Rabbi Nachman: The Seer of Podolia
by Hillel Zeitlin
Translated from the Yiddish by Yaacov David Shulman
My Father: Hillel Zeitlin’s Life and Creativity
by Aaron Zeitlin [pp. 11-47—not included in this preview]
Chapter One: The Son of Feiga the Prophetess
Just as the withered, scorched earth yearns for rain, so did the heart of Nachman as a young person yearn for God. Superficially, he was a child like any other. He danced, pushed, rolled on the ground, raced, played hide-and-seek. But inwardly, he was filled with a flaming fire, a craving, a desire for the wellspring of all life—a longing that gave the child no rest, that chased him from the camp of childhood, exactly when he was in the midst of his carefree existence.
He was raised in an atmosphere of pure, good Judaism. He had a concentrated and sharpened piety, filled with spiritual elevations, with spiritual growth and unceasing effort to be worthy of his predecessors: Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka. Young Nachman absorbed the pain of God’s Presence, hiding his mystical yearnings from those around him, desiring to surpass his elders in everything, seeking his own path to God, intending through his own struggle to come to a level that not even his holy forefathers had attained.
He was born on Shabbos Hagadol in 5532, in Mezhibozh.
His father, Rabbi Simchah, was one of the brilliant Torah scholars and Hasidim of his time. His mother, Feiga, was known as a daughter of the famous Hodel (or Adel)—the daughter, student and good angel of the Baal Shem.
Feiga was the sister of two tzaddikim, men who illuminated, explicated and disseminated Hasidism: Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibozh (who conducted his rabbinate with a high hand, and who considered himself the one true inheritor of the Baal Shem Tov; his brief teachings are collected in the small book, Botzina Dinehora); and Rabbi Ephraim (rebbe and rabbi in Sudilkov, author of the remarkable, illuminating Degel Machaneh Ephraim).
These two pillars of Hasidism used to call their sister Feiga the Prophetess. They considered her to be a holy person, a woman who possessed the holy spirit. according to the tradition of the Breslover Hasidim, she was constantly in touch with the soul of her grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov. Through him, she attained high levels and was able to prophecy about all her relatives—in particular her son, Nachman, whose purpose must be to prepare a path for the king, the messiah.
Young Nachman did not content himself with the brilliant inheritance that shone for him from every corner. Already as a child, he sought his own light.
The child decided to deny himself the pleasures of the world. But how does one deal with eating? One cannot live without it—yet when one eats, one must have pleasure. Therefore, the child had an “insight”: he would eat, but not chew. In this way, he would not taste anything. He conducted himself in this way when he was no more than six years old. However, the young ascetic had to quickly abandon his first austere practice.
Learning in cheder came to him with great difficulty. Instead of concentrating his entire attention on learning, he would visualize God’s Name before him—fulfilling the verse, “I have set Hashem before me always.”
The teacher would grow angry, but young Nachman would appease him with his great patience and diligence.
Later, when Nachman was learning Gemara, he would appease his tutor by—in addition to the regular salary that his parents paid—himself giving a separate daily payment from his pocket money in order that the rabbi would teach him more Gemara.
Later on, when he learned independently, learning continued to come to him with difficulty. He would open a holy book, study it and torment himself—yet he still did not understand its simple meaning. However, he would not leave the book alone. Instead, he cried and begged God for mercy. He approached the topic with all his strength, he scrutinized it, considered it from all angles, studied every line, word, letter, every crown of a letter, every vowel—until everything grew bright and clear.
Nachman did not leave unstudied any holy book that existed in Mezhibozh.
He learned Tanach, Talmud, books of halachah, Ein Yaakov, Midrash, Zohar, Tikunei Zohar, the writings of the Ari, other Kabbalah works, works of ethical instruction (musar) and (although his students do not speak of this) all sorts of philosophical works, books on astronomy, natural science, medicine: whatever scientific works that could at that time be obtained in the Holy Tongue.
To the same degree that the young Nachman was artful and shrewd in his learning and fear of heaven, so did he employ great simplicity in understanding the Torah and serving God. At the same time that he was learning the Kabbalistic Eitz Chaim and Pri Eitz Chaim and rising to the highest worlds, he also learned all the musar booklets in his father’s house. At the same time that he was submerged in the most complex and profound Kabbalah prayer meditations, he would recite, like any simple, pious Jew, every supplication that he found in the thick prayerbooks. He did not even skip one prayer in Yiddish.
And psalms were his constant companion. He would never part from his small book of Psalms.
In addition, besides the written prayers, every day he would pour out his heart to God in his own words, with his own prayers. He would speak to God in his mother tongue, Yiddish. For this purpose, he would hide in an attic or far outside the town: in the fields, a forest or a cave. As a child, his meditation spot was under the roof of his father’s house, behind a flimsy little wall made of braided twigs, where hay and straw were stored.
In all his service of God, he acted quietly, walking modestly, hidden from adult eyes. To others, he was just a happy, mischievous, almost frivolous boy. When he reached bar mitzvah, his holy uncle, the Degel Machaneh Ephraim, reproved him, basing himself on the verse, “I today have brought you forth.” It is already time, his uncle told him, to cast aside his childish mischief and to become somewhat respectable and mature.
Hidden from everyone, Nachman would sneak into the synagogue through a window and put coins into the charity box, reciting the Kabbalistic formula from the Shaarei Tzion prayerbook for every coin that he put in. He would first change large coins for smaller denominations so that he would have more coins to put into the charity box and thus be able to repeat the formula, “May it be Your will…” a great number of times.
In his youth, Rabbi Nachman also fasted a great deal. There were times that he fasted from Shabbos to Shabbos: an entire week, excluding Shabbos. Although he was from birth a weak and delicate person, one year he fasted in this way eighteen times.
In the late evening hours, he would go to the gravesite of his great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov. From there, he would run to immerse himself in an uncovered, cold mikveh, whether it was summer or the greatest winter frost. When people would occasionally notice him wiping himself or combing his hair after he had gone to the mikveh in the winter, he would tell them that he had just washed his hair somewhere outside. People would be startled: Why is he washing his hair outside, on a freezing night? But go ask questions about a joker….
More, he undertook to uproot every desire. But he did not war against all his desires at the same time. Were he to do so, they would overcome him, rather than he overcome them. What then did he do? He would lead an unremitting struggle with only one desire, and not engage any of his other desires. It was as if he were saying: “Evil inclination, I surrender to you all desires except for this one. For this one, you must capitulate. I am giving you so much that you must at least give me something in return.” He would dedicate himself to vanquishing, breaking and uprooting that desire until he felt that he was completely free of it. Then he would grapple with a second desire. Again, he would not engage any of his other desires as he concentrated on breaking this one. Then he would deal with a third, a fourth, and so on.
In the same way that he conquered his desires, so did he conquer his bad character traits. It was hardest for him to conquer his anger. He was by nature a short-tempered person, and it cost him much toil until he came to the point where nothing in the world could anger him. His students tell that when he was in the land of Israel, he was at last able to attain the opposite of anger, complete goodness, so that nothing in the world could cause him the least irritation.
And he experienced difficult and bitter sufferings when he warred against what he referred to as the “all-inclusive desire”: the greatest of desires, sexual lust. A young man with a fiery, flaming temperament and a strongly developed imagination, with a face that must have bewitched every woman, he had to face difficult tests in guarding “the holiness of the covenant.” And he withstood all those tests, to the degree that he could later say of himself: “In my eyes, man and woman are the same”—meaning that no woman aroused any sexual desire in him. He could also say: “Sexual desire is no desire at all. Anyone with any intelligence should be repulsed by it.” And: “Whoever knows anatomy knows how repulsive that desire is.” And finally: “I am not afraid of any woman or of any angel.” This meant that whoever has not yet attained holiness in his sexual life must fear an angel, for the angel is holier than he. But a person who has achieved the highest level in “the holiness of the covenant” need fear no angel. He can say to every angel what Rabbi Amram Chasida said to the evil inclination when it appeared to him as a pillar of fire: “Although you are fire and I am flesh, I am stronger than you.”
Rabbi Nachman was so confident and certain that no inclination in the world could defeat him that he would not flee difficult sexual tests. He would even pray that God send him tests so that he would be able to overcome them. And he would indeed do so.
A few tzaddikim of his generation had great complaints about him because of this. Others fought with him strongly over this, mentioning the prayer which every Jew recites every day: “Do not bring me to a test.” But Rabbi Nachman would reply, “I have no fear of any test in the world. Will I go insane and do something against God’s will?”
In addition to everything—the merit of his forefathers, the attention he received from the Baal Shem Tov’s grandchildren and his mother, Feiga the prophetess, his in-born holiness, his unbelievable diligence, his superhuman work on himself and separation from the smallest desire—Rabbi Nachman still hoped for the pure mercy of God. He did not cease begging every day that only He, the Master of the world, should in His great mercy keep him from falling to the lowest depths.
Although he did everything humanly possible—if not more—in serving the Creator, it often seemed to him that he was being ignored and not heard, that he was being distanced from serving God, that he was not at all noticed and acknowledged.
One thing saved him: his superhuman self-encouragement, his rock-hard belief that “despair does not exist,” that no one, not even the lowest of the low, may give up no matter what the circumstances—for “even in the depths of hell, one can draw close to God.” Nothing is ever lost: not the slightest movement of repentance, one true sigh or one true tear. A person must break through the gates of repentance even though they appear to be locked and he thinks that he is being chased away. Every closure, every hindrance, every obstacle comes from heaven so that our desire to repent will flicker more brightly, so that our will for goodness will be more strongly forged, so that our thoughts will be more cleansed and purified.
Even when he was very young, Rabbi Nachman knew that a person must be extremely stubborn in serving God. He must not abandon what he has worked for, even under fire. “Even if the ruler’s spirit rises against you, do not abandon your place.” Do what you must and allow no obstacles to hinder you. If you fall, pick yourself up and continue on your way. If you fall again, strengthen yourself and again begin your service of God, as though you were only now beginning.
That is the essence of serving God: to always be at the beginning. We must begin anew as if we were only now born, as if we were for the first time opening our eyes, for the first time recognizing that there is a God in the world who gives life to all, nourishes all and guides everyone with love and compassion. This is what Rabbi Nachman meant when he would constantly repeat, “It is forbidden to be old!” We must feel as though our heart is for the first time opened to the secret of the worlds, and that we are learning for the first time the primer of serving God.
Chapter Two: In the Forests
When Nachman became bar mitzvah, his parents arranged a marriage with a girl from the shtetl of Medvedevka (not far from Mezhibozh). His father-in-law, Rabbi Ephraim, was a learned, God-fearing Jew, an important community leader who came from a fine family. At the time that he took Rabbi Nachman as his son-in-law, Rabbi Ephraim didn’t live in the shtetl itself but in the village Usatin (also known as Husatin), as well as in other villages near Medvedevka, which he leased.
And in the fields and forests that surrounded Husatin and these other villages, the poetic spirit of Rabbi Nachman awoke.
Rabbi Shimon, son of Reb Ber—the childhood friend and first disciple of Rabbi Nachman—tells that later on, when Rabbi Nachman was famous and living in large towns, he once traveled with Rabbi Shimon in the vicinity of Husatin. He pointed at the fields and forests with great longing, and said, “How good it was for me here! With every step, I could taste Gan Eden!”
And he added, “Here on these paths, I would walk about in prayer to God. What good does my fame do me now?”
Rabbi Nachman also once related, “When I was young and engaged in prayer to God in a forest or field, I would see a new world when I would return. The previous world had entirely disappeared, and its place was taken by a completely different world.”
Here, in the fields and forests, Rabbi Nachman heard the song of every blade of grass and every bird. Everything spoke to him—blooming, growing and climbing to the heights—about the mercy of God, about His bounty and generosity: whether the sun in the distant heights or the smallest insects on the ground. They all spoke to him of the splendor that embraces worlds, and of the divine rose, God’s immanent Presence.
Amidst the trees and grasses, amidst the mountains and valleys, Rabbi Nachman felt as though he were with his closest brothers and friends. With them, he prayed; with them, he gave praise and thanksgiving to God. He once said about these friends of his, “It is good to be pious in their midst.”
Not only did he hear the song of the trees and grasses, but he also absorbed their thought. He later taught: “From all created things, from all the trees in the forests and the grasses in the field, we can gain insights and find pathways to serve God.”
And: “All grasses send roots out to the tzaddik. All grasses long for the tzaddik, yearn for him, want to be included in his prayer—every height and grass longs for him.”
And: “In winter, the ground is pregnant. It carries within itself a great secret. In summer, the secret is revealed.”
When Rabbi Nachman had lived with his parents in Mezhibozh, he had often had to content himself with praying in his own words under the roof of his father’s house, in the corner where hay and straw were stored. But here in the villages around Medvedevka, there were fields and forests where he could commune to his soul’s content with nature and its eternal Creator. He could speak with every flower as a friend; he could hear God’s voice not only from books but also from the Great Book of God: the sun and stars, the earth and all that it gives forth.
During Rabbi Nachman’s childhood in Mezhibozh, he applied all his energies to the heights. Yet he thought that his superhuman service, prayers and pleadings were not succeeding, that he was neither heard not seen—that, to the contrary, he was only being distanced and pushed away. But here, in the free, clean world [of nature], he felt that he was close to God and that God was close to him—that his every request could be easily fulfilled.
In later years, Rabbi Nachman told his student, Rabbi Nosson, that at that time he asked God to strengthen his faith by sending him a few signs to show that God heard his prayers.
The forests in which Rabbi Nachman used to wander, immersed in thought and cleaving to God, encompassed a river. Rabbi Nachman would often go to the river, take a boat and float upon the quiet, sun-drenched water for hours at a time. In the holy silence, he would hear only “the voice of God upon the waters.” He would use the river as a mikveh, and he also wanted to catch fish from that river for Shabbos. The concept of eating fish on Shabbos is a mystical one: the fish refers to the tzaddik; it refers to the Messiah; fish contain reincarnations of souls seeking rectification.
Rabbi Nachman wanted to obtain these fish straight from the river. But could he suddenly become a fisherman? Where would he find nets and other equipment? He asked God that the fish should swim out of the deep river toward the bank and directly into his hand. And so they did.
He asked to be shown a person who was already long dead. And he should see him not in a vision, but with his everyday, human eyes. This request was also fulfilled. When the dead person appeared to Rabbi Nachman, one of his students tells, he fell faint. The reason was that this dead person had been evil in his lifetime.
“Later,” this student adds, “thousands upon thousands of souls of the dead would come to the rebbe seeking a rectification (for, as is known, he was the true master of the field), and he didn’t have the slightest fear of them.”
In Mezhibozh, Rabbi Nachman had worked on himself to perfect himself. In Medvedevka, he felt so secure that he began to rectify others, to guide young people and to save them from the vanity of desires.
He began to do so on the day of his wedding. Himself a boy of thirteen years, outwardly playful and, as his student often comments, seemingly frivolous, he spoke easily with other boys his age. He presented himself as a boy who wants to enjoy this world and enjoy the pleasures of the day. They confided to him all the “sins of their youth,” so that he learned their flaws and misbehavior. But when he approached the previously-mentioned Shimon, son of Dov, with his this-worldly persona, Shimon said, “I don’t want to know of these things. I want to go on the path of simplicity.”
Rabbi Nachman replied, “I see that we shall be very good friends.”
Shimon grew up to become the Rabbi Shimon who, in all his thoughts, words and actions, was connected to Rabbi Nachman; who lived only in him and who breathed for him; who was at every moment ready to give away his life for the least wish of the rebbe; who accompanied and served Rabbi Nachman on his journey to the land of Israel and who lived with him during all those journeys (Rabbi Nachman traveled to the land of Israel in the midst of the French wars in the East). Until his last breath, Rabbi Shimon didn’t want to leave his rebbe; and he too died in the midst of an important mission for Rabbi Nachman.
Chapter Three: Rabbi Nachman Begins to Be A Rebbe
As time passed, the outward signs of immaturity in Nachman quieted down and the emergence of the genius and tzaddik became apparent. He began to attract other young people who found in this young man who illuminated the nights with his recital of psalms, with his tuneful prayers and weeping pleas, a rebbe, advisor and guide.
In the first years after his marriage, when he was being supported by his parents-in-law, Rabbi Nachman had no desire to wrap himself in the garment of a rebbe—he took no cognizance of the fact that he came from a family of rebbes and wonder-workers, nor that he himself was somewhat of a wonder-worker (at this time, people were beginning to recognize his elevated character).
When Rabbi Nachman ceased to be supported by his parents-in-law and was left with a dowry of three hundred rendel coins, he did no more than pray and learn. When the three hundred rendels were spent, Rabbi Nachman and his family went hungry. Once, when he was suffering badly from hunger, he went to pray in the field, as was his custom. Roaming through the fields, he saw some stalks of grain in a kerchief. He took these and brought them home, filled with joy, praise and thanks to God, Who had delivered him his sustenance when he needed it. But what would he do next? Miracles do not constantly occur. One must keep one’s soul in one’s body, and one’s wife and children are asking for food. And so, lacking any choice, he began to consider becoming a rebbe.
At first, he had strongly opposed such a possibility. He hated the fame that comes with being a rebbe. He hated it so intensely that at one time he had considered leaving everything behind and traveling throughout the world, from house to house, unknown and unnoticed by anyone. Once, he declared: “I would have wanted to go from house to house and laugh at the entire world.”
But this was too hard for someone from such a family, with such a great spirit, for someone who was so physically weak and delicately raised as was Rabbi Nachman. Therefore, he felt in all his being that he had a great mission to fulfill: that he had a message and a teaching; that he carried within himself a great blessing for those near, far, and very distant—not only for his own generation but for generations to come. And even though the fame of being a rebbe brings with it great spiritual dangers, there are times when one needs to undertake such a task.
Therefore, Rabbi Nachman agreed to the request of the village Jews in the area of Medvedevka that he should relocate there with a weekly stipend of a rendel.
The near-by village Jews in the region of Medvedevka were imitated by the more distant village Jews, who were in turn imitated by the inhabitants of Medvedevka and other shtetls. In this way, people began to travel to him from a twenty-mile radius.
From various later statements that Rabbi Nachman made, one can see that he had a great deal to do in order to oppose the small-mindedness and slipshod nature of some of his Hasidim. In connection with this, he thought very highly of the previously-mentioned Rabbi Shimon. He liked Rabbi Shimon to such a degree that he considered him a partner in his work, a helper, a fellow-warrior and fellow-builder.
Once, he said: “Do not learn from what you see of me. Although you may see me as gloomy, you yourselves must always be happy. Can you compare yourself to me in everything? Inwardly I am happy. But I must blaze a trail through a wasteland and wilderness, hacking away all the undergrowth until a road is prepared for the masses. This work concerns me almost constantly.” And he added that Rabbi Shimon had a part in this work.
And Rabbi Nachman once told another two Hasidim—Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Shmuel Eizik of Dashev—who wanted to move to Medvedevka in order to be close to him, “I yearn for the roads upon which you have traveled to me. From every step of your journey, an angel was created.”
However, despite his local eminence, the name of Rabbi Nachman did not reach further than the shtetls of Podolia. But one event carried Rabbi Nachman’s name past the borders of Podolia. It was like this:
Rabbi Nachman’s parents used to accord him a great deal of respect, even though many of his ways were strange to them. A young man who is a Torah scholar, a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov, wanders through the villages and gets lost for days. They search for him, not knowing were he has gotten to. And finally he is found in a cave, reciting psalms with sobs and wails that would make a heart of stone burst. What does he need all of this for? Can’t he sit and learn Talmud in his room, as do all fine husbands while they are being supported by their parents-in-law?
