come to the aid of one who entreats Him, and certainly will “rescue his soul from the turbulent waters”; this is for His own sake, for the soul is veritably a part of G‑d.
1. Keter Shem Tov (collected teachings of the Baal Shem Tov) Sec. 171.
2. Mishlei 26:4
3. Tehillim 124:5
4. Devarim 32:9