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A Map for a Book
by Leon Cohen

One needs a map to travel an unknown territory. But how often does one need a map to travel through a book?

To Rabbi Shais Taub, associate director of adult education for Lubavitch of Wisconsin, one Jewish book is so rich and complex, so absorbing in its details and yet whose overall structure is so important, that a reader or student actually could use a map to navigate it. So he provided one.

That book is familiarly known as the Tanya for the book's first word, a Talmud expression for "it has been taught" and that is used to preface quotations from other Jewish literature.

But its author, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe (d. 1812), called it "Likutei Amarin" ("Compilation of Sayings") or "Safer Shel Beinonim" ("Book of the Intermediate Person" - that is, a person who is between having no impulse control and attaining the highest levels of spiritual development).

This book is the "founding text" of the Chabad Lubavitch Chasidism, said Taub. It develops the fundamental principles and concepts of Chabad mysticism; and Lubavitch rebbes for seven generations "have spent time explaining and teaching it."

But Taub, who has been teaching the Tanya for many years in yeshivas and synagogues, to young students and adults, emphasized that this book is not only for Chabadniks.

Its author "did not write it to teach you how to become a Chasid," Taub said. "The point is to teach a person to develop spiritually to a point where they can master their behavior and find fulfillment in their divine mission on earth. It is applicable not just to all Jews, but to all humanity."

But few other books are so demanding of a reader, according to Taub's description. The author, known as the Alter Rebbe, took some 20 years to write it; and a story has come down about how the author once told his brother that before he would add one letter to the work, he would review the entire book in his mind.

"From that story, I understood the importance of having a cohesive picture of the Tanya," said Taub. "It was written so every letter is integrated with every other letter and interconnected. We should aspire to read it in that fashion."

The problem, however, is that the work "is so textually dense and introduces so many esoteric and mind-blowing ideas on even a single page" that by the time readers have gotten through a chapter, they are likely to have "lost the flow from the overall context."

And the author demands readers who have exceptional memories, Taub indicated. For example, a question asked in chapter one doesn't get answered until chapter 14; and a metaphor first introduced in chapter 35 turns out to be "crucial to understand the culmination of the book in chapter 53," Taub said.

Therefore, about three years ago, Taub concluded from his own experiences of studying and teaching that "it was important to create a map that students, while studying in depth, could refer to in order to get their bearings back, to understand the flow of ideas, how the chapters flow and lead into each other, how concepts develop over a series of chapters."

He also believed that readers needed "a visual index of where things are" in the Tanya, so those seeking answers or advice for their specific situations can learn what chapter or chapters to consult, Taub said.

So for about six weeks, working "six or seven hours a day," Taub studied the book and many of the commentaries on it, and sketched a map/chart. He then brought his sketches to a Lubavitch graphic designer, who created the publishable "Map of Tanya."

Taub's map was then picked up by the Lubavitch printing firm, Kehot Publication Society, which began printing it for sale about six weeks ago, Taub said. It comes in a large poster format, about 37 by 26 inches, with one side in Hebrew and the other in English.

Though the map has been available for a short time, Taub said he has heard "only good things" about it, and from "everyone from the most erudite Chasidus experts to just laymen who had dabbled in Tanya."

A smaller folded version of the map has also been published that students can use as a bookmarker for their copies of the Tanya, Taub said.

Reprinted from the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle
 

 


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