Rabbi Nachman’s father-in-law was a wealthy man of the country-side, with his own horses. Rabbi Nachman used to harness a few horses and travel into the fields. They thought that their young son-in-law wants to ride a little. But Rabbi Nachman used to travel into the forest and tie the horses to a tree, and then walk deep into the woods to meditate and pray to God in his own words. It would sometimes happen that when he went deep into the forest, he would entirely forget the horses. They would tear themselves free and return home without him. When Rabbi Nachman’s wife and her parents would see the horses, they would grow terribly frightened: who knows what might have happened to Nachman? They would go search for him, and after a few hours they would find him, soaked through by the rain or half-frozen.
At times Rabbi Nachman, submerged in other-worldly thoughts, prayers and songs, would, in his wanderings through the fields and forests, come to a river. Seeing a boat, he would sit in it and let it take him wherever his eye would see.
All this used to worry Rabbi Nachman’s parents-in-law. But their love and respect for him, as well as their loyalty to their daughter, ultimately won out.
Rabbi Nachman’s mother-in-law died, and Rabbi Ephraim, his father-in-law, took a second wife. During the wedding, Rabbi Nachman, the young rebbe, inspired talk about himself.
Rabbi Ephraim’s second wife came from a very important family. Rabbi Nachman himself arranged for the marriage between her and his father-in-law. The wedding took place in Mohilev, and was attended by rebbes and Torah giants from all over Poland, Rabbi Nachman among them. At the wedding, Rabbi Nachman spoke words of Torah. The Torah giants and tzaddikim were very impressed, and a number of them said that they had never heard such teachings in their lives. And this event carried Rabbi Nachman’s name far across the borders of Podolia. And in this way, the young rebbe became well-known.
Chapter Four: Pre-Land of Israel Teachings and Ideas
Rabbi Nachman’s life, impact and creativity must be divided into two areas: before his journey to the land of Israel and after his journey to the land of Israel. The developments of his youthful years as he gained physical and spiritual maturity and the development of a redemption-seeking man of the forest, a leader of Hasidim, and a famous leader in Poland and Reisen did not radically transform the entire inner life of Rabbi Nachman. That was accomplished by his journey to the land of Israel and everything connected to that journey.
Therefore, before we proceed to write of what his students have called with the exalted title, “the journeys of the sea,” a journey that transformed Rabbi Nachman into a herald of the messiah, we must consider Rabbi Nachman’s thought processes before he decided to make this lengthy and in many ways terrible trip. We will then see that the seeds of the mighty and many-branched spiritual tree that we see in Likutei Moharan and Rabbi Nachman’s stories already existed in the pre-land of Israel Rabbi Nachman. We will then see every soul-experience that drove Rabbi Nachman to his mission: why he had to leave everything and everyone, travel to distant regions and seek his concealed core in a complete vacuum; and most of all, what the land of Israel actually constituted for this greatest dreamer of redemption amongst the first Hasidic rebbes.
Rabbi Nachman’s two major works, Likutei Moharan and his Sipurei Maasiyos, give no description of his pre-land of Israel teachings and ideas. All the teachings in Likutei Moharan—besides two or three—were taught after he returned from the land of Israel. And his stories were told in the last years of his earthly life. However, there does exist one work of Rabbi Nachman that gives us an idea of the young, not entirely crystallized, super-earthly dreamer and seeker. This is Rabbi Nachman’s Sefer Hamidos. Rabbi Nachman gave this book to his students in the later years of his life. However, the greater part of the book was written in his youth, before he journeyed to the land of Israel.
Sefer Hamidos is known as well as the Alphabet Book, for it is written in the form of aphorisms arranged alphabetically by topic.
Actually, this work consists of two alphabetical lists. The first list consists for the most part of notes that Rabbi Nachman took when in his youth he learned Tanach, Talmud and halachah, midrash, musar, kabbalah, and so forth. He used to derive from a Talmud discussion, or from a large, extensive aggadah, or from a long ethical discourse, or from a deep, strongly-developed topic of kabbalah a short, striking and sharp formula, which would serve him as a road guide. When, after some time, Rabbi Nachman had collected a great number of such epigrams, he arranged them in alphabetical order. And this was the basis of the first alphabetical list in Sefer Hamidos.
The second alphabetical list, which is printed in smaller letters (in order to differentiate it from the first list) was based by Rabbi Nachman not on Tanach, Talmud, Midrash, and so forth, but on concepts that were (in the words of his student, Rabbi Nosson), “higher than human intellect and hidden from every eye.” They only allude to some verse or statement of the Sages.
From this second alphabetical list, we can therefore deduce nothing about Rabbi Nachman’s youthful teachings and ideas. But from the first list, we can draw forth a great deal that will enable us to correctly identify Rabbi Nachman’s spiritual countenance in his youthful years.
Let us learn what he has to say, for example, about truth:
“If you wish to cling to God in such a way that you will be able to travel in your thoughts from palace to palace, seeing the palaces in your mind’s eye, you must guard against letting a false word out of your mouth even by mistake” (“Truth”).
“From the breath of the liar comes the evil inclination. When the messiah arrives, there will be no falsehood; and as a result, there will be no evil inclination” (ibid.).
“One can tell if a person loves falsehood from his servants. Sometimes, his servants sin because he is a liar. And sometimes if the servants are dishonest, he comes to falsehood” (ibid.).
“It is better to die than to live and be considered a liar” (ibid.).
“Falsehood comes as a result of fearing people” (ibid.).
“A person who has no trust in God speaks lies. And by speaking lies, he cannot truly trust God” (ibid.).
Or take, for example, love:
“When there is no love amongst people, they come to speak slander. Through slander, they come to mockery, and through mockery to falsehood” (“Love”).
“Whoever prays for the Jewish people with complete devotion is loved by all” (ibid.).
“When you encourage someone to serve God, he will love you” (ibid.).
And here are examples of thoughts on other traits:
“It is better not to learn Torah than to shame a Jew” (“Shame”).
“If you are shamed, it is so that you will repent even for those small sins that you trample with your heel” (ibid.).
“When you hear someone tell a lie, do not jump up to shame him, but make him understand with a hint that he is incorrect” (ibid.).
“The messiah will only come after there is no more pride” (“Pride”).
“When a person is proud, his heart and eyes are closed so tightly that they can no longer see the wonders of God that bring one to awe” (ibid.).
In the following statement regarding the pride of some rabbis, we see a sharpness and extremism characteristic of Rabbi Nachman:
“One may shame rabbis who join the rabbinate to feed their pride. It is right to embarrass them and treat them lightly. One should not stand before them, nor call them ‘rebbe.’ The tallis that such a rabbi wears is like the saddle on a donkey” (“Shame”).
And more about pride:
“A person is given frightening dreams in order to expel deeply-entrenched pride that he himself does not recognize” (“Pride”).
“When you commit a sin unintentionally, it is a sign that you are proud. With this sin, you are shown that you are not yet righteous” (ibid.).
“A poor, humble person—even one who does not give charity—is superior to a proud rich man—even if he does give charity” (“Pride”).
And this is what Rabbi Nachman says about thievery and robbery:
“When a person allows himself to rob someone else, he is already liable to commit every crime” (“Thievery”).
“If a city has thieves, that indicates that its rabbi takes bribes” (ibid.).
And about other traits:
“Through sycophancy, a person comes to profanity, and vice versa” (“Sycophancy”).
“A person who relies on people comes to sycophancy” (ibid.).
“A miracle occurs for a person who sacrifices all for the sanctification of God’s name” (“Redemption”).
“Through trust, you will come to understand that you can be helped only by God and not by people” (ibid.).
“When there is a desire to push a person away from serving God, he is given honor and with that, he is chased away from it” (“Honor”).
“When a person who guards himself from anger, his enemies cannot rule over him” (“Anger”).
“Anger comes when a person does not engage in proper meditation” (ibid.). That means: If a person does not go into seclusion at set times of the day to make a proper spiritual accounting with himself, his mind is not settled and clear, and then every little thing angers him.
“When you want to make bring something to life with your word, do not rely on verses that speak of bad things, but on verses that speak of redemption” (“Learning”).
“In every verse, you may find condemnation of people who follow after the desires of their hearts.”
“It is easier to understand a topic, whatever it may be, when one is on a mountain or another high place” (ibid.).
“A person who hates falsehood and sees it as worthless will have a desire to learn” (ibid.).
“A person who leaves the Torah becomes a partner of Satan” (ibid.).
“When a person speaks slander, the Holy One, blessed be He, says to the prince of hell: Let us both deal with him, I from above, and you from below” (“Slander”).
“When a person persecutes another, God causes the persecutor misfortune, in order to forget his victim” (“Dispute”).
“When a person rules over his own speech, no one can overcome him” (ibid.).
“When a person has many enemies, the hatred cannot be justified, for it is impossible, that so many enemies should be justified” (ibid.).
“All argumentative people contain a spark of Dathan and Abiram” (ibid.).
“A poor man is as confused as a drunkard” (“Money”).
“A person who acts in a rush and without calm thought goes into debt” (ibid.).
“When one person takes an income away from another, it is exactly as though he kills him” (ibid.).
“In his old age, a person sometimes falls from his level” (“Descents”).
“When a person’s awe of heaven decreases, it is a sign his awe was not pure from the very beginning” (ibid.).
“If a person speaks coarsely, it is a sign that his heart engages in vile thoughts” (“Coarse Speech”).
“Depression is a presentiment of an oncoming illness” (“Depression”).
“When a person is depressed, God is not with him” (ibid.).
“Depression comes as a result of anger” (ibid.).
“If a person is not depressed but is always joyful, that is a sign he will be uplifted” (ibid.).
“When a person is drawn too much after his sorrow, his sorrow is drawn after him” (ibid.).
“If a person is in jail, that is a sign that his heavenly soul is also in prison” (“Ransoming Prisoners”).
“When you perform a mitzvah, you must see to it that you do not do so without paying, but you should pay well for it (“Charity”; incidentally, the source given there [by the editor] for this statement is unlikely, for this is a clear paraphrase from the Zohar, Terumah).
“When jealousy will cease, the exiles will be gathered” (“Jealousy”).
“When a person performs a mitzvah joyously, it is a sign that his heart is complete with God” (“Joy”).
“Through joy, the heart is opened and the vigor of the mind is strengthened” (ibid.).
“When a person gives charity with his entire heart, he comes to joy” (ibid.).
“The joy of performing a mitzvah strengthens a person” (ibid.).
“When you see an evil person suddenly begin to laugh, you may be sure that he just had an idea on how to commit a sin.”
“When a person is joyful, the ability of his mind increases” (ibid.).
“When on occasion a person experiences great joy, it is a sign that compassion and redemption will come to him” (ibid.).
“Jerusalem will be built only through peace” (ibid.).
“If there is no peace, prayers cannot be accepted.”
“When the angels dispute, disputes between nations and between wise men are created” (ibid.).
“A person who is himself naked and bare of good deeds, cannot remove others from their evil” (“Repentance”).
“When you have a choice of two mitzvos to perform and you cannot do both together, take the mitzvah, in which there is more duress for the evil inclination” (ibid.).
“When a person repents with his entire heart, God gives him a heart to recognize Him” (ibid.).
“The need to earn a living, enemies, illness and luxurious wealth keep a person from attaining perfection and the ultimate.”
“A person must rebuke himself every morning” (ibid.).
“One day of a person’s striving to serve the Creator while he is still young is worth more than his work when he is old by a difference of entire years” (ibid.).
“Only when a person does not demand publicity can one correctly know about someone’s complete religious sincerity” (ibid.).
“When a person cannot nullify his evil inclination by drawing it into the study hall, he must know that he remains as wicked as before” (ibid.).
“When a person begins his service, God tells him: I know that you want to serve Me—but where do I have the assurance that you will not leave Me tomorrow? Why should I bring you close only because of your desire today? How will I reveal hidden things to you? But do the following: First of all, love Me and keep My mitzvos, even though you do not know the meaning of every mitzvah. Serve simply, without cleverness for a few times. Then I will believe you and will reveal to you the reason and wisdom for everything, and I will draw you close in with all possible ways. This is because the long period of time that you served Me is My assurance that you will not leave Me” (ibid.).
In what I have quoted here—as in many other similar items in the first list from Sefer Hamidos, one can see the contours of the totality that will only later, in the teachings, tales and conversations following Rabbi Nachman’s journey to the land of Israel, appear in its full beauty and glory.
We see the future Rabbi Nachman even more sharply and clearly outlined do in Sefer Hamidos’ chapters on “Faith,” “Prayer” and “Tzaddik,” in his occult-philosophical comments on “Groans”, which was written when he was still very young, and from occasional pre-land of Israel talks of his with Hasidim—as we shall immediately see in the following chapter.
Chapter Five: More About Rabbi Nachman’s Pre-Land of Israel Teachings and Ideas
Rabbi Nachman addressed many serious and important topics in his Sefer Hamidos. To most of these he devoted thirty or forty statements, and to some, a little over a hundred. But in his chapter on the tzaddik—the holy Jewish leader—he wrote 209 statements. We see here clearly the future Rabbi Nachman, who exalts the tzaddik over everything else in the world, who holds that no human actions can be correct nor any soul rectified without the true tzaddik.
I would like to here quote a few examples from that chapter that are remarkably radical and sharp, and which sound paradoxical to a Jew who is not a Hasid of Rabbi Nachman.
“With his word, the tzaddik can decree that one person will enter Gan Eden and another Gehennom.”
“It is good to spend a great deal of time in order to come close to the tzaddik for even one hour.”
“The words of wise tzaddikim are more beloved than the words of Torah and words of the prophets. One must hear and obey them, even though the tzaddikim show you no miracle.”
“There are students who are in essence dependent on the merit of the tzaddik. When the tzaddik passes away, they too either pass away or receive punishment.”
“At times, a person dies prematurely because the tzaddik complained against him.”
“Even through a simple word of the tzaddik, a great light is opened easily so that people can attain exalted levels of wisdom.”
“The tzaddik is his generation’s image of God.”
“The tzaddik supports those who support him, in their time of distress.”
“At times, it is decreed above that a certain number of people should die, and one of them is beloved by the tzaddik. The tzaddik has the power to pray for that person and save him, and put another in his place.”
“The tzaddik has the power to take from one person and give to another.”
“In his teachings, the tzaddik teaches God how to treat us.”
“When a person praises the tzaddik, it is as though he is praising God.”
“A town that obeys the tzaddik will not suffer war, commotion or bad news.”
“The coming of the Messiah depends on people’s closeness to tzaddikim.”
“When the tzaddik passes away, all of the people of the world remain as though impure in the eyes of God and even everyone’s piety is despised in God’s eyes.”
“When a person brings a present to the tzaddik, God repays him.”
“As a result of prostrating himself and praying fervently at the graves of tzaddikim, a person gains favor from God, even if he does not deserve it.”
“When a person tells stories of tzaddikim, God treats him with compassion.”
“When a person treats the tzaddik to his goods, it is exactly as though he treats all Jews, and in this way he is saved from death.”
“When a person tells stories of tzaddikim, all of his good deeds are remembered.”
“Wherever the tzaddik steps, he acquires that place.”
“It is difficult for a person to achieve any kind of redemption if there is a tzaddik in his town to whom he does not go with the request that he pray on his behalf.”
“It sometimes happens that a person is closely bound to the tzaddik yet he feels no fear of heaven. He should know that if he were not close to the tzaddik he would not even deserve to live in the world.”
“By financially supporting the tzaddik, all of a person’s sins are forgiven, just as ‘the cohanim eat [the sacrifices] and the [animals’] owners gain atonement.’”
It is certain that among these—as well as other radical teachings in Sefer Hamidos regarding the tzaddik—are statements that belong to the later, post-land of Israel teachings of Rabbi Nachman. However, a great part of these were taught by the early Rabbi Nachman.
This shows us that when Rabbi Nachman was still living in his small shtetl of Medvedevka, surrounded by the Hasidim of the first generation, wandering in the fields, honing his inner ear to hear voices from heaven and developing his inner sight to see things that others do not see, he looked upon himself as a person who is the center of a Jewish life of holiness, as a person who bears responsibility for all Israel and whose word all Jews must therefore heed.
One pre-land of Israel teaching (Likutei Moharan 96)—on the verse, “the wicked man schemes against the righteous man”—paints a portrait of the tzaddik’s inner struggle as he must lift up the “strange thoughts” he encounters around him to his level of that particular moment. At times, the tzaddik receives a “strange thought” that fell from a level so high that he is not yet sufficiently developed to rectify and lift it. From where does that strange thought come to him? This “strange thought” was created by antagonism to another tzaddik. What can the tzaddik accomplish, since he lacks the power to raise that thought? Although he cannot elevate it, he can, however, nullify the dispute against the other tzaddik with his powerful will and desire to rectify and elevate it.
In the statements that Rabbi Nachman wrote in his youth under the heading, “Groans,” he also occupies himself with the problem of the tzaddik and the great spiritual powers that strive to break him if he will not break them. The tzaddik must engage in that battle with wisdom and care, in order not to arouse evil forces against him before he possesses the full power to overcome them and sweep them away. This list of teachings is very developed and deep, and can be understood only after one has studied various concepts in the writings of the Ari and the later teachings of Rabbi Nachman.
We also see the future Rabbi Nachman sharply, as mentioned previously, in the topics “Faith” and “Prayer” in Sefer Hamidos.
“One must”—says Rabbi Nachman in “Faith”—”come to God via the path of belief and not through the path of knowledge.”
“Through humility you will come to faith.”
“Through faith, a person is beloved by God like a wife by her husband.”
“A person who does not prepare his heart cannot come to faith.”
“When there occurs to you whatever kind of question about God, remain still, and through that silence your own thoughts will answer you an answer to your question.”
“When you are insulted and you remain still, you will merit to achieve an answer about your question and you will in that way come to a spirit of understanding.”
“A person’s sins bring heresy into his heart.”
““When a person falls from faith, he must weep.”
And in “Prayer”:
“A person must desire and strive for universal good, even if he will personally suffer a loss because of it.”
“When a person pleads for himself, he should not ask for too much; but when a person asks for Torah and piety, he should ask a great deal.”
“Do not pray in a house that was built by a contentious person.”
“For all things in the world, whether large or small, pray.”
“When a person longs for God at night, it is easy for him to pray in the morning.”
“With Tikun Chatzos, a person reminds God of all the favors that He had promised the Jews.”
“When a person who makes mention of the merits of Jews, he awakens a redemption, which comes about through him.”
“A person who does not pray regarding Jewish sorrows is called a sinner.”
“God Himself asks a person to pray to Him.”
“Through joy, your prayer will enter immediately into the king’s palace.”
“When a person prays with strength, God hears his prayer.”
“If a person lacks faith in himself, his prayer is not heard.”
“Before praying, a person must spiritually bind himself with God, and afterwards the words of prayer will come out of his mouth of themselves.”
Chapter Six: The Preparations for the Land of Israel
One day, toward the end of the winter of 558 , Rabbi Nachman announced, “I have a journey to go on.” [Rabbi Nachman was then sixteen years old.]
“I myself do not know.”
“How long will it take?”
“Perhaps a week, perhaps two; perhaps a month, perhaps a quarter year, half a year, or an entire year.”
When Rabbi Shimon, the loyal friend, student and servant of Rabbi Nachman heard this, he laughed. He thought that this was a joke of his rebbe. But when he saw that Rabbi Nachman was serious, he prepared a horse and wagon and supplies, and they set out on their journey.
Rabbi Nachman ordered that they travel through the small village of Vochovitz. There, they took along another traveler.
Then Rabbi Nachman ordered that they travel to Mezhibozh. In Mezhibozh, they first visited Rabbi Nachman’s parents. His father, the scholar and Hasid, Rabbi Simchah, and his mother, Feiga the prophetess, rejoiced greatly, for they had not seen their son for a great while. After their initial joy and greetings, Rabbi Nachman’s mother said to him, “My son, when will you go to your great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov?”
“If Grandfather wants to see me,” Rabbi Nachman replied, “let him come to me.”
Night fell, and everyone lay down to sleep. In the morning, Rabbi Nachman’s mother stood at her son’s bedside and told him, “Grandfather was with you. When will you go to his gravesite?”
Rabbi Nachman answered, “Not now, but when I return I will.”
Before they had come to Mezhibozh, Rabbi Shimon had grown very ill. Rabbi Nachman now went to him to learn how he was. Rabbi Nachman told him, “I must leave.”
“No, rebbe,” replied Rabbi Shimon, “I will not let you go unless you promise me by your holy word that when you return you will find me healthy.”
Rabbi Nachman promised that it would be so.
Rabbi Shimon asked him, “When you left home, you said that your journey may take a week or two, a month, a quarter year, half a year or even an entire year. When will we see each other again?”
“When I left home,” Rabbi Nachman replied, “I did not know where I was going and how long my journey would take. Today, I know clearly that I am traveling to Kamenetz (Kamenetz-Podolsk), and I will not stay there long. The Baal Shem Tov appeared to me and told me to go to Kamenetz.”
When Rabbi Nachman traveled to Kamenetz, he did so not as a rebbe with his aide but as a merchant with his servant. according to the recollection of Rabbi Nachman’s followers, at that time Jews were not allowed to live in Kamenetz—not even to spend the night. They would engage in business during the day and spend the night in houses outside town.
Rabbi Nachman came to Kamenetz with his “servant.” When night fell, Rabbi Nachman told his servant to leave, and he remained there alone for the night. The next day, the servant returned and met Rabbi Nachman. The two of them visited many homes under one pretext or another. What Rabbi Nachman did then, and what he was doing in Kamenetz altogether, no one knows.
People have debated the purpose of that trip. Some say that he traveled there to find teachings that the Baal Shem Tov had secreted in a rock. Others have made other conjectures.
Rabbi Nachman laughed at these speculations. Regarding the idea about the Baal Shem Tov’s writings, he said that he did not need them—and if he did, they would have come to him at home.
One thing is clear: Rabbi Nachman’s journey to Kamenetz is directly linked with his later journey to the land of Israel. Rabbi Nachman himself alluded to this in a pithy statement: “Whoever knows why the land of Israel was in the hands of Canaan before the Jews conquered it also knows why I was first in Kamenetz, and only afterwards in the land of Israel.”
Why particularly Kamenetz? How did he spend the night there, when no Jew was allowed to do so? What was the connection between the journey to Kamenetz and the journey to the land of Israel?
The best conjecture is that Rabbi Nachman, whose entire life was devoted to helping bring people back to God, intended to bring about the repentance of Frankists who lived as Christians in Kamenetz-Podolsk (which was the center of the Frankist movement).
This corresponds with the statement that the Baal Shem Tov made when the Frankists first converted to Catholicism: “As long as the diseased limb is attached to the body, there is hope; but when it is cut off, every hope is lost.”
The conversion of many Frankists was not whole-hearted. They were like the Donmehs in Turkey (secret followers of Shabbatai Tzvi) who lead a double life. Just as the Donmehs were ostensibly Moslems but believed in their own dogmas and kept many Jewish commandments and customs, so these Frankists, although outwardly Christian, remained loyal to Sabbatian-Frankist teachings and perhaps also kept a few Jewish customs and rules.
As mentioned in a previous chapter, Rabbi Nachman never ran from a test but would put himself into dangerous situations, certain that he would never, under any circumstances, not even under pain of the worst torments, act against the will of God; he strove for the redemption of the entire world through the redemption of Israel; he strove to be not only a redeemer of the living but also a redeemer of the dead, of those souls who wander in the worlds of chaos without rectification; he struggled to come to the land of Israel in the hope that there he might attain that most illuminated realization that must bring with it the coming of the messiah.
Before setting out to spiritually conquer the land of Israel, he found it necessary to subjugate the most persistent husk of evil and the deepest impurity: Frankism. Since Kamenetz-Podolsk was the stronghold of that impurity, he attempted to conquer it by inducing the most important of the Frankists to repent. Before one can build the land of Israel, one must conquer Canaan.
An indication of this approach can be seen in Rabbi Nachman’s manner in the last years of his earthly life when, living in Uman, he constantly met with the leaders of the new secularists. Rather than flee these people, rather than push them away with both hands, as did the other rebbes—who did not allow themselves to enter into long arguments with them, for, one may not engage in argument with a “Jewish heretic” since “he will become an even greater heretic as a result”—Rabbi Nachman engaged in long talks with these people, believing that he would ultimately arouse their faith, shame before the King of the universe, repentance and remorse.
Rabbi Nachman said, “When very wicked people come to the true tzaddik, when they subjugate themselves somewhat and pay him respect, that alone brings about a great rectification. Because they are so evil, even the slightest subjugation brings about a very great rectification. Several times a day, Jews recite the verse, ‘Hashem is greater than all gods.’ There is not such a great commotion in heaven as a result of this. But when Jethro announced, ‘Now I know that the Lord is great,’ the Zohar tells us that God’s name was exalted above and below. It is precisely when someone comes from such a distance, from the depths of the husks of evil, and subjugates himself before holiness, that God’s name is uplifted and made great.”
And on another occasion, Rabbi Nachman said of these secularists, “When one of them bows his head, the heavens bow as well.”
Chapter Seven: Leaving Home and Coming to Istanbul
On the eve of Passover, 558 , Rabbi Nachman emerged from the mikveh and told his companion: “This year, I am sure to be in the Holy Land.”
On Passover, he gave a teaching based on the verse, “Your path on the many waters and Your footsteps were not known” (Psalms 77:20), the purport of which was that Rabbi Nachman intended to travel as quickly as he could to the land of Israel.
When Rabbi Nachman’s wife heard of this, she sent their daughter to ask him, “With whom will you leave us? Who will support us?”
He replied, “You will travel to your fiancé’s parents. Your older sister will work as a nursemaid. Your younger sister will be taken in by someone out of pity, and your mother will serve in someone’s house as a cook. And I will sell everything in the house to pay the expenses.”
[Translator’s note: at this time, Rabbi Nachman’s oldest daughter, Adel, was eleven years old; Sarah, to whom he was here speaking was nine; and Miriam was eight. Rabbi Nachman himself was then twenty-six. See Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom, p. 36.]
When Rabbi Nachman’s family heard this, they broke into sobs. But Rabbi Nachman answered all their wailing and crying as follows: “It can be no other way. More than half of me is already there, and the smaller part must follow.”
He also said: “I know that I will have obstacles and hindrances without measure. But as long as I am alive, as long as I breathe, I will do everything I can to travel to the land of Israel. And may God do whatever He wishes.”
He also said: “I will experience self-sacrifice for each step to the land of Israel.”
And afterwards, he said: “I want to go at once, even without money. If anyone wants to have pity on me, he can give me something for expenses.”
Rabbi Nachman’s Hasidim immediately went to the surrounding shtetls and raised some money so that he should at least have enough with which to set out. Rabbi Nachman was in a great rush, and they saw that he could no longer be kept back.
On the eighteenth of Iyar, 5558 (1798), Rabbi Nachman traveled from Medvedevka to Nikolayev accompanied by one of his Hasidim, who had agreed to make the long and dangerous journey with him.
In Nikolayev, they found a ship taking wheat to Odessa. From there, they took a ship to Istanbul. Emissaries of the Jewish communities in the land of Israel collecting funds, as well as other travelers from Poland and Russia to the land of Israel, were afraid to travel through Odessa, because they claimed that the sea there was stormy. Instead, they would go through Galatz, even though it was further and that journey had its own dangers. But Rabbi Nachman paid no attention to this talk and went from Nikolayev to Istanbul through Odessa.
When Rabbi Nachman left Odessa, people came to the dock to take leave of him, some on horseback and some by foot, with a handsome procession.
Before settling in the ship, Rabbi Nachman told his fellow-traveler to buy ink and paper. As soon as they boarded, Rabbi Nachman began to write Torah teachings. He made his fellow-traveler promise not to look at his writings, and even demanded that he give his word. Only after the other man gave his full assurance did Rabbi Nachman allow him possession of the key to his writing chest.
On the first day of their journey to Istanbul, the sea grew stormy, and the waves swept up into the ship. During the entire journey, there were lightning, thunder and storm waves, which frightened everyone on board.
In the midst of this storm, Breslov tradition tells, Rabbi Nachman saw a man who had recently died. Rabbi Nachman said to his companion, “Did you see? The man from Volchovitz came here for a rectification.”
When they arrived in Istanbul after a difficult, four-day journey, they remained at port. They didn’t know a word of Turkish, and could not contact any Jews because they were unable to distinguish between the clothing of Jews and non-Jews. Finally, they found a Jew who understood them, who led them to lodgings in the Galata quarter.
When they entered the quarter, Rabbi Nachman said that it didn’t please him. The Turkish Jew said, “Perhaps you would like to stay in the heart of Istanbul, where the sultan himself lives. Only males are allowed to live there.”
“Yes,” Rabbi Nachman replied, “that is what I would like.”
And so they went to the center of Istanbul to seek lodging. On the way, the Turkish Jew mentioned that there were two Jews traveling on a charitable mission returning from the land of Israel to their Russian-Polish homes.
“Take me where they are staying,” Rabbi Nachman commanded. And he told his companion, “I warn you: no matter how much you are begged you, do not tell anyone, under any circumstances whatsoever, who I am.”
When Rabbi Nachman and his companion came to the new lodging, one of the two Jews there recognized the companion.
He asked him, “What are you doing here?”
“I am going with this man to the land of Israel.”
“Who is he?”
“He has a travel card from the Austrian military.”
“Does he have letters with him?”
“No, he has no letters with him.”
“Why is he traveling to the land of Israel?”
“I don’t know.”
The two men told Rabbi Nachman’s companion, “We’ve known you as an honest man. But now you seem to be misleading us. We don’t know if you are as honest as you used to be.”
Later, they asked, “Did you ask your rebbe, Rabbi Nachman of Medvedevka, if you should travel with this man?”
The returning travelers persisted in asking Rabbi Nachman’s companion questions: not out of curiosity but because they suspected that this man who looks like a rebbe is on his way to the land of Israel in order to foment controversy.
Where did such a suspicion come from? That is a story within a story.
Chapter Eight: Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, the Rabbi of Ladi, and Rabbi Nachman’s Conduct
Rabbi Nachman’s journey to the land of Israel took place in an era when rebbes were traveling to the Holy Land. The first such journey had been taken by Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk, a student and companion of the Maggid of Mezeritch, and a founder of the approach that later developed into Chabad (Lubavitch) Hasidism.
In regard to Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk, all the other students of the Maggid—even the oldest and greatest—viewed him not as their equal but as an outstanding man, second only to the Maggid. Rabbi Mendel was outstanding even in comparison with the original, great rebbes—not only for his brilliance and piety, but also (and most of all) for his extraordinary depth in Hasidic thought, for his deep philosophical comprehension of the foundations of Kabbalah.
One of Rabbi Mendel’s companions and students was the genius, tzaddik and remarkable thinker, the founder of Chabad Hasidism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. He was a companion, for they had both been students of the Maggid of Mezeritch (and after the maggid passed away, they had both for a while been students of his son, Rabbi Avraham the Angel); and he was a student as well after that, traveling to him for a long period.
Rabbi Mendele’s approach in Hasidism was carried on by his foremost students, who in a sense were also his companions: Rabbi Boruch of Kosov, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk and the afore-mentioned Rabbi Schneur Zalman.
Rabbi Boruch of Kosov gave a rationalist cast to the Kabbalah, so to speak. He explained Hasidism in a way that could be intellectually accepted, speaking of upper worlds, divine names and sefiros as aspects of divine intelligence.
Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk gave a heart to Rabbi Mendele’s Hasidism, bringing to it such a measure of clinging to God that out of great emotion his Hasidim used to dance in the street.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman created from his rebbe’s approach a grand, mystical-philosophical approach that united simple faith with sharp study and inquiry; fiery clinging to God with calm meditation; broad synthesis with detailed analysis; deep intuition with systematic logic; depths of Kabbalah with the clarity of Maimonidean philosophy; the pathos of prophecy, the lyricism, of Aggadah, the breadth of homiletics, the piety of moral reproof. All of this Rabbi Schneur Zalman united in one royal edifice, which he called Chabad (Chochmah, Binah, Daas—“wisdom, understanding, knowledge”).
When Rabbi Mendel of Vitebsk traveled to the land of Israel, his students wrote him, “With whom have you left us?” He replied by post, “Remaining with you is the beloved of my soul, Rabbi Schneur Zalman. You may rely on him, as you have on me, in all matters of heaven and earth.” From that time on, Rabbi Schneur Zalman was the only rebbe in Reisen (White Russia).
Rabbi Schneur Zalman acted as rebbe with the greatest love not only for his Hasidism but for all Jews; with outstanding humility before every individual but with outstanding strength and might when that was needed. He introduced his own emendations in prayer, forcefully organized his Hasidic minyanim (prayer groups), regulated the actions of his Hasidim and, binding himself with them spiritually, helped them in all their troubles, whether spiritual or physical.
As part of his introduction of order in all areas, he wanted to rearrange and organize the collection of funds for the poor of the land of Israel. He was very displeased with the prior arrangement, which was unsupervised and the disbursement of which was unsystematic.
It is now hard to know the innovations he proposed. One thing we do know. At this time, his companion and close friend, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, was living in the land of Israel. He was considered the substitute for Rabbi Mendele of Vitebsk, and he considered himself rabbi of the Hasidic community in the Holy Land. He was now very displeased with Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s intervention into these financial matters. A number of rebbes took Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s side and others took Rabbi Avraham’s side. It appears that Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk was opposed as well by the rebbes of Galicia, who were not happy with his approach in general.
Now to return to Rabbi Nachman’s journey to the land of Israel. The two men who were returning to Europe from the land of Israel and who met with Rabbi Nachman and his servant in Istanbul were apparently enthusiastic Hasidim of Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk. They saw a young rebbe traveling to the land of Israel, and when they spoke with his servant, he appeared to be deceptive. They suspected that the young rebbe was traveling in order to wage controversy against Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk. At first, apparently, they thought that he had been sent by Rabbi Schneur Zalman. Later on, when the servant told them that his rebbe was traveling with the permission of the Austrian military, they began to suspect that he was an emissary of the rebbes of Galicia, sent to battle Rabbi Avraham.
When the two Hasidim returning from the land of Israel saw that they could not learn anything from the servant about his rebbe (who was Rabbi Nachman), they went to the rebbe himself. But he deflected them with various excuses and contrivances. To all their questions as to his name, background, family and so forth, he would give nonsensical answers.
For instance, they once asked him, “Are you a cohen?”
“Yes,” he replied.
The next day, they asked him, “Are you a yisroel?”
They said, “Yesterday, you were a cohen and today you are a yisroel?”
He answered, “Cohen is the attribute of mercy, and Yisroel is another attribute. Thank God, I possess both.”
Seeing that they could get no clear answer from him, they said, “Now we see that you are only going to the land of Israel in order to make trouble.”
Another time, when the men where pressing Rabbi Nachman about the purpose of his journey, he told them, “What can I tell you about my reason for going to the land of Israel? It is a matter that ‘the heart does not even reveal to the mouth.’ But ‘how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together.’ We can get along with each other, even when one person doesn’t know the other’s intentions.”
To this, they replied, “When you tell us the purpose of your journey, we will certainly treat you well.”
But he replied, “No! I will not receive a favor from you. But you may receive a favor from me.”
They said, “You talk to us as though you are one of the great rebbes such as Rabbi Boruch, Rabbi Nachman or Rabbi Shalom. Obviously, you aren’t one of them, but just someone traveling in order to start up with the tzaddik, Rabbi Avraham.”
Once these two men were sure that this young rebbe was traveling to the land of Israel for no other reason than to lead a campaign against Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, they insulted him daily, still hoping to discover who he really was.
It once seemed to them from their conversation that he was the son of the Kamarner Maggid, with whom many rebbes were at that time involved in a controversy. But suddenly, he began censuring the Kamarner. They yelled at him, “But he is your father!”
Once, they suddenly called him, “Yishaya!”—which was the name of the Karmarner’s son—and he came over to them. They began saying that they were carrying a present from the Kamarner to his son. He began to ask them, “Show me the present.” But then he again began to speak harshly against the Kamarner.
They began to revile him: “Why do you say one day that you are called so-and-so, and the next day you say that you are called something else? Where you live, do they also call you a different name every day?”
“Every name,” Rabbi Nachman answered them, “corresponds to the attribute and sefirah that a person is connected to. Thank God, I am connected to all the attributes and sefiros.”
When Shabbos came, Rabbi Nachman wanted to eat with the two Hasidim, for they had a ritual slaughterer with them, and he did not. But they only invited Rabbi Nachman’s servant. On Friday night, Rabbi Nachman showed up. They got into an argument with him and wanted to throw him out. The next day, the same thing took place, and Rabbi Nachman had to make do without meat on Shabbos.
Rabbi Nachman did all this in order to awaken the anger and hatred of these Hasidim returning from the land of Israel. And besides the fact that he did not tell them anything about who he is, nor remove from their hearts the suspicion that he was going to the land of Israel to foment controversy, he did other things as well: he would answer all their questions enigmatically, waken them from sleep, and irritate them in other ways. For instance, when they came from the bathhouse on Friday afternoon in an elevated pre-Shabbos mood, he lay in bed barefoot, without a belt. In general, he exhibited either excessive greatness or childish behavior.
Rabbi Nachman wanted to comfort the two returning Hasidim for having bothered them so much. He tried to make them understand that one cannot apply to him the measures applied to others, that they must cease asking him questions and making accusations, and try to forgive his caprices. He frequently tried to engage them in friendly conversation and told his man to treat them respectfully.
But this had no effect. The two Hasidim viewed Rabbi Nachman with suspicion and hatred. They even went to a Jewish travel agent in Istanbul (who himself came from Poland, although his wife was a Sefardi, and his mother-in-law a very respected woman), and tried to persuade him not to allow the young rebbe to travel to the land of Israel, for he would stir up controversy and cause the Jews to be expelled. And they promised him a heavenly reward if he would act against the young rebbe.
Before these men left Istanbul, Rabbi Nachman wanted to give them a letter to deliver to his family and Hasidim. But they did not want to take any letter from him. But they did take a letter from Rabbi Nachman’s servant. So Rabbi Nachman placed his letter in that of his servant. When the men got this letter, they wanted to open it in order to discover at last who was this unusual rebbe who was acting so strangely. However, they misplaced the letter and couldn’t find it. Only when they arrived in Wallachia did they find the letter, and they opened it then. When they saw the name at the bottom of the letter—Nachman of Medvedevka—they were astonished, and a great awe fell upon them.
After these two men left Istanbul, the previously-mentioned shipping agent came to Rabbi Nachman and, showing him various letters in which rebbes requested that he help them and their Hasidim, he said, “If you tell me who and you really are, I will do you great favors; but if not, I have the power to make you great problems, including having you thrown into jail.”
Having no alternative, Rabbi Nachman had to tell him that he was a descendant of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, and that he was not traveling to the land of Israel to join in any controversies, but to connect himself to the holiness of the land.
The shipping agent listened to all this and left. The next day, he came to Rabbi Nachman and said, “I thank you very much for telling me the complete truth. If you had not done so, I would have had you put in jail, for which I would have suffered in this world and the next. Now I am ready to do whatever I can to help you: I can get you on a ship or do whatever else you want.”
The next day, the shipping agent came again and reported that a ship carrying Russian-Polish Jews had just come to Istanbul.
One of those Jews was Rabbi Zev Wolf of Tsharna-Ostra, who was at that time a famous rebbe. When Rabbi Zev Wolf learned (from Rabbi Nachman’s companion) that Rabbi Nachman was in Istanbul, he sent an invitation to Rabbi Nachman to join him at his lodgings. But Rabbi Nachman begged off, because he wanted to remain free to continue to engage in his “childish behavior.”
This behavior consisted of the following: he would go about barefoot, without a gartel and hat. He merely wore an undergarment, and in this way ran through the streets like a mischievous schoolboy. He gathered a group of small boys and played at war with them: one was a Turk, the other a Frenchman, and so forth.
Meanwhile, there was a commotion of some sort in the courtyard where Rabbi Nachman was staying, and so, since he had to leave, he moved to where Rabbi Zev Wolf was staying.
Rabbi Zev Wolf received Rabbi Nachman with great respect, and made a feast in his honor. But Rabbi Nachman did many things that went against Rabbi Zev’s will.
When Rabbi Zev Wolf went to lead the prayer services on Shabbos morning, Rabbi Nachman was already sitting down to eat, for he had recited the morning prayers earlier. Later, when Rabbi Zev Wolf sat down to eat the third meal, Rabbi Nachman sent his man out to see if there were already stars in the sky so that he could recite the evening prayers. After he recited the evening prayers, Rabbi Nachman made Havdalah to conclude Shabbos, took off his jacket and gartel, lit a pipe and came to Rabbi Zev Wolf, who was still in an elevated state, at the time of “supreme favor,” in the midst of conversation with the “sons of the palace who yearn to see the glow of the manifestation of God.”
But Rabbi Zev Wolf didn’t say one angry word. To the contrary, he recited the evening prayer and made Havdalah, and then he spoke with Rabbi Nachman with great friendliness. They talked together for almost the entire night.
What benefit did Rabbi Nachman derive from inciting people against himself, purposely inciting even those who liked him, engaging in childish behavior, playing at war and the like? This will become understandable later, when the description of Rabbi Nachman’s journeys will be completed. I have a remarkable legend, known only to a few, which was told to me orally: a legend about the birth of Rabbi Nachman, about his forebears, the Baal Shem and Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, and about Rabbi Nachman’s messianic mission.
Chapter Nine: From Istanbul to Haifa
Due to the French wars in the East—particularly, the war against Turkey—the Jewish community in Istanbul did not allow any Jews to sail from the city.
Rabbi Nachman paid this no mind. Dangers did not frighten him. But he did not want to bring his companion into danger, and so he told him, “I am ready to risk my life, but not yours. If you want, here is money for expenses, and you can go home in peace. As for me, I must travel. I want to go in a way that the Jews of Istanbul will not notice.”
Rabbi Nachman’s companion replied, “Wherever you go, I will go—whether to death or to life.”
At that time, a representative from Jerusalem was staying in Istanbul. The representatives of the land of Israel were generally, in those days, the finest Jews of the holy land. It will suffice to mention one example: the great genius and Kabbalist, fund-raiser and scholar, Rabbi Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai (the Chida). It was such a caliber of person that was sent from the land of Israel to raise funds for those “who dwell in the presence of God.”
This representative who was in Istanbul at the time of Rabbi Nachman’s stay there was a wondrous person. He had intended to remain in Istanbul an entire year, but suddenly he told the local Jews, “I must leave immediately, for I will pass away soon. My burial place is already prepared. Do not be afraid of the Frenchman, and do not worry for the Jews who wish to travel to the land of Israel. With God’s help, nothing bad will happen to them.”
When the Jews of Istanbul heard this, they hired a great ship and proclaimed that whoever wishes to travel may do so. Men and women—both Ashkenazi and Sefardi—boarded the ship, and among them was Rabbi Nachman and his companion. Rabbi Nachman met with the representative from Jerusalem and arranged that he would take Rabbi Nachman to Jerusalem, for Rabbi Nachman didn’t want to go to Safed or Tiberias.
As soon as the ship set sail, a storm began. The ship rose and plunged down—”rising to the heavens, descending to the depths.” The danger was so great that none of the travelers believed that they would remain alive. They cried out to God and recited the confession before death. It was like Yom Kippur. People were reciting selichos and other prayers. But Rabbi Nachman remained still. When he was questioned, “Why do you remain silent at such a time of trouble?” he did not respond.
When the learned wife of the Hatiner rabbi (who had been one of those who had cried out) also complained about Rabbi Nachman’s silence, he answered half-jokingly, “If only you too had remained silent, it would have been better for you. Just try silence, and the sea will also grow silent.”
The people ceased their crying out. Daylight began to appear. The storm ended, and the sea waves grew still.
A few days later, there was no longer any drinkable water on board. There remained only one container of water, in which worms were crawling. The water was distributed with one measure for every person. This was a new danger, even greater than the first. People could not bear the thirst. All of them, men and women, prayed. Then a new storm broke out. And forty-eight hours later, they arrived at the port of Jaffa.
Rabbi Nachman wanted to disembark in Jaffa in order to go from there to Jerusalem with the representative. But the Turks did not allow him to do so. Because of his foreign dress and, more, because he could not carouse with them, they suspected him of being a French spy. And so Rabbi Nachman remained on board.
It was two days before Rosh Hashanah of the year 5559 (1798). Rabbi Nachman was perishing with his desire to disembark as quickly as possible onto the holy soil. But the captain unconcernedly anchored the ship in order to remain there several days.
But great waves threatened to overturn the ship. Nothing helped. The captain wondered why the ship couldn’t remain still. The Sefardi rabbis on board told him, “We have an oral tradition that this is the place where the prophet Jonah was cast into the sea.”
After the ship struggled an entire night with the wild waves, unable to rest, they were forced to sail from that inhospitable place.
On the night of zechor bris, the ship arrived at Haifa and anchored at the harbor before Mt. Carmel, opposite the cave of Elijah. Before daybreak, everyone recited selichos and then the morning prayers.
And then everyone, men, women and children, went to the city.
“At that time,” Rabbi Nachman’s students tell, “our holy rebbe came to the place for which he had desired and yearned with such an awesome longing, and for whose sake he had thousands of times placed his life in jeopardy [?—in Yiddish, kan]. No mind can conceive the great level of the joy he had at that moment when he came to the holy land and stepped on it. If all the rivers were ink, one could not write a fraction of it. At that very moment, the rebbe gained his object. He said that as soon as he walked four cubits upon the land of Israel, he had already accomplished everything which he had to accomplish.”
In the afternoon, the entire group of Jews went to the mikveh and then to the synagogue, where everyone stayed until the evening.
In the evening, when Rabbi Nachman came to his lodgings, he was joyful without measure. He kept repeating to his companion, “How fortunate you are to have merited to be here with me!” Afterwards, he told his companion to read him the names of those who had given him notes to pray for them in the holy land.
With great joy, they ate the evening meal of Rosh Hashanah, and spent the time together joyfully until they went to sleep. The next morning, they went to the synagogue. On the way back, Rabbi Nachman grew very disquiet. His heart was almost broken, and in out of great heartsickness, he did not speak a word to anyone.
As soon as Rosh Hashanah was over, Rabbi Nachman wanted to return home. But his companion, who wanted, in the words of Rabbi Nachman’s students, “to feast his eyes on the holy sites of the land of Israel,” came to Rabbi Nachman and told him that a group of people were traveling to Tiberias, and he wanted to join them. “Very well,” Rabbi Nachman replied. “If you want to go to Tiberias, hire donkeys.”
His companion hired some donkeys and left a deposit for them with the owner. But when Rabbi Nachman learned of this, he said, “Go take back the deposit. If the owner doesn’t want to give it back, forget about it. But I am not going to Tiberias.”
Two or three hours later, Rabbi Nachman’s companion grew very ill. And he thanked God that the rebbe had not allowed him to travel.
Chapter Ten: Until Tiberias and in Tiberias
When the Jews of Tiberias and Safed heard that Rabbi Nachman was in Haifa, they sent messengers with letters from the great tzaddikim asking him to come to Tiberias for Succos. But Rabbi Nachman did not accede to this request. He acquired esrogim from the local Torah scholar, who brought him three choice and beautiful esrogim for twenty “paras” from an Arab’s garden.
Rabbi Nachman’s students tell of a very strange episode that occurred at that time. A young Turk sat down with Rabbi Nachman and spoke to him. Rabbi Nachman did not understand what he was saying. This happened in the morning, and again that night, and at every meal: he always spoke with Rabbi Nachman with great affection. However, one time he came armed, and he began angrily yelling. Rabbi Nachman said nothing in return, because he did not know what the Turk wanted from him.
When the Turk left, a woman from Walachia, who knew Turkish, told Rabbi Nachman, “Flee as quickly as you can, for the Turk has challenged you to a duel.” Rabbi Nachman fled to Rabbi Zev of Tsharna-Ostra, whom he had met in Istanbul. Rabbi Zev hid him in his house. The Turk came running to Rabbi Zev: “Where is that person who ran here? I love him very much. I want to give him my donkeys and my horse, and he will be able to join the caravan going to Tiberias. He has nothing to fear from me.”
Rabbi Nachman returned to his lodgings. The Turk again came. This time, he said nothing but remained silent, smiled and showed Rabbi Nachman great affection.
Rabbi Nachman stated, “I suffered more from the Turk’s affection than from his anger.” Who was this Turk? Could it have been Satan?
On the intermediary days of Succos, everyone, including Rabbi Nachman, went to the cave of Elijah the prophet. Everyone was rejoicing greatly and dancing very much. But Rabbi Nachman sat, dejected and with a broken heart. Rabbi Zev Wolf of Tsharna-Ostra told Rabbi Nachman’s companion: “Why has Rabbi Nachman been so gloomy from Rosh Hashanah until now? God knows if something good will come of this.”
On Simchas Torah, everyone circled the bimah with joy and dance, as is the Jewish custom—particularly among Hasidim. However, Rabbi Nachman did not participate in any of the dancing, but sat gloomily, his head down. After Simchas Torah, he told his companion, “Thank God, I have accomplished everything that I wanted, in the best possible way. I have only remained out of love for the land of Israel. Now I want to go home. Go now and hire a ship to Istanbul.”
But his companion did not want to travel home at all. He insisted that he must visit Tiberias and other holy sites.
“If that is the case,” Rabbi Nachman replied, “go hire donkeys.” His companion did so. And toward evening, they arrived there.
The entire night, the Jews of Tiberias, wearing their Shabbos garments, came to greet Rabbi Nachman, one after the other. There were so many that he could not sleep the entire night.
At first, Rabbi Nachman stayed with his relative, who was a grandson of Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka. But people wished to find him a nicer and larger place to stay, where he could be at ease. Rabbi Tzvi Harker, a dedicated follower and assistant to Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk, had such an apartment. When Rabbi Nachman entered these new lodgings, Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk sent him a message telling that he himself would have quickly come to greet Rabbi Nachman, but he couldn’t, since he had just let blood and was very weak.
Rabbi Nachman responded, “It makes no difference. I always wanted to go to Rabbi Avraham.” And so it was. Rabbi Nachman went to Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk. Rabbi Avraham greeted him with great respect and extraordinary affection, and asked Rabbi Nachman to remain with him.
Rabbi Nachman replied that he could not remain, but he could spend a Shabbos. And he spent Shabbos, Parshas Noach, there.
On Friday night, Rabbi Nachman bowed his head to receive a blessing from Rabbi Avraham. Rabbi Avraham leaped back four cubits in great fear, and spoke with such violence that no one could understand anything he said. Only his last words could be understood: “How could we not be ashamed before the children of the Baal Shem Tov?” However, when Rabbi Nachman’s companion bowed his head, Rabbi Avraham blessed him.
There was great joy during the meal of these two tzaddikim. Rabbi Avraham asked Rabbi Nachman to say words of Torah, but Rabbi Nachman did not want to. So Rabbi Avraham had to teach Torah himself. The same thing happened the next morning, and at Shalosh Seudos. Rabbi Avraham taught Torah with great enthusiasm. The words streamed out of his mouth with such awesome fieriness and speed that it was impossible to understand him.
In Tiberias, Rabbi Nachman once demonstrated the power of his spiritual influence.
It happened as follows:
At that time, there was an informer in the land of Israel. He used to notify the Turkish pasha every time Jewish charity funds were brought into the land. The pasha would then confiscate the money for himself. The poor would die of hunger, and the informer would be rewarded by the pasha.
Once, his activities led to the imprisonment of Tiberias’s leading Jews. After the prisoners were tortured in a dungeon for nine weeks, the Sefardim of Tiberias went to the pasha and presented him with a large sum of money in order that he free the prisoners.
After they were freed, the informer was caught and strangled. But his executors had done their work poorly. He pretended to fall dead, but when they left, he got up, as healthy as before. He immediately went and told the pasha everything that had happened.
The pasha appointed him governor of Tiberias and gave him the right to do with the Jews of Tiberias as he wished. The informer entered Tiberias with a great parade of Turkish soldiers. As he entered the city with this pomp, the adult men left. Only the women and children remained. From every house, outcries and wailing were heard. Who knows what the informer plans to do?
Rabbi Nachman also wished to flee, but he had to turn back because he was ill and weak.
The informer came to Rabbi Nachman meekly, presenting himself as a pious, earnest Jew seeking a path in serving God. Rabbi Nachman went along with the fiction and told him, “Since you are, thank God, a government official, you should be humble, minister to the Jews and pray for their suffering.”
“What else should I do?” asked the informer.
“Recite Psalms with great feeling.”
And the informer obeyed.
Gradually, the informer was influenced. He began coming often to Rabbi Nachman, to discuss Hasidism with him. Rabbi Nachman worked on breaking his self-confident spirit and attempting to persuade him to cast aside his evil deeds. Once, during a conversation with the informer, Rabbi Nachman told him, “I will only be sure that you have broken your pride when you will recite psalms in the presence of children, with great weeping.”
This time as well, the informer obeyed. He recited psalms and cried so strongly that tears ran down his face. At length, from all this emotional tumult, he grew ill.
After the informer had begun to make his way to Rabbi Nachman (like the pig that stretches out its split hooves to claim that it is kosher), Rabbi Nachman indicated that an announcement should be made that all those who fled should return. Later on, when the informer engaged in acts of repentance in Rabbi Nachman’s presence, the townspeople understandably grew calm, and they were even more composed once he had cried in everyone’s presence.
But then (Rabbi Nachman’s students add) the informer placed guards at the town gates to observe if any emissaries brought money into the holy land.
During Rabbi Nachman’s stay in Tiberias, money did arrive without the informer’s knowledge. Rabbi Nachman’s companion went to Haifa, took the money from the emissaries and gave it to his rebbe. Rabbi Nachman then gave the money to the townspeople, who in turn disbursed it.
When the informer grew better and discovered that he had not received his informer’s fee, he deeply regretted his repentance, and he threatened the Tiberias community that he would bring it to account when he would arise from his sickbed.
But the seeds of repentance that Rabbi Nachman had planted in his heart had a quiet effect. He lost his previous strength, and never again rose from his sickbed.
Rabbi Nachman considered it his reward that through him Tiberias was saved from this evil influence, and that he had succeeding in touching such a dark soul.
Chapter Eleven: Exalted Experiences in Tiberias
In Tiberias, Rabbi Nachman visited the gravesite of his grandfather, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka. Regarding his experience there, his students tell nothing. Rabbi Nachman, it appears, considered that experience as too extraordinary to discuss with others.
Following that, he and his companion hired donkeys, and visited the gravesites of tzaddikim. When they came to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rabbi Nachman told the young men who had accompanied him to learn Zohar. However, he himself did not do so. Instead, he went about in a very happy state and occasionally told his companion, “How fortunate you are to have come to this!”
At night, he walked about. He told everyone to learn Zohar. He himself sang the entire night and was joyful until daybreak. Then he put on his tallis and tefillin and prayed for hours.
From the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, they traveled to the gravesite of Hillel. There Rabbi Nachman recited psalms 33 and 34. When he went to Shammai’s grave, he was overcome by deep sadness. Why was this? At first, Rabbi Nachman himself did not know. Later, he said that did have an answer to that—but he did not explain.
Traveling from gravesite to gravesite, they came to the top of a mountain. From there, they saw the gravesite of Rabbi Kruspedai. The donkeys could not make their way there, so they went by foot. Rabbi Nachman almost had to climb on his hands and knees to get to the gravesite.
After he remained there a little while, they returned and went to the gravesite of “the child,” where a tall tree grew. People used to be afraid to enter that cave, believing that it was encircled by a snake. But Rabbi Nachman did not allow this to frighten him. And there was no snake there. From that time onwards (tells the Breslov tradition), everyone entered there without fear.
After visiting other gravesites, they returned to Tiberias. At that time, Rabbi Nachman experienced a joyous occasion. Rabbi Yaacov Shimshon of Shepetavka, student of Rabbi Pinchas Koritzer, had arrived.
Rabbi Pinchas Koritzer was one of the very few rebbes of the time who was venerated not only by Hasidim but also by the greatest rebbes. Each rebbe had his own path and rarely recognized the paths of others. Only a very few—such as the brothers Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and his brother Zusha, the Seer of Lublin and Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev—were recognized by all rebbes as “pillars of the world.” In this group, Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz held a unique position. He was regarded by Hasidim as being on a uniquely exalted level, almost on the level of a rishon; he was seen as being in the rank of the early rebbes, almost on the same level as the Baal Shem Tov. This status was transferred to his student, Rabbi Yaacov Shimshon.
It was therefore a great joy for Rabbi Nachman when Rabbi Yaacov Shimshon, on coming to Tiberias, made a meal in his honor and rejoiced exceedingly with him, speaking privately with him for a long while.
Incidentally, Rabbi Nachman succeeded in making peace between Rabbi Yaacov Shimshon and Rabbi Avraham Kalisker. Rabbi Yaacov Shimshon had previously belonged to the group that had disagreed with Rabbi Avraham. But Rabbi Nachman now brought him over to Rabbi Avraham’s side.
Until he came to the land of Israel, Rabbi Nachman would from time to time fall into a lower state of consciousness. In the land of Israel, he was in an expanded state of consciousness. The land of Israel itself is, as he once noted, “greatness of greatness.” There, how could one be small? But in a number of instances, even in the land of Israel Rabbi Nachman did not wish to expose his greatness. Perhaps he believed that the hour had not arrived for him to fully reveal and declare himself.
It is told that one of the great rabbis of the land of Israel, a man who knew almost the entire Talmud by heart and who was also a great Kabbalist, came to Rabbi Nachman and asked that all of Rabbi Nachman’s entourage leave the room, for he had something particular to discuss with him.
Rabbi Nachman’s followers left the room, with the exception of his companion, who rarely left him.
The rabbi said, “Obviously, you did not come to the land of Israel like those simple Jews who come in order to walk four cubits here and gain the world-to-come. You obviously came in order to attain a great awareness in serving the Creator. I would very much like to know which of the attributes of the land you have dealt with, and what you particularly wanted to accomplish in serving God, for I myself with to serve God with my entire body and soul.”
“I earnestly beseech you,” Rabbi Nachman replied, “do not pain me with this. It is not so easy to reveal why I came here and what I wish to accomplish. Perhaps I am also bound by an oath not to reveal such things.”
But the great man pressed him to at least reveal one of his original Torah thoughts. “Believe me,” he added, “I do not have the slightest unworthy motive. I only want to hear words of Torah from a holy mouth. Perhaps my heart will be newly awakened to serve the Creator, and perhaps in this way I will merit to come to your attainment regarding the land of Israel.”
When Rabbi Nachman heard this, a divine fire lit his face. His hair stood on end, and to relieve himself he took off his hat. He said to the great man, “Do you know the secret of the meditations of tefillin?”
The man described a few meditations that he knew.
“No!” said Rabbi Nachman. “These are not the true meditations of tefillin. And if you do not know the meditations of tefillin, you cannot know the meditations of the four directions of the land of Israel. Now I will reveal to you a hint about that.”
But Breslov tradition tells that as soon as Rabbi Nachman began to reveal these meditations, blood welled up from his throat.
“You see,” Rabbi Nachman told the rabbi, “I am not permitted from heaven to reveal anything to you.”
The rabbi was very frightened, and he asked Rabbi Nachman to forgive him for having pained him.
Rabbi Nachman forgave him, and the rabbi no longer urged him to speak of attainments and attributes.
When it came to non-mystical matters, Rabbi Nachman did reveal himself to the previously-mentioned Torah scholar and other Torah leaders.
The following incident occurred in the house of Rabbi Moshe Vitebsker. Rabbi Moshe was a great Hasid, a wealthy man from a prominent family: he was a son of Rabbi Mendel Vitebsker.
When Rabbi Nachman came to Tiberias, Rabbi Moshe sent a matchmaker to tell Rabbi Nachman that Rabbi Moshe would like to set up a match between their children. Rabbi Nachman replied, “How could I refuse such a match? It is certainly predestined that my daughter will live in the land of Israel.”
The matchmaker immediately left and told Rabbi Moshe that Rabbi Nachman agreed to the match. Rabbi Moshe was very happy, and immediately arranged a feast, to which he invited Rabbi Nachman and all the leading rabbis of Tiberias. As was the custom, they were very joyful at the feast and discussed Torah topics. The principal speaker was the previously-mentioned Torah scholar, who had wanted at one time to understand Rabbi Nachman’s “points” and “attainments.” They spoke at length, in the course of which a quote from Rashi was cited. But no one knew where it came from, even though they had all recently completed learning through the Talmud. Rabbi Nachman, who had until now not participated in the discussion, took the opportunity to immediately say that that citation was found in tractate Zevachim, on page such-and-such, at the top of the page. Everyone grew happy, and the celebration lasted until morning.
Rabbi Nachman’s stay in Tiberias gave him much pleasure. He would have wanted to remain for a long while, but a plague broke out. Rabbi Nachman changed his quarters, but the plague again caught up to him.
The town walls were locked, and no one could enter or leave. Rabbi Nachman escaped through a cave until he came to the town wall. He scaled the wall in order to let himself down outside the city. But at the top of the wall, he saw water beneath him. He remained clinging to the wall, in danger of plunging down. He called out to God and was saved from the danger, and he proceeded to Safed.
Chapter Twelve: The Confusion-Uproar in Acre
Rabbi Nachman remained in Safed with his companion until news arrived that the French were coming to Acre. Rabbi Nachman then sent a messenger to Acre to attain berths for himself and his companion on a Italian ship from Renazi (Ragusa—R. Kaplan’s translation). These ships were neutral, and would not be bothered when they raised their flags.
When Rabbi Avraham Kalisker heard that Rabbi Nachman was going home, he gave him a letter to forward to his followers. However, because he was in such a great rush, Rabbi Nachman did not manage to take a letter from the rabbi of Shepetavka.
On Thursday night of the parshah of Zachor, in 5559, Rabbi Nachman and his companion left Safed. They traveled throughout the night and all of Friday until three hours before Shabbos. They arrived at the port of Acre. When their agent tried to arrange to get them on board, he was told that the ship was full and could take no more passengers.
In a sad mood, Rabbi Nachman and his companion had to remain in the city, where they spent Shabbos with a wealthy man, a Hasid of Rabbi Avraham, to whom they had a letter of introduction from Rabbi Avraham. They spent that Shabbos in great fear, for about fifteen thousand soldiers were gathered in the city, and they had sealed its walls.
During the Shabbos morning prayers, the agent came and said that one could no longer book passage on a Renazi ship; however, one could get onto a Turkish ship. This was dangerous, for such a ship could be captured at any moment by the enemy. However, it would be even more dangerous to remain in Acre, for a battle would be taking place in two or three days. He therefore asked Rabbi Nachman to allow him to hire a ship this Shabbos, for this was a matter of life and death.
Rabbi Nachman agreed. The agent got them a place on a ship and left a rendel as a deposit. Meanwhile, warships arrived from England and the tension in the city increased: an oppressive fear and anxiety.
The people with whom Rabbi Nachman was staying wrung their hands, and Rabbi Nachman and his companion were also distressed. But they consoled themselves that they had a berth on a ship. True, when they had left Odessa for the land of Israel, they had been well-provided for, and now they had nothing. But who could think of such things in such an emergency?
On Sunday morning, Rabbi Nachman sent his companion with dalmesher to buy provisions for the journey. But he could get nothing, and he returned with empty hands. In his anguish, he fell asleep.
Rabbi Nachman hadn’t entered the room because he was in the midst of prayer, wearing his tallis and tefillin. As Rabbi Nachman stood in prayer, divested of the world, and his companion lay in a corner of the room sleeping, the pasha issued a decree: whoever could not handle weapons must leave within two hours by sea—for there was no other direction to flee in. Whoever remained in the city after two hours would be shot, because there wasn’t enough room for all the people who were presently in the city.
Everyone—both residents and visitors—went into a panic when they heard this bitter decree.
As for Rabbi Nachman, in great fright, he left everything with others and fled to the sea—and in his terror and hurry he forgot his companion.
The great commotion, the outcries from the houses and courtyards, woke up Rabbi Nachman’s companion. He saw everyone—great and small, old and young—wringing their hands and bitterly wailing.
One of the people of the house where he and his rebbe had stayed told him, “Run as quickly as you can. Flee! You are young—don’t lose your life.”
But where was the rebbe?
It seemed that he had already fled to the sea.
Rabbi Nachman’s companion wanted to take Rabbi Nachman’s luggage, which contained his writings and things, for when Rabbi Nachman had fled he had left everything behind. But he could not carry the heavy belongings.
But God sent a Sefardi Jew along who was also fleeing to the ocean, and he helped carry the heavy luggage.
Rabbi Nachman’s companion and the Sefardi ran in the direction of the sea. But they could not make their way across the city, for everyone was running about in a great panic and confusion.
Meanwhile, a few Turks stood at the top of the city wall to announce some good news. Everyone went to hear the news, and this cleared a path.
When Rabbi Nachman’s companion arrived at the sea, he sought Rabbi Nachman for a long while. At last, he found him on a ship. And so, after rejoicing in each other’s company, they boarded a boat that brought them to a ship slated to sail to Haifa.
Chapter Thirteen: On a Turkish Warship
When Rebbe Nachman and his attendant boarded the ship, they were surprised: they had paid for berths on a merchant ship, yet this ship was filled with cannons and Turkish soldiers.
They reasoned that no doubt merchant ships must also be armed in times of war.
But they were mistaken. Running to the port in panic, Rabbi Nachman had mistakenly entered a warship.
As soon as Rabbi Nachman and his attendant boarded, they were given their own room and handed a loaded rifle. What were they supposed to do with it? There was no one they could ask, because they didn’t speak any Turkish.
At nightfall, the door of their room was locked. A few hours later, someone opened the door and told them in Russian, “What are you doing here? This is a warship. You can die here. You can see that the ship is filled with weapons.”
They took hold of this mysterious man’s clothes and requested that he ask the captain to let them onto the shore.
The man replied, “You must give me such-and-such amount of thalers for the captain, and then I will try to talk to him.”
Rabbi Nachman’s attendant opened his bags to get the money out. While he was doing so, the man disappeared.
They thought that he had gone to deliver their request to the captain. And so they themselves brought the amount of the money that he had mentioned to the captain. But he, not understanding their language, didn’t know what they wanted from him. He cursed them and they sadly returned to their cabin. Rabbi Nachman’s disciples have written that until this day, the identity of this mysterious man who spoke Russian and warned them of the danger they were in is unknown.
The next morning, Rabbi Nachman and his attendant again intended to go to the captain, where they would throw themselves at his feet and beg him to let them onto the shore. But they saw that the anchor had been raised. They grew terribly frightened. They were in the midst of wild and barbarous soldiers on a ship that might at any moment be attacked. In addition, they were hungry. Fleeing Acre, they had had no chance to take any food. Now they could not even get any water to drink.
However, the Breslov tradition tells that God sent them some help in that they were favored by one Turk, the captain’s cook, who gave them a cup of black coffee every morning and evening.
They spent entire days and nights locked in their cabin. They could feel the ship being blown about by a storm. Then, when the ship at last came to port, they came out to see where they had come to.
They knew the port of Istanbul well, and they saw that this was not where they were. They asked their acquaintance, the Turk, “Where are we?” He replied, “In Adal.”
A great terror fell upon them. They had heard it said that the people of Adal slaughtered any Jew who fell into their hands. What could they do to save themselves? All they could do was to return to their cabin and lock the door. And there they remained for three days as the ship remained in the port.
The ship may have remained even longer, but a storm broke out, so terrible that it uprooted the anchor rope and carried the ship off. For an entire night, the ship was hurled about, accompanied by the outcries of the Turks.
The next morning, when the storm quieted down, the Turks rejoiced. But their joy was futile, for the storm wind, rather than sending the ship forward, had brought them back a day’s journey from Acre.
Chapter Fourteen: Further Experiences on the Turkish Ship
Again, the storm carried the ship in an unknown direction. Days and nights, the storm drove the ship without cease. The sailors did not know how to deal with the raging storm. Day in and day out, they would bail water from the ship. This usually took a quarter hour. But one time there was so much water that it took from mid-day till evening.
The water entered the cabin where Rabbi Nachman and his attendant were staying, so that had to find another place to stay: higher in the ship and also hidden, where the Turks would not notice them.
Still, the storm did not die down. Now water filled the entire ship. And the storm grew in intensity. Waves rose to the sky, appearing like towering mountains and deep valleys.
After one terrible night passed, Rabbi Nachman told his attendant, “My heart is very shaken. We are in great danger.”
The attendant calmed him, “You have nothing to fear. Everything is as it should be.”
But the attendant was also very frightened. When he went to where the sailors were bailing out the water, he saw that waves were breaking over the flood.
The ship was loaded with cargo. In order that the ship not sink under its load, the Turks cast the cargo overboard. But the water swamping the ship weighed more than the cargo had. Now they had to bail out the water constantly. Still, they did not know what to do about the surging storm, and the ship was close to foundering.
When Rabbi Nachman’s attendant saw this, he entered the cabin and in his fear could not pronounce a single word. Rabbi Nachman told him, “What is going on? You had said, ‘It’s all right! It’s all right!’ So now why are you so frightened?”
“Now it is different,” the attendant replied. “Now we have no chance of being saved without a miracle. The water keeps rising and cannot be bailed out. The sailors are completely worn out. For twenty-four hours they haven’t eaten or drunken, or rested.”
Rabbi Nachman’s attendant recalled that he had not yet recited the prayers. Rabbi Nachman told him, “Now you are not obligated to say the prayers. Just say the first verse of Sh’ma and have in mind that you are taking on the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, and then say the first three and last three blessings of the Shmoneh Esrei.”
Then he told him, “Take all our money, to the last coin, and divide it in half. Tie one half to yourself and the other to me.”
“What for?” the attendant replied. “Won’t the fish be able to eat us without money?”
“Do as I tell you,” Rabbi Nachman said. “The children of Israel were in the midst of the sea and they did not drown, and we are still on a ship.”
The attendant did as Rabbi Nachman had told him to. Then, following Rabbi Nachman’s instructions, he put on his sheepskin coat, and Rabbi Nachman did the same. They looked like two people ready to set out on the road.
The attendant said to Rabbi Nachman, “Right now, I am unable to recite even the most abbreviated prayer, as instituted by the Men of the Great Assembly. But you can pray: for everyone and for every individual. Why aren’t you praying in such a dangerous time?”
“Right now I am in a state of restricted consciousness,” Rabbi Nachman replied, “and so I am far from God. But I do have one idea. The One Above knows that I have never called on the merit of my forebears. But now that the danger is so great I will ask that He help me in the merit of my great-grandfather, Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, my grandmother Hodel and my grandfather, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka.”
As they remained between fear and hope, they saw from a distance a cloud moving toward the ship. They grew yet more afraid, for they believed (as people did then) that the cloud would turn into a waterspout, pulling water up from the sea, and then, when the ship reached that spot, it would go under. If the situation had been calm, the sailors would have shot at the waterspout with cannon. But now they were busy bailing water from the ship and had neither the time nor the composure to do anything. But the storm pressed the ship so quickly that it bypassed that terrible place in peace.
At the same time, Rabbi Nachman’s disciples tell, the One Above opened the eyes of the sailors and they found the puncture through which water was streaming from the sea. They slaughtered a he-goat that was on board and used its hide to mend the hole.
The sea grew calm, and the ship was delivered from danger. It was a Friday. With great joy, Rabbi Nachman recited the psalm, “Give thanks to Hashem,” which is recited on Friday at minchah time.
But Rabbi Nachman and his attendant were still greatly troubled. Passover was coming. How would they keep the holiday aboard the ship? In addition to the cups of black coffee that the cook gave them, they also begged wormy biscuits from him. But what would they do on Passover, when they would not be able to eat biscuits? Should they fast the entire eight-day period?
Meanwhile, the ship came to a settlement built on a rocky mountain island. There the Turks brought much fruit and sold Rabbi Nachman carobs for one thaler. Rabbi Nachman said, “This is good. We could live on the carobs for eight days. May the One Above also allow us to eat matzah and drink the four cups of wine.”
But the main question was, where were they being taken? What was wanted of them?
They were sailing on a warship, which wasn’t carrying passengers for free. They also saw that they were constantly watched. No doubt they were being taken for ransom. But who would free them? Would they be sold as slaves, heaven forbid? And if that occurred, how would they live as Jews?
They might be taken and sold in a place where there are no Jews, and they would not be able to perform any mitzvos.
Considering all this, Rabbi Nachman had an illuminating insight: if he would be sold as a slave, heaven forbid, he would serve Hashem, be He blessed, even without mitzvos. The Ari tells how the patriarch Jacob kept the mitzvah of tefillin with the branches that he peeled at the water troughs and how the Patriarchs kept many mitzvos by unifying themselves with the upper worlds.
When one is able to keep the mitzvos, one must do so. One is not allowed to content oneself with exalted meditations.
But if he would be unable to keep the mitzvos, he would still not despair of serving Hashem. What he could not accomplish with his body, he would accomplish with his soul.
Meanwhile, the ship continued on its way and on the night of erev Pesach, it arrived at Rhodes.
Chapter Fifteen: The Liberations—And a Legend about Rabbi Nachman’s Birth
In Rabbi Nachman’s time, there was a large Jewish community in Rhodes. Rabbi Nachman and his assistant were pleased: here they would be able to buy matzah and wine for the Passover seder. But would they be freed? Were they not still the prisoners of the Turks?
The next morning, the captain of the ship, together with a few sailors, prepared to take a boat from the ship to the town. Using sign language, Rabbi Nachman and his assistant told the captain that they needed food. In a similar fashion, the captain replied that one of them could accompany him. Rabbi Nachman’s assistant entered the boat. When they came to port, the captain appointed one of the sailors to accompany him and make sure that he didn’t run away.
Rabbi Nachman’s assistant made his way to the rabbi of the community and told him everything that had happened to him and his rebbe. The rabbi was very interested in hearing news, but not so much in the assistant’s personal problems. The assistant didn’t have the heart to sit and tell interesting stories, and he wanted to leave so that he would at least be able to buy matzah and wine and return to the ship.
Then he recalled that when they had been in Tiberias, he had heard of a Rabbi Tzvi Harker, whose wife came from a distinguished family and who had a brother in Rhodes known as a great scholar and tzaddik. He asked the community rabbi about him, and in this way learned who Rabbi Tzvi’s brother-in-law was, and where he lived.
He made his way to Rabbi Tzvi’s brother-in-law. When he was let into the house and began to tell at length what had happened to him and his rebbe, the other man interrupted him: “All these stories you will tell at the seder. In the meantime, I want you to know that we have arrested the captain and seized his ship. He will let you free—more than that, it will cost him money.”
It turned out that when Rabbi Nachman’s assistant had told the rabbi of the community about the danger in which he and his rebbe found themselves, the rabbi’s parents had been present. They had reported the information to Rabbi Tzvi’s brother-in-law even before Rabbi Nachman’s assistant came to him. The brother-in-law, who was a highly-respected man, had already contacted the captain and learned what he wanted to know.
This man, this redeemer of prisoners, added, “You yourself don’t know what danger you were in. Your captain is a thief, and he boasts that he is one of the five kings of the Philistines.”
After telling this to the assistant and raising his spirits immeasurably, his redeemer told him, “Now come with me to get a haircut and bath.”
After the assistant was groomed and had a cup of coffee, Rabbi Tzvi’s brother-in-law asked him, “Who is your rabbi?”
“Have you heard of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov?” the assistant replied with a question.
“Yes. We have the books of the rabbi of Polonnoye” (the Baal Shem Tov’s greatest student).
“My rebbe is a great-grandson of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov. He is also a grandson of Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, and he himself is a great man, as you shall soon see for yourself.”
The Jew replied, “It is a great mitzvah to free captives, and in particular a great man who has such great ancestors.”
Rabbi Nachman’s assistant and a few other Jews wanted to return to the ship as quickly as possible. But when they left the house, a fight broke out amongst the Turks, and a few were killed. In fear of the maddened crowd, they retreated to the rabbi’s house. They remained there for hours, waiting for the mob to calm down. But they stayed so long that the rabbi and his people thought it too late to leave.
When the rabbi noticed a trace of worry cross the face of Rabbi Nachman’s assistant, he told him, “I cannot go to your rabbi now, because it is late. But I promise you by my entire portion in the world-to-come that I will do all I can to free you both. I want you to know that I have spent my entire life in Torah and prayer. If I do not do this, I will forfeit all of that. I am going to give you matzah shmurah and regular matzah, the best wine available, vegetables and other seder needs. Now go as quickly as you can to your rebbe.”
The assistant returned to the ship. Rabbi Nachman had been eagerly awaiting his assistant. When he at last saw him, he ran to him in great joy and said, “Thank God that I see you here alive before me. The entire time you were gone, I kept thinking, Who knows what may have happened to you? Perhaps they drowned you in the sea and were also planning to drown me. And now, blessed be God, Who gives the weary strength, I had no strength to bear this suffering.”
They celebrated the seder on board the ship in a state of elevated consciousness. The assistant told his rebbe everything that he had gone through, and in his adventures they saw something of the exodus from Egypt, a liberation from slavery to redemption.
The next morning, an order came to bring the ship to anchor next to the town. Rabbi Nachman and his assistant celebrated the second night of Passover on the ship as well. The next morning, Rabbi Nachman’s assistant went into town for prayers. When he left the synagogue, the town rabbi (Rabbi Tzvi Harker’s in-law) invited him home for the holiday meal. During the meal, the rabbi spoke words of Torah, some original and some not, including teachings that he had heard in the name of Russian-Polish tzaddikim.
He asked Rabbi Nachman’s assistant to repeat something of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings. The assistant recited a teaching, with which the rabbi was deeply impressed. Following the meal, Rabbi Nachman’s assistant returned to the ship accompanied by a rabbi of the servant, who carried food for Rabbi Nachman.
Rabbi Nachman thought that his assistant was returning sad and depressed. “What can this be?” Rabbi Nachman thought. “Who knows what might have happened? Perhaps we are again having troubles.” In truth, his assistant had an upset expression because the rabbi had made him drink too much. Rabbi Nachman asked him something, but without replying he lay down to sleep. A few hours later, he woke up with a laugh: “You do not know what happened. They made me drink, and I was overcome when I was drunk.”
Only then did Rabbi Nachman eat his holiday meal.
On the first of the intermediary days (chol hamoed), the town rabbi told Rabbi Nachman’s assistant to secretly remove any money they had from the ship and to bring it into town. Afterwards, the rabbi and two wealthy men of the community came to the captain and told him, “Give us the two Jews that you have with you.”
“What do they have to do with you?” the captain replied. “They are mine, and I can do with them as I like. Many times, I could have had them drowned or sold as slaves. But while they sailed with us, we experienced great wonders. There must be something in that! And so I will let them free. All I ask is that you give my servants two hundred thaler.”
The captain received his two hundred thaler, and Rabbi Nachman and his assistant were freed—from death to life.
They came into town—but now there was a new trouble. The Turks might believe them to be spies. And so, having no choice, they had to put on the local clothing. When Rabbi Nachman’s assistant broke into laughter, Rabbi Nachman grew very angry: “Do you know what a heavenly accusation there is against us in the upper worlds?” And he told his assistant—as the Breslover tradition tells—”a wondrous matter, which [the assistant] did not want to reveal.”
The rabbis of Rhodes welcomed Rabbi Nachman with great ceremony, recognizing his greatness and originality.
Afterwards, Rabbi Nachman entered with great joy and exclaimed, “Thank God Who has given us such a great salvation.”
Rabbi Nachman wanted to pay the townspeople the two hundred thaler that the rabbi and the two wealthy men had paid the ship captain, but the townspeople did not want to take it.
Immediately following the holiday, they hired a berth on a ship for Rabbi Nachman and his assistant, headed for Istanbul. They provided them with an open letter to all the communities on the way, in case another misfortune would overtake them.
There were many Greeks on board, among whom an epidemic broke out. But the ship was carried along by a storm so powerful that after three days it arrived in Istanbul.
There, they remained ten days. And now they suffered new troubles. At the time that they had traveled from Istanbul to the land of Israel, they had not shown their passports there. In consequence, they authorities now did not want to let them go, unless they acquired new passports for a great sum of money. Where could they get such a vast sum? But the One Above had mercy and sent them an ombudsman, who obtained permission papers [?--shein] from them from a Turkish official for a small bribe.
From Istanbul, they traveled to Galicia. At one port city, they were placed in prison and had to pay four rendel to obtain their freedom.
They spent Shavuos in Galicia. From there, they traveled to Yassi. In Yassi and on the way from Yassi to their home, they suffered much from the quarantines that had been imposed to deal with an epidemic that was raging everywhere.
Finally, after many troubles and tests, they arrived home, healthy and happy, and invigorated.
We have told you of their sea journey. But now the question presents itself: What lies behind all this? What manner of journey was this?
I will here tell a legend that I heard from Breslover Hasidism. It will help us understand, a few chapters from now, the purpose of Rabbi Nachman’s journey to the land of Israel.
The writings of the Breslover Hasidim (or, as they are also known, the Hasidim of Uman) tell nothing of this. In the middle of the night, however, elder tells youth the following story. (Note: The stories about the heavenly opposition to the Baal Shem Tov at the time that he traveled to the land of Israel have been written and published. In the light of the legend that I will now record as I heard it—and which, to the best of my knowledge, has never before been published—they receive an entirely different complexion.)
As is known, the Baal Shem Tov traveled to the land of Israel, but had to turn back, for the generation was not worthy. Satan stretched himself out and protested: “Is this fair? Where is the quality of justice? The Jews have done this and done that. The Jews have sinned. And now this Israel ben Eliezer is traveling in order to bring the messiah.”
The opposition was frightful and terrifying. The Baal Shem Tov struggled with all his might, but could accomplish nothing. He wanted to rise into the upper worlds, but the opposition spread like a black cloud across the heavens and did not allow his prayer through. He wanted to make use of meditations, but all his spiritual attainments were taken from him.
So once, when the Baal Shem Tov awoke at midnight and, as was his custom, opened a holy book, he did not understand a word of it. He took another holy book. But he had forgotten everything—as though he had never learned at all.
The Baal Shem Tov began to weep: “Have I indeed forgotten everything? Do I no longer remember even the alef beis?” He began reciting, over and over again, “Alef, beis, gimel, daled, hei; alef, beis, gimel, daled, hei.” And he did so with such bitterness and with such love and yearning for God that all the gates of heaven opened for him and all his spiritual attainments returned. But at the same time, he was explicitly told: “Return home. The time has not yet come.”
But the Baal Shem Tov did not give in. He wanted to break down all the walls and force his way to the land of Israel. One time he heard a voice from heaven: “Israel ben Eliezer has lost his portion in the world-to-come.” The Baal Shem Tov was not impressed. If this were the case, he would serve out of love alone, without any hope for reward, and so his service would truly be for the sake of heaven. So what, if one has no world-to-come? “I do not need this world of Yours, I do not need Your world-to-come. I only need You.”
But the heavenly opposition grew overwhelming when the Baal Shem Tov set out by sea from Istanbul together with his daughter, who accompanied him on all his ascents and rectifications. So strong did the opposition grow that the Baal Shem Tov heard a voice from heaven: “You have a choice. Either throw your writings into the sea or else your daughter, Hodel.”
“Throw me into the sea,” said Hodel. “At least your writings should survive.”
But as Hodel was about to leap into the depths, she suddenly called out to her father, “Wait! A light has shone for me. I have just been told that there will come from me a person who will reveal greater lights than you, more than you have revealed in your writings.”
Now to backtrack a little: at the time that the Baal Shem Tov had been in Istanbul, the following episode had taken place:
A young, wealthy woman resident of Istanbul came to him and poured out her bitter heart: “Holy rabbi! I have a great complaint to make to you. Some time ago, a student of yours, a Polish Jew named Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka traveled through Istanbul. He was already an old man. When I saw this holy Jew, I sent messengers with offers of marriage, even though he was so old and I am still so young. The holy Jew accepted my offer, and we were married. But my joy was short-lived. Immediately after the wedding, he disappeared, and I remained a pitiful agunah.
“So I have a complaint to make to you, rebbe. After all, he is your student. How can it be that your student should do such a thing? Have mercy on me. Help me!”
When the Baal Shem Tov heard this, he used the power of binding angels with oaths to find out where his student is. He connected his own three levels of soul to his student’s three soul levels and thus forced him to take temporary leave of the land of Israel and come to Istanbul.
When Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka came before his rebbe, the Baal Shem Tov, the Baal Shem Tov told him, “What did you do here in Istanbul? Did you marry a woman and then abandon her?”
“I married the woman,” Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka explained, “because I saw the light of messiah surrounding her. But at the time of the wedding, it was revealed to me that as soon as she gave birth, she would leave this world. This caused me great pain: Why should such a young tree be broken? I said to myself, I will disappear and allow the young woman to live a long life.”
“No,” the Baal Shem Tov replied. “I command you to live with the woman whom you married according to the law of Moses and Israel. What is your concern with the hidden mysteries of God?”
So Rabbi Nachman went to his destined wife and told her everything.
“I wanted to save you,” he said. “I had pity on your youth. Now do as you want. But you must know that as soon as you give birth, you will pass away.”
“That is fine,” the woman replied. “I accept everything with love, as long as through me, the light of the messiah will shine onto the world.”
When the pregnancy drew to an end and the time of birth came near, the young woman cried, “Master of the world! If it is decreed that such a light should come into the world through me, at least give me the merit to look upon my child. Let me live at least one month after his birth.”
When Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka heard this, he trembled. “Woe, woe! With her outcry, the woman broke through all the barriers of heaven. If she would have asked for life, it would have been given her. This was a moment of divine favor. But that moment has passed, and she will not be given more than she has asked for.”
And so it was. The woman gave birth to a son. He was given the name Simchah, and a month later, she passed away.
When the Baal Shem Tov was ready to leave Istanbul, he summoned Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka. “Go home to the land of Israel. As for me, I am returning to Europe. Heaven is not allowing me to proceed to the land of Israel. As for your child, Simchah, give him to me. I will bring him up. You are old, and this child must be watched very carefully. And I have a request to make of you. I know that my daughter, Hodel, will give birth to a daughter. I want you to agree to a match between your child and the girl whom Hodel will bear.”
Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka replied, “You are my rebbe and teacher. And so you are very important to me. But my family pedigree will not allow me to make such a match with you.”
“Why is that?”
“I am a descendant of Betzalel, son of Uri and grandson of Chur, of the tribe of Judah.”
“And I,” the Baal Shem Tov replied, “am a descendant of the kingdom of the house of David.”
“Well, if that is so, we can become relatives by marriage.” And Rabbi Nachman’s face shone.
In this way, the match was arranged. Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka returned to the land of Israel, and the Baal Shem Tov traveled home with Hodel and Simchah, the child of Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka.
Hodel had a daughter named Feiga. When Feiga grew older, she was given in marriage to Simchah, who had grown up in the Baal Shem Tov’s house to become a very pious and learned person.
The match was successful. But they had no children. Meanwhile, the Baal Shem Tov passed away. A while later, he came in a dream to his daughter, Hodel. Hodel complained to him, “You do wonders for everyone, but you do not help Feiga, who is childless.”
“Do not cry,” the Baal Shem Tov consoled her. “Feiga will give birth to a son whom I want you to name after me: Israel. After that, Feiga will have another son, who will illuminate the world.”
Some time later, Feiga gave birth to a boy. At his circumcision, the mohel proclaimed, “And his name will be called in Israel....” Hodel, his grandmother, exclaimed, “Israel!” When Feiga heard this, she felt faint, for in Mezhibozh (where the Baal Shem Tov and his family had lived), everyone knew that children who were named Israel after him all died.
But nothing could be done. Hodel had said “Israel,” and so it must be.
On the third day following the circumcision, the infant died.
Feiga came to her mother Hodel, weeping and wailing: “What did you do to me? Because of you, my child died.”
Hodel took her dead grandchild, placed him on the Baal Shem Tov’s grave, and said, “I do not want to hear [any excuses]. You promised my daughter Feiga a healthy son. And here he is, dead.”
A day passed, then two and three, and the matter was already growing fainter. Then suddenly, the gravedigger came running into town: “It is already a few nights since I have heard someone crying out so bitterly that I am terrified.”
The townspeople went to the cemetery and searched amidst the graves, until they found a crying child on the Baal Shem Tov’s tomb. This was the child Israel.
The child was brought back to his mother. He grew up to be an extraordinary tzaddik. He spoke with no one, and had no feel for the things of this world. Day and night he lived in holy separation, as though he had no connection with this world. Therefore, he was called Reb Israel Meis (the Dead One). His tombstone in Mezhibozh was engraved with the words, “Here lies Rabbi Israel Meis, who died in his lifetime”
After giving birth to Rabbi Israel Meis, Feiga bore Rabbi Nachman, the living tzaddik, who revealed all counsels and paths that lead to the coming of the messiah.
This aggadah gives us the key to everything, including Rabbi Nachman’s unusual actions at the time of his journey to the land of Israel.
We see from this story, which is much more than a mere narrative, that Rabbi Nachman was considered to be the person who must bring the Baal Shem Tov’s bid for redemption to its conclusion. In the light of this story, we can understand Rabbi Nachman’s journey to the land of Israel.
And this will be the theme of the following chapter.
Chapter Sixteen: What Rabbi Nachman Sought and What He Achieved with His Journey
We will never penetrate the Holy of Holies of the “Baal Shem Tov souls” if we do not recognize them as the heralds of the Messiah. They were not merely dreamers of the messiah, as we say of great seekers, but people who actually paved a path for the royal messiah. Some paved a path with unceasing self-sacrifice; others with supernatural love and divine union; others with mystical clarifications and raising of sparks; some with seeking new paths to battle the darkness of the world; a few with simple faith and with unceasing prayer that comes from the deepest depths and rises to the greatest heights; a few others with the holiness of the land of Israel, with the return of the daughter of the king to her palace, the return of God’s Presence to her dwelling place in her land.
Rabbi Nachman was one of those seekers who travel many paths at once in order to come to the summit: to bring the redemption of the world by first bringing the redemption of the people of Israel. He wanted to drive away the thick clouds of impurity with the great light of consciousness: not the consciousness of the secular world, but the consciousness of holiness. He was the great man of prayer, the reviver and renewer of the old Psalms spirit; the great man of simplicity, the Jew with a truly broken heart, the poor man who wraps himself in prayer. And at the same time, he was the stormer of heaven, the conqueror of angels and souls, a man who wished to uncover the last secrets of creation. All this was for him linked inextricably with the land of Israel—not only with the heavenly land, but, as he once put it, “precisely the physical land of Israel, with its houses and stones.”
The journey of the Baal Shem Tov to the land of Israel and his return from there, due to great spiritual opposition; the journey of Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka and its surrounding legend; the relationship by marriage between “Betzalel ben Uri ben Chur of the tribe of Judah” and “the kingdom of the house of David”—these and many other tales did Rabbi Nachman as a child hear about his elders. Add to this his brilliant mind and great poetic imagination; the weeping and pain of generations for the suffering of God’s Presence; his fasting, asceticism and meditation in forests and caves—all of this must have brought him to the thought: “Although I am not the messiah, I must bring him. To accomplish this, I must do as my elders did when they attempted to bring him. To do so, they traveled to the land of Israel. Therefore, I must travel there as well. They were not able to attain their goal, for they could not conquer the spiritual opponents. So I must somehow find a way. They took circuitous routes. I must surpass them in that. It was precisely Jacob, the ‘man of simplicity,’ who succeeded in taking from Esau the birthright and the blessings.”
Rabbi Nachman’s journey to the land of Israel was the journey of a man engaged in a bitter struggle with a hidden enemy.
The enemy’s net is spread across the world and he has an endless number of spies and scouts. You must constantly stand on guard, armed from head to toe, never forgetting for one moment that the enemy lurks, awaiting a favorable moment. In addition, you must be able to fool the enemy. You must be able to fall to the ground to avoid his bullets. You must be able to shift your position often, so that when the enemy attacks one position, you are somewhere else. You must be able to encircle the enemy and attack him. You must be able to sometimes cede and withdraw in the best possible order. You must know all the weak points of the enemy, and know when and how to attack. The enemy should never know your true plans and means.
This explains the unusual conduct of Rabbi Nachman throughout his entire journey to the land of Israel. This explains his falling into lower states of mind many times during his journey, as he himself and his students tell; his strife with others and his refusal to tell who he really was; his childish activities at certain moments, such as when he played at war with children in Constantinople; and, most of all, the fears that would fall upon him often, and the great strain he was under at almost every moment of his journey.
In this way, we can also understand something that appears so strange. A person travels to the land of Israel facing such adversity; he goes through so much; he yearns, as Rabbi Yehudah Halevi did in his time, to see the beloved land. And then, when he arrives in Haifa, he immediately wants to leave! He already wishes to depart the land of Israel. He tells his fellow-traveler to find a ship that will take them home. He does not even want to travel to Tiberias.
He ends up staying in the land of Israel only because his fellow-traveler has absolutely no desire to leave without first feasting his eyes on the holy sites of the land of Israel. Only because of that man’s stubbornness did Rabbi Nachman remain in the land of Israel for a longer period of time. But from his point of view, there was nothing holding him back from leaving the land of Israel immediately after having spent several hours there and traversing a small area.
On the face of it, he was not even disturbed by the idea that he would not be able to visit the graves of the holy ones, including the grave-site of his grandfather, Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka. And more than that: Rabbi Nachman never visited the true center of Jewish holiness, Jerusalem—even after his fellow-traveler’s stubbornness and even after, due to various reasons, he was forced to remain a longer period of time in the land of Israel.
All this can only be understood by explaining that Rabbi Nachman did not view his journey to the land of Israel simply as a journey for the sake of a mitzvah, or for the sake of attaining elevated states of being, or simply for the sake of the love of the land—but exclusively, as he phrased it, “in order to conquer the land.”
To conquer? What can this mean? Did Rabbi Nachman in his time foreshadow political Zionism? And if so, how did he mean to “conquer” the land? With his bare hands?
When we enter Rabbi Nachman’s inner world, we can comprehend this. The earthly land of Israel, “the land of Israel with its houses and stones,” cannot not be redeemed—in the view of Rabbi Nachman as well as other Kabbalists—before the heavenly land is redeemed. And because there are many brambles that encircle the supernal rose (God’s Presence), neither the heavenly nor the earthly land can be redeemed until the gardener comes and uproots the thorns.
Who is this gardener—or, as Rabbi Nachman calls him, the “master of the field”? according to Rabbi Nachman, this is none other than the true tzaddik, who occupies the same plane as Moses and the Messiah. Tzaddikim, even great tzaddikim, exist in all generations. However, the true tzaddik only reveals himself in certain eras.
Rabbi Nachman viewed himself as the last true tzaddik, a man who must pave a way for the ultimate redeemer. He must pass through dark forests and chop down trees a thousand years old. He must descend at great hazard into the deepest abysses. And because he is the true tzaddik, because he must deliver the strongest blow at evil, evil arrays all its powers against him, it mobilizes its strongest and most experienced troops, it shoots arrows aimed directly at his heart. Therefore, the true tzaddik must array all possible strategies against it.
And if he wishes to reach the ultimate goal, the redemption of the land, the redemption of the daughter of the king who has been imprisoned by the Evil One, there swarm from all the heavens and all the abysses uncountable foes and adversaries that oppose him wherever he may travel.
Therefore, the true tzaddik must often conceal himself, he must present himself as a simple man, sometimes exceedingly simple; and when it is very necessary, when he is going straight to free the king’s daughter, he must appear as a piece of nothing (or, as Rabbi Nachman once described Rabbi Nosson, “a piece of mud”). I am a small, inconsequential person, I want nothing and need nothing, I merely act the fool, I play with children.
Then, once Rabbi Nachman attained his goal, once he trod on the soil of the land of Israel, he understood that the “tzaddik” had united with the “land.” In mystical terms, yesod had united with malchus. Therefore, he acquired this land, in accordance with the halachah, through the principle of chazakah: right of possession. And so there need be no more delays. To the contrary, he must leave as quickly as possible, in order not to arouse the enemy.
On his return, Rabbi Nachman endured great problems and difficulties: imprisonment on a Turkish warship, storms, floods, the threat of death. All this meant that the forces of evil wished to rob him of the great and holy treasure that he had attained in the land of Israel: the promise of redemption and the path to redemption. This explains Rabbi Nachman’s great fears and, from this moment onwards, his sudden, effervescent joy at certain moments: for the treasure was saved and carried back to his brothers.
Chapter Seventeen: The First Meetings After the Return
After returning from his long journey to his home town of Medvedevka, Rabbi Nachman visited the shtetl of Shpole (in the Kiev gubernia, or province). There, he was opposed by the Shpole Zeide.
The Shpole Zeide was a folk rebbe: singing, dancing, joyful. He had known the Baal Shem Tov himself, and attempted to reproduce his ways. It is difficult to know whether he gave himself the title Zeide (Grandfather), or others did. At any rate, it fit him extraordinarily well. He consoled, encouraged, counseled, gave remedies, made peace between man and wife and between parents and children, defended the weak, threatened the strong with spiritual punishment, and stood up in defense of the abused Jewish arrendators [lessees]. He was well-known as a man who intimidated the aristocrats, men who beat their “Moshkes,” let dogs loose upon them and threw them with their families into dark cellars. Like other tzaddikim--gute yidden—of his generation, the Shpoler Zeide distributed everything he had to the poor.
Like a true folk rebbe, he was a loyal spokesman for the Jews before heaven. He would always argue before the Master of the world: “What do you want from your people Israel? In their place, in such a bitter exile, another people would not keep one commandment. Yet Your people Israel keep the commandments and perform so many good deeds.” It is told that once, when there was a famine, he convened a court, appointed great tzaddikim as judges and pressed charges against the Supreme One: What does this mean? Why does He not give any food to his Jews?
When the Shpoler Zeide saw Rabbi Nachman, he welcomed him joyously, made a royal feast and invited all the town leaders. Whenever someone entered the house, the old man leaped up and said earnestly, “Do you see? You know that I never eat at night, but for the sake of this important guest, I do.”
The two men spent the entire night engaged in Torah and dancing. In the morning, they took leave of each other with great friendship.
However, the love between the old folk rebbe and the young messiah pursuer did not last long. When, a year and a half later, Rabbi Nachman settled in the shtetl Zlatapolye near Shpole, a fiery enmity broke out between the two rebbes. Of this, more will be told later.
But meanwhile, there was still peace and quiet. The Old Man of Shpole had not yet glimpsed the eagle’s wings of this young stormer of heaven.
Rabbi Nachman experienced an extraordinarily great joy when he met the Maggid of Tirhavitze, Rabbi Yekusiel. The Maggid was an associate of Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl (author of the Meor Einayim, and the father of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty). Rabbi Yekusiel and Rabbi Nachum would travel to each other for Shabbos. The spiritual influence of Rabbi Yekusiel was felt, the Breslover Hasidim tell, in eighty-four towns. The rebbes of his time called him a border guard, for he did not allow the anti-traditional spirit of the Khersoner province to penetrate into the Kiev province. (The shtetl of Tirhavitze lay on the border between the two provinces.)
At the time that Rabbi Nachman began to act as a rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel was very old. But he ignored the fact that he was an elder who was considered holy not only by the Hasidic masses but by the greatest rebbes of his time (for instance, the founder of Chabad, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, sought his approbation for Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s siddur). Although Rabbi Nachman was still very young and barely accepted, he traveled to Rabbi Nachman as a student traveling to his rebbe.
Once, Rabbi Yekusiel went to Rabbi Nachman in the company of Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl. In the presence of Rabbi Nachum, he told Rabbi Nachman, “You are my rebbe.” Afterwards, he said of Rabbi Nachman, “He hides himself from the entire world and particularly from me. But he does not remain hidden from me. I know that because of him, I will be the subject of great controversy. People will shoot at me from all sides and wound me. I may be shot, but I will not step away from the truth!”
And Rabbi Nachum of Chernobyl himself said concisely of Rabbi Nachman that “he has ‘beautiful eyes’” (the biblical phrase used to describe King David).
Rabbi Yekusiel had a son-in-law, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac, who came from a distinguished family and who was a great scholar and tzaddik.
Once, Rabbi Yekusiel said to Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac, “My child, everyone must have a rebbe.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac answered, “You are my rebbe.”
“No,” replied Rabbi Yekusiel. “You cannot make a relative your rebbe.”
“What then should I do?”
“Travel to all the rebbes and to mine as well. Look at each of them with an eye of truth, and choose as your rebbe the one who pleases you best.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac followed this advice, and he became a student of Rabbi Nachman.
Now, as he was returning home from the land of Israel, Rabbi Nachman passed Rabbi Yekusiel’s home town. When he crossed the bridge leading to the town, one of Rabbi Yekusiel’s Hasidim recognized him and grew flustered. Rabbi Nachman called to him and told him to tell Rabbi Yekusiel privately to meet him in a small village a half mile from the town.
In great confusion, the Hasid went to Rabbi Yekusiel. Rabbi Yekusiel was standing outside in his yarmulke, without a hat and gartel, speaking with people. When he heard that Rabbi Nachman had come, he was so filled with joy that he didn’t know what he was about. He told the Hasid to harness his horse and carriage, and he himself ran—without hat and gartel—to Rabbi Nachman. He ran so hastily that he arrived even before the carriage did.
On his return to Medvedevka, Rabbi Nachman returned to his role as rebbe and taught Torah. But now it was with a new spirit, with new insights of the land of Israel.
On the Shabbos following his return home, he taught on the verse, “Make yourself a serpent and place it on a pole.” At Shalosh Seudos, he taught on the verse, “When you pass through the waters, I am with you.” In this teaching, he taught that just as God is both hidden and revealed, so is the Torah hidden and revealed. “Hidden” means its inner being. And we must yearn only for this innerness. How can we reach it? Through true prayer, through binding our thought to our words. God wishes to be kind. He is ready to direct goodness and blessings to every individual. But to receive this goodness and blessings, we must have a vessel. What is that vessel? It is our “I.” When our “I” is complete, when it is subjugated to the supreme will, we are on the level of a tzaddik. And every Jew can reach that level. As the verse states, “Your people are all righteous.” Then we become a vessel to receive all goodness and to attain the inner being of the Torah. “When you pass through the waters….” “Waters” refers to Torah. Then “I am with you.” God becomes bound with us through the perfection of our “I.”
Chapter Eighteen: Among Tall Mountains
After Rabbi Nachman rested from his long and stormy journey, he again set out traveling. This time he did not go far, but to the courts of the great rebbes of Volhin and White Russia.
The ostensible reason for Rabbi Nachman’s traveling was to provide for the impoverished Hasidim in the land of Israel. Rabbi Avraham of Kalisk had asked him, as soon as he returned home, to inform all the great rebbes of Poland and Russia about the troubles experienced by “those who stand before the Lord” in the land of Israel: their hunger, their isolation, their anguish, the intolerable taxes they had to pay, their subjugation to the pashas and ministers, servants and informers, who notified the pashas of every groschen a Jew received from abroad. Rabbi Nachman also had to make peace between Rabbi Avraham and Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (later, of Lubavitch), who were engaged in a sharp dispute concerning the proper distribution of the charity fund for the Jews of the land of Israel.
But in an inner sense, Rabbi Nachman had a very different agenda. He told himself that only he had the true key to the gate of heaven, that only he knew the one true way to the royal messiah, and that only he was the true tzaddik, the herald of the messiah.
In his younger years, Rabbi Nachman had had only a premonition of this. But in his mature years, this concept crystallized. His experiences during his journey to the land of Israel had intensified his flaming, exalted state of mind.
And if this was indeed so, why was he dwelling in a far-flung shtetl in Podolia? Why was he not invited to be maggid in some great town (in the past, the great rabbis, particularly in Podolia and Volhin, were simply called “maggidim”)? And if it had been decreed that he must live in a small shtetl, why didn’t the great rebbes come to him? Why did they not “rise early to his door”? And in general, who were these rebbes? Were they all as great as they were reputed to be? If so, why didn’t they illuminate the entire world? Why didn’t they bring the messiah? Why were people still drowning in a sea of blood? Why were terrible decrees being let loose on the heads of the Jews? Why could none of the great rabbis ward off the decrees? Furthermore, if he, Rabbi Nachman, was indeed the one “true tzaddik,” what was the status of those great rebbes? Tzaddikim, wise men, gute yidden can exist in great number; but the man who is the Moses of the generation (or of generations), the harbinger of the messiah, can be no more than one.
Rabbi Nachman’s first trip was, as is known, to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. What he saw, heard, experienced and discussed there is not transmitted in detail by his students. Therefore, they speak in a very exalted tone about the magnificent reception that he was given by the Neshkhizer Maggid and Rabbi Hirsch of Alik.
Who was the Neshkhizer Maggid?
Even compared to the other great rebbes, the Neshkhizer Maggid was an outstanding wonder-worker. As is known to anyone who has even a slight familiarity with the history and literature of Hasidism, the great rebbes put no great stress on miracles. The masses were very impressed by miracles and told of them with exaggerations and outlandish claims. But the rebbes themselves, in particular the greatest among them, believed that to illuminate and uplift even one Jewish soul is worth more than all the miracles joined together. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi used to say, “When we were with the Maggid (the Maggid of Mezeritch), we used draw the Holy Spirit by the bucketful. Miracles lay under our chairs, but we did not want to pick them up.” Similar statements are recorded in the name of other rebbes. Rabbi Mendel of Kotzk is even reputed to have said, “‘Miracles in the land of Ham’ (Psalms 105:27): that is to say, miracles are for peasants.” However, the miracles performed by the Neshkhizer Maggid were so famous that even the greatest rebbes of his time were awed by them.
The Neshkhizer Maggid (his name was Rabbi Mordecai; he was a student of Rabbi Michel of Zlatshov) wanted no less than to demonstrate clearly to Jews and non-Jews that there is a hidden Power that transcends all those powers that we call nature; and that this self-same hidden Power is “the Power of all powers and the Root of all roots.” Everything comes from it alone; everything receives life from it alone; and everything in the end returns to it. This deeply hidden and wondrous Power soothes and heals all troubles and illnesses when we cling to it in great faith and simplicity, living a life of holiness and purity.
Therefore, as soon as the Maggid came to Neshkhiz, he announced that with the word of God he would heal the sick and help all sufferers.
Other great rebbes of his generation wanted to have nothing to do with private, purely physical troubles. For instance, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi responded to all those who came to him and cried out about their personal concerns, “Am I in the place of God?” Other rebbes used to address their followers’ physical concerns only at specific hours—or half-hours—of the day; and then only after the petitioners had made great efforts, had wept and offered pidyonos. But the Neshkhizer Maggid opened wide the Gates of Compassion for everyone: “Come and be helped!”
The sick and the suffering, those weary and pummeled by life, were not lacking. Thousands came to him, each with his own pack of troubles. Long lines of people used to stand before his house, and peasant wagons in which lay cripples, the blind and sick stretched out for versts. And for each request, he would heal and calm with good words.
The Neshkhizer’s miracle-work lasted for three years. Then he announced, “Enough! I do not need any more. I have done enough to show God’s wonders.”
This man of miracles was sought out by all the holy tzaddikim of his time. They considered it a joy to gain his friendship and to receive a blessing from him. For instance, it is said that the Seer of Lublin once heard a heavenly proclamation: “Mordecai, the son of Gittel, is completely dedicated to God.” The Seer traveled through cities and towns to seek this Mordecai, son of Gittel, until he found him in Neshkhiz (Rabbi Mordecai’s son, Rabbi Yitzchak Neshkhizer, was then a young child, and he followed his father and the Seer into a field, where they held a secretive rebbe-type discussion—as Rabbi Yitzchak himself later told).
It was to this Maggid that Rabbi Nachman traveled when he began to fulfill the promise that he had made to Rabbi Avraham in the land of Israel. And he immediately began to measure himself against the greatest rebbes of his time.
In 5526 [1765-6], the Neshkhizer Maggid issued a proclamation regarding the anguished situation of the Jews of the land of Israel, about the great mitzvah to support them, and that every week each Jew was obligated to set aside money for the poor of the Holy Land.
The following passages from that proclamation are very characteristic of the Maggid:
“I have received clear information regarding the great rabbis of our time who dwell in the Holy Land and regarding the great extent of the general suffering and the great poverty that cannot be described in writing. The general funds from the state are not distributed equitably. I myself have worn myself out…. Where will their help come from? … Therefore, I beg on behalf of those who left their lands to live in the Holy Land to establish it….
“I beg you, my friends, my brothers and comrades, please strengthen yourselves to whatever extent you can…. I am ready to pray for anyone whose heart will burn within him with ideas and strength to participate and donate to this mitzvah cause: for him and his family. And even at this moment, I request a blessing for anyone [doing so,] so that their strength and fortunate will rise ever-higher, on a smooth road, until the coming of the messiah.”
In other words, the Neshkhizer was giving his blessings in advance. “For your good heart, for your enthusiasm and work for the poor of the land of Israel, you have my prayer and blessing, which will accompany you until the coming of the messiah.”
And so, to whom should Rabbi Nachman travel with his alarming news about the sufferings of the Jews in the land of Israel, if not to such a spiritual advocate of theirs as the Neshkhizer Maggid? In this way, he would be able to more closely examine a person about whom people told so many stories involving miracles and wonders: including, even, reviving the dead.
Rabbi Nachman came to Rabbi Mordechai, the Neshkhizer Maggid, in the last days of the Maggid’s earthly life. The Maggid lay in bed, with badly diseased feet. During the entire course of his illness, the windows of his room were curtained, for he could not bear the rays of the sun. Nor could he tolerate the scent of cooking. His only food was a little soup, which would be brought to him from time to time after he had been asked to eat many times.
When he was told that Rabbi Nachman had come, he was filled with joy. He rejoiced: “He has literally revived me by coming.”
When Rabbi Nachman entered his room, he received him with an honor and warmth that had no limit and no comparison. They immediately discussed all sorts of visions of great tzaddikim, the attainments they had achieved and, passing from topic to topic, the angel Metatron.
After they talked, the Maggid gave an order that the dining room table should be set. Although he himself could not bear the scent of cooking, out of love for his guest he rose from his sickbed, put on a robe, decorated with gold, entered the dining room and sat at the table. He invited Rabbi Nachman to stay with him for Shabbos. Apparently, Rabbi Nachman accepted the invitation. Later on, the Maggid sent Rabbi Nachman ten rendel as a pidyon: a gift one makes to a tzaddik. Breslov tradition tells that Rabbi Nachman saw that the Maggid could have lived if had distributed all his possessions to charity. But since one cannot demand this of someone, it was already too late.
When Rabbi Nachman left Neshkhiz, the Maggid escorted him, paying no mind to his own condition. When he returned, the Maggid is supposed to have said, “If I had only been created so that Rabbi Nachman could step across my doorway, it would have been enough.”
This narrative, told by the Breslov tradition, can create the impression that there was a full harmony and complete unity in point of view between these two wonder-men, Rabbi Mordecai and Rabbi Nachman. From what the same tradition tells further on, we see something entirely different.
We are told that Rabbi Nachman had great disagreements with the holy Rabbi of Neshkhiz. The Neshkhizer Maggid was famous for his visions. But Rabbi Nachman argued that this was not the way to see them.
One time, the Maggid sent people to Rabbi Nachman to tell him that before Rabbi Nachman entered the town, the Maggid saw the angel Metatron in such-and-such a shape.” But Rabbi Nachman replied, “This is not the way that one sees him.”
Another version of this episode has it that the Neshkhizer Maggid himself told Rabbi Nachman that he literally saw Metatron, and Rabbi Nachman replied that one does not see him in that way.
And yet another version: the Neshkhizer said, “I saw Metatron in such-and-such a way,” and Rabbi Nachman responded, “I saw him otherwise, and my vision is the correct one.”
These mystical discussions of the two visionaries came before Rabbi Hirsch, the tzaddik of Alik, who was deeply immersed in super-earthly visions and estimated himself highly, as can be seen from his discussion with Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibozh. Rabbi Boruch, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, believed that he was the only rebbe of the generation. (This did not diminish him—even the greatest have weaknesses.)
Rabbi Boruch held that everyone who came to him must recognize him as his rebbe. He himself acknowledged no equal. When Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi came to him when he was gathering money for the Jews of White Russia who had been expelled from their villages, Rabbi Boruch complained: How could Rabbi Schneur Zalman consider himself a rebbe, when the only true rebbe is Rabbi Boruch, seeing as how he is the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov? Rabbi Schneur Zalman replied, “You are the Baal Shem Tov’s physical grandson, but I am his spiritual grandson.”
One time Rabbi Hirsch of Alik came to Rabbi Boruch, and he wanted to clearly present himself not as a Hasid before his rebbe but as one rebbe to another. Rabbi Boruch had ordered that when Rabbi Hirsch entered the room that there be no chair for him to sit in. But Rabbi Hirsch had been forewarned, and he told his shamash to bring a small chair along with him and to carry it into the room immediately after he was greeted by Rabbi Boruch.
Rabbi Boruch greeted Rabbi Hirsch, and allowed him to remain standing in the center of the room. But immediately the door opened, the chair was brought in and Rabbi Hirsch sat down. Rabbi Boruch grew angry: “What is this? To sit in my room without permission?”
Rabbi Hirsch replied, “Like you, I am also a khad bedoro—unique in the generation.”
Rabbi Boruch grew livid: “Can there be two such people in one generation?”
Rabbi Hirsch laughed. “Yes. Just as there can be two khad gadyas (“one lamb”—song from the Haggadah), so can there be two khad bedoros.”
Rabbi Boruch grew more calm, bowed down his head and lifted it up and said, “In essence, there are four khad bedoros: I in Torah, you in wisdom, Rabbi Mordechai of Neshkhizer in fear of sin and Rabbi Shalom of Probishtsh (father of Rabbi Israel of Rizhin) in majesty.”
In this way, Rabbi Hirsch dared to act as an equal to Rabbi Boruch—a man who interpreted the verse, “May I be counted [PKD] amongst the righteous tzaddikim” as “may I be the commanding officer [PaKiD] of the righteous tzaddikim.”
Rabbi Hirsch thus no doubt imagined that when the young Rabbi Nachman would come to him, he would be very impressed by Rabbi Hirsch’s visions and dream ascents. When Rabbi Nachman did come to Rabbi Hirsch on his return from Neshkhiz and spent a Shabbos with him, Rabbi Hirsch constantly spoke of visions: he saw something this way, he saw something else another way, he saw angels and seraphim. And at every meal, he told stories about the heavenly Chariot. Rabbi Nachman listened to all this and remained silent. When Shabbos was over, after Havdalah, Rabbi Hirsch entered Rabbi Nachman’s room and again began pressing him about his visions. “If you want, I will give you clear proof that my visions are genuine.” And he began a long Torah discourse on the subject. But Rabbi Nachman answered him curtly with the Talmudic statement, “Many have desired to see the Chariot, but have never succeeded in doing so” (Megillah 24b).
It was this sort of sharpness that gained Rabbi Nachman many opponents amongst the great rebbes of his time, an opposition that continued to grow. And as it did, Rabbi Nachman’s defense grew as well, until it crossed the line into attack. And when Rabbi Nachman’s attacks grew—particularly when there were (as there are in every generation, unfortunately), those who foment contention, who love slander and who repeat gossip, and these men would convey Rabbi Nachman’s sharp words to his opponents (and theirs to him) in an exaggerated, twisted, transformed and embroidered form, padded [?-tzugericht] with outright lies, the opposition that Rabbi Nachman had borne from a few great rebbes turned to hatred.
This hatred, which embittered Rabbi Nachman’s life, will be discussed in following chapters. Here we will only quote a few statements that Rabbi Nachman made regarding his own greatness, which could very easily be interpreted as denigration of other rebbes, and so as a provocation.
Soon after Rabbi Nachman returned from the land of Israel, the Tirhavitzer Maggid spent a Shabbos with him in Medvedevka. That week, Rabbi Nachman delivered a discourse based on the verse, “This is the generation and its leaders” (Psalms 24:6). That discourse was not recorded by his students. They only note that he said, “For example, you are the generation and I am the leader.”
When a young man speaks in such a way to an old rebbe—a man who, as the Breslov tradition tells, was maggid of hundreds of towns—he must elicit enmity. In this case, the Tirhavitzer Maggid accepted these words with love, for he considered himself a Hasid of Rabbi Nachman. But when such phrases were made regarding other rebbes—who considered themselves unique in their generation—Rabbi Nachman must have appeared to them like Joseph telling his brothers his dream about the sun and eleven stars bowing down to him.
Another time, as Rabbi Nachman was sitting with the Tirhavitzer Maggid, he took hold of his beard affectionately and told him, “A new being like me was never in the world before.”
Another time he said, “The world must pray hard on my behalf, because it needs me very much. It could not exist without me.”
Once he told his Hasidim, “The world cannot exist without me. As far as you are concerned, this is obvious. You yourselves know how much you need me. But even all the tzaddikim need me very much, because they al need improvement.”
And he said, “If I were to reveal who and what I am, the entire world would run after me. But I do not wish to do so.”
And he said, “I am a very fine, wondrous tree with wondrous branches, even thought I am literally lying on the ground.”
He said, “I am a river that cleans all stains.”
“I once thought,” he said another time, “that it is my evil inclination that is persuading me that no one can be a leader like me. But today I know clearly that I am in fact the only leader of the generation and that there is no other leader like me.”
Another statement: “All the favors that the messiah will do for the Jews I can do as well. The only difference between us is that when he decrees something, it will come about, whereas I”—and he fell silent. According to another version, he is supposed to have said, “And I cannot bring anything to completion.”
Once he said of himself, “I am the Grandfather of grandfathers.” And he once wrote, “I am the Elder of holiness.”
The first of the Seven Beggars in Rabbi Nachman’s story is a man who, although blind, sees better than all those who have sight. A great eagle informs him that he is younger than anyone else, for he has not yet begun to live in this world; yet at the same time, he is the oldest of all. According to Rabi Nosson Sternhartz, Rabbi Nachman’s outstanding student, this passage refers to Rabi Nachman himself.
Rabbi Nachman referred very caustically to the “false leaders,” among whom he counted some of the oldest and most distinguished rebbes of his time. In fact, Rabi Nachman believed that all the troubles and persecution that the Jews suffered came about because of these “false leaders.”
Hasidim tell that Rabbi Nachman said that the acronym of “rebbe” is rosh beis yisroel: “the head of the house of Israel.” That refers to a true rebbe. But in regard to a false rebbe, the acronym is ra b’einei Hashem: “evil in the eyes of God.” Indeed, Rabbi Nachman said of those whom he took to be false rebbes that they are “the evil ones, who are like the darkness” (as stated in Likutei Moharan).
A few of the above epigrams belong to the later period in Rabi Nachman’s career and not to this time with which we are presently concerned with: the first two or three years after his return from the land of Israel. However, a number of these statements were made immediately following his return from the land of Israel.
Rabbi Nachman’s students tell that even before he went to the land of Israel he once told Rabbi Aharon, a rebbe in Breslov, “You know that I like you very much. And so I am giving you a blessing that in the world-to-come you will at least have the merit of understanding my everyday conversation.”
If Rabbi Nachman could speak about himself in such a way even before his journey to the land of Israel, it is easy to imagine the things he said about himself after he went there, when he was engaged in climbing from one heavenly level to another, from one illumination to another.
Chapter Nineteen: The Old Lion and the Young Eagle
In 5560 (1799-1800), Rabbi Nachman settled in Zlatapolia (in the Kiev region). This happened suddenly. That year, he arranged a marriage for his daughter Miriam with one of the sons of the rabbi of Valatshisk, Rabbi Leibush. The wedding took place in Chmelnik. Returning from the weeding, Rabbi Nachman and his wife traveled through Zlatapolia. Not asking anyone’s advice or opinion, he immediately rented an apartment and moved in with his family. The community accepted him in the role of rebbe and offered him the right to have sole say in the appointment of cantors and shofar blowers and in determining the synagogue practices.
Rabbi Nachman moved into Zlatapolia at the end of 5560 (1800), and immediately he, together with a hundred of his Hasidim, “took over” in the town.
The Rosh Hashanah of 5561 (1800) passed without incident. The community attended to the needs of Rabbi Nachman and his Hasidim with great respect, and everything went well. But on Yom Kippur something did occur. Rabbi Nachman was not pleased with the man who led the neilah prayer. In the midst of the prayers, this man began to cough and could not say a word. Another cantor had to take his place. The first man had to leave the lectern in great embarrassment and shame.
Following Yom Kippur, when the Hasidim were very joyful, Rabbi Nachman explained this occurrence as follows. “The Talmud tells that Abraham had a coin. On one side were engraved the image of an old man and an old woman, and on the other side the image of a young man and a maiden. Here something similar took place. First the prayers were led by a father-in-law and later, at neilah, by a son-in-law. Both were only interested in showing off for their wives: the old man for his old wife and the young man for his young wife.”
The man who had led neilah was a Hasid of the Shpoler Zeide. After Yom Kippur, he went to his rebbe and slandered Rabbi Nachman. The Shpoler Zeide accepted his Hasid’s grievance and set out against Rabbi Nachman in great anger. This began the controversy, which lasted throughout the lifetimes of the two great rebbes—the Shpoler Zeide and Rabbi Nachman—and for a good few decades after their passing.
The first act of the Shpoler Zeide was to incite the Zlatapolia community against Rabbi Nachman. For this purpose, he came to Zlatapolia immediately after Succos. Since, before he had become a rebbe, the Shpoler Zeide had been a simple shamash in the Zlatapolia synagogue (at which time he had grown very beloved and earned a name as a miracle worker), they now obeyed and did all that he told them to.
It was charged that Rabbi Nachman had ignored the customs that the Shpoler Zeide had instituted in the Zlatapolia Synagogue. How dare a young man, even if he is a rebbe, nullify what was established by an elderly, great tzaddik?
Rabbi Nachman replied that at the time that the Shpoler Zeide had introduced these customs, he had not yet been a rebbe, but a simple shamash.
This answer inflamed the mood of the people of Zlatapolia until most of the community opposed Rabbi Nachman and only a minority defended him.
For two years, Rabbi Nachman remained in Zlatapolia “amidst thorns,” in the expression of Rabbi Nachman’s followers. He was subjected to the greatest insults. After two years passed, Rabbi Nachman and his family left Zlatapolia. He said, “In Zlatapolia, I experienced Gehennom twice. The wicked are judged in Gehennom for twelve months—but I suffered Gehennom in Zlatapolia for twenty-four months.”
Even after Rabbi Nachman departed, the controversy did not abate. The Shpoler Zeide drew many great rabbis to his side. Those siding with Rabbi Nachman were not silent either. Rabbi Nachman was defended by none other than the “Glory of the Generation,” the Great Defender, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Breslov tradition tells that a meeting was convened in Berditchev in which great rabbis discussed whether to excommunicate the Shpoler Zeide for his persecution of Rabbi Nachman. But the matter never reached that point, for Rabbi Levi Yitzchak is supposed to have objected, “You are right, but I do not want a rabbi to be excommunicated in my town.”
Once, Rabbi Boruch of Mezhibozh (Rabbi Nachman’s uncle) convened a number of rabbis in order to end the controversy between the Shpoler Zeide and Rabbi Nachman. The Shpoler Zeide was among those who attended this meeting. A sharp argument broke out between the two sides. Words were exchanged, and they began to appeal to family ties. “I am a grandson of the Baal Shem Tov,” Rabbi Boruch said, “and Rabbi Nachman is the Baal Shem Tov’s great-grandson.” The Shpoler Zeide replied, “Leave the grandfather alone. A grandfather throws such grandchildren into a sack.”
The rabbis left having done nothing. On his return from the meeting, the Shpoler Zeide had to cross the Dnieper River. As soon as he got into the ferry, it hit an ice floe and was damaged. The Shpoler Zeide fell into the river and began to flounder.
He cried out to his followers, who were standing at the shore, “Rabbi Nachman is chasing me. Even if I drown, you must know that you must not listen to him.” The Shpoler Zeide knew how to swim and was, besides, a strong man. He swam to the opposite shore, and his followers had the opportunity to tell yet another miracle story about the Shpoler Zeide.
How far the Shpoler Zeide’s antagonism to Rabbi Nachman went can be seen from an episode that Avraham Ber Gatlaber records in his memoirs. His uncle was a follower of the Shpoler Zeide. The Zeide once told his uncle, “I will guarantee you a place in the world-to-come if you curse Nachman.”
To all this, Rabbi Nachman responded only with sharp words criticizing “false leaders,” or with aphorisms on the theme that every new path in the service of God elicits controversy. Regarding the Shpoler Zeide himself, he once quoted a verse, making a characteristic pun, “Many are the thoughts in the heart of a man (lev ish), but the counsel of God shall endure.” This can be read: “Many are the thoughts in Leibish”—i.e., the Shpoler Zeide.
In general, Rabbi Nachman was very gifted in word-play. When Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi sought him out when he was in Podolia, Rabbi Nachman told him, “Peterburg has let you go, but Feterboruch (Uncle Boruch) has still not let you go,” referring to Rabbi Boruch’s opposition to Rabbi Schneur Zalman.
And when one of his Hasidism had to spend Shabbos Shirah in Tomoshpil, Rabbi Nachman made reference to him with the verse, “God did not lead you through the land of the Pelishtim”—Pelishtim being the anagram of Tomoshpil. And Breslov is the anagram of “heart of flesh (lev basar),” as in the verse, “I have given you a heart of flesh.”
In the same way, he transformed the phrase “heart of man” into “Leibish.” And with the verse, “many are the thoughts in the heart of a man,” he told his opponent that no force, no matter how exalted its spirit may be, can annul that which is decreed from above.
Chapter Twenty: Persecution of Rabbi Nachman
The psychological impetus of the controversy against Rabbi Nachman on the part of a few great rabbis of his day was, as the reader may have already concluded, that of personal annoyance. It bothered people that he was growing greater than they, that he considered himself higher than they and—what was worse—that he dismissed them and all their attainments.
Unfortunately, jealousy awoke. These rabbis who spoke so slanderously of Rabbi Nachman felt deep in their hearts that Rabbi Nachman indeed possessed something that they did not. Precisely what this was they did not know. But neither could they deny it. And so they were pained. These were men who had devoted their lives to holiness, who had climbed the highest levels, who were revered by thousands of Hasidim. And now came a young man—the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, but still a young man—and he taught such deep teachings that had to be studied and even then one could only hope to understand a portion.
Is it hard to imagine that great rabbis and truly holy men could not conquer their vexation and jealousy? One need merely recall the story of Joseph and his brothers: “His brothers were jealous of him.” And who was greater than Aaron and Miriam? Yet the Torah tells us simply and clearly: “They said, Is it only with Moses that Hashem has spoken? Did He not also speak with us?” And Hashem appeared to them, with the words, “Hear now My words…. Why did you not fear to speak of My servant, Moses?” which, like a lightning flash in a thick black night, suddenly showed the incredible distance between Moses and them.
And who is greater than the master of prophets, our master Moses? Yet the Midrash does not refrain from telling us that when, at the end of his life, God’s word appeared to Joshua and not to him, he cried out, “A hundred deaths rather than one instance of jealousy!”
How did those rabbis justify their attack on Rabbi Nachman? To what did they attribute their motivation for their persecution? What excuse did they have for themselves, and what sin did they find in Rabbi Nachman? They could not tell themselves and others, “We are persecuting Rabbi Nachman because he dismisses us and we are jealous of him.” They had to at least find some sins in their “enemy.” But what sins could they find in this Godly nazirite, a man who fasted for weeks at a time, who was constantly praying and learning?
For the shtetl of Zlatapolia, it was enough to charge that Rabbi Nachman had disrespected the Shpoler Zeide by ignoring his synagogue customs. But such an accusation could not serve to fuel a campaign of great rabbis that was waged for many years in the entire Podolia and Ukraine area, and in which even such a great tzaddik as Rabbi Wolf Zhitomir (author of the Or Hameir) took part, a man who was universally recognized as a great and holy man. Even the lamed-vavnik, Rabbi Leib Sarahs, took part in this campaign.
One will search fruitlessly in the well-known Hasidic story-books (whether of Breslov or of others) for a satisfactory answer to this simple question. The Breslover Hasidim will tell you that when Satan saw that Rabbi Nachman was about to overthrow his kingdom, he clothed himself in “that elder” (the Shpoler Zeide) in order to stir up the world and not allow Rabbi Nachman to deliver the final blow. But what did “that elder” himself have to say about Rabbi Nachman? About this, we have only silence.
Nor do we find a simple and clear answer to this question in non-Breslov, or even anti-Breslov, Hasidic literature.
The Midrash Pinchas (Sayings and Stories of Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz, Warsaw, 5636 [1875-76]) has the following (section 12): “Once they spoke of the Breslover. And he spit: Feh, feh, feh. ‘Not like these is the portion of Jacob.’”
The Midrash Pinchas is written very poorly. This can be interpreted as meaning that when Rabbi Nachman (the Breslover) was mentioned to Rabbi Pinchas, he characterized him with the verse, “Not like these is the portion of Jacob.” But it can be understood in the opposite way as well. When he was told bad things about Rabbi Nachman, he remarked on those who had delivered this slander that “not like these is the portion of Jacob.”
The entire episode is difficult to understand. Rabbi Pinchas passed away in 5551 (1790-91). How could he speak of Rabbi Nachman, either well or badly, since the latter only began his rabbinical career in the years 5557-5558 (1796-17798)?
Clearly, this story (like similar stories) refers not to Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz but to his student, Rabbi Rafael Berdasher. But what sort of confidence can one place in such an unclear and distorted story?
This story nevertheless deserves study. Even if it has been falsely attributed—whether to Rabbi Pinchas of Koritz or to Rabbi Rafael Bershader (who was far he was from slandering anyone or even listening to slander, as is clear to anyone who has any idea of the Bershader’s great, brilliant personality [see Berditshevski’s Sefer Chasidim and Rabbi Yekusiel Kamelhar’s Dor Deah])—this story is however characteristic of the atmosphere in which such stories were created.
According to the story, Rabbi Pinchas Koritzer—or Rabbi Rafael Bershader—said in a conversation about Rabbi Nachman: “Not like these is the portion of Jacob.” This is a verse from Jeremiah 15, which contrasts God—the “portion of Jacob”—with idols. The slander against Rabbi Nachman therefore consisted of no less than a charge of idolatry.
Such a pronouncement fits in well with Hasidic stories that Rabbi Nachman’s enemies contrived that when Rabbi Nachman was in the land of Israel, in a moment of distress he “threw a stone at Mercury.”
The utter senselessness of such false libels is clear to everyone. What connection is there between Rabbi Nachman and Mercury? What sort of Mercury existed in the land of Israel when Rabbi Nachman was there? Mercury is an old Roman god that used to be set up at the crossroads with an arm outstretched to show the way. Next to the idol a small image of him stood, which was made of two stones, one on top of the other. A person would serve this idol by throwing a stone in its honor. With the fall of old idolatrous Rome all of these idols came to an end. How then could such an idol be found in the Muslim-Christian land of Israel at the end of the eighteenth century, almost a fifteen hundred years after the last trace of that idolatry?
However, there is no limit to human evil and foolishness. It was enough that these great rabbis should say a few sharp words against Rabbi Nachman for the masses to take this to the greatest absurdity, to the wildest madness.
A wild madness is also related, claiming that when Likutei Moharan was published Rabbi Israel of Rizhin said that “when something holy appears, something of the ‘husk’ must also appear. Just as Chesed LeAvraham of my holy grandfather (Rabbi Avraham Hamalach) was published this year, its opposite, Likutei Moharan, also had to appear.”
It is astonishing that a great Hasidic thinker such as Rabbi Aharon Marcus, of blessed memory, believes that Rabbi Israel said such a thing—and, even more, that he agrees with this sentiment (as stated in his Hasidism).
Chapter Twenty-One: Lies, Libels, and the Source of the Persecutions
Besides the previously-mentioned vicious lies about Rabbi Nachman, the tales of Hasidim as well as in modern monographs contain other extraordinary lies, which we must also battle and set aside, for they are dust that falls upon the holy, shining memory of the great seer. We must sweep away the dust with a broom.
First of all, I must point out that Hasidic tales, as well as a few historical monographs, are plagued by a confusion between Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, Rabbi Nosson of Nemirov (Nosson Sternhartz) and Rabbi Nachman of Tsheherin. Other students of Rabbi Nachman are also mixed in—such as, for instance, Naftali and R. Yitzchak Izak, and also later Breslov Hasidim, who are unknown to the general public. Everything is mixed together and attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.
And at times exactly the opposite takes place: it is said that Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is not entirely responsible for everything in Likutei Moharan, Sipurei Maasiyos (Rabbi Nachman’s Stories) and the like, for all these works were written by Rabbi Nachman’s students, and they, his students and Hasidim, wrote everything in those works that pleased them.
This claim too is false through and through.
Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka, one of the finest students of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov, passed away in the land of Israel. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was a grandchild of his. Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka did not write any books and left no stories behind him. There remain of him only a few sayings in various books. It is therefore humorous when E.N. Frenk speaks so confidently, in his monograph, “The Jews in the Days of the War of Napoleon,” about Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka’s stories and about Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka’s “story of the son of the king and son of the maidservant who were exchanged.” It doesn’t bother him that Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka passed away before the world had an inking of Napoleon and his wars, and this that the story of the prince and so forth was told by Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka’s grandson—Rabbi Nachman of Breslov—and not by Rabbi Nachman of Horodenka.
So too Rabbi Yekusiel Kamelhar writes with great certainty in his Dor Deah (Bilgorei, 5693 , p. 183), that the Shpoler Zeide (the “Grandfather” of Shpole) was very angry at Rabbi Nachman because in Likutei Halachos Rabbi Nachman explains laws of the Shulchan Aruch in accordance with the Kabbalah—at the time when Likutei Halachos was not yet written (and it was written not by Rabbi Nachman but rather by his student, Rabbi Nosson of Nemirov), which occurred only many years after the passing of the Shpoler Zeide and the passing of Rabbi Nachman as well. (Incidentally, Rabbi Nosson was the not the first to explain the laws of the Shulchan Aruch in the light of Kabbalah. This had been done long before by Rabbi Chaim Vital’s student, Rabbi Chaim Hacohen, in his Tur Barekes, etc., etc.—see the Chida’s Shem Hagedolim, entry on Sofrim, section 33.)
Rabbi Yudl Rosenberg (author of many Hasidic tales and translator of selected sections of the Zohar into the Holy Tongue) writes with confidence and certainty that the Shpoler Zeide persecuted Rabbi Nachman because Rabbi Nachman had a favorable attitude to the anti-Jewish decrees that the Russian government of his time was scheming. According to him, Rabbi Nachman’s attitude was that “it doesn’t matter that Jews will be taken as soldiers. They will have the time when they are not on duty to serve God with greater truth and greater enthusiasm, and in that way they will be able to raise more sparks of holiness. And as a result of serving in the army, the Jews will also find favor in the eyes of the government.”
The Shpoler Zeide for his part grew very angry at this: “Who is asking him to mix into such things and to give his opinions? How comes it that a young man should inject himself into that?” Afterwards the Shpole Zeide is said to have taken hold of his beard with his right hand and to have said: “I swear that as long as my white beard will be in the world, no Jews will be taken as soldiers” (Tiferes Maharal, 46b, Petrikov, 5672 ).
The whole story does not contain a shred of truth. All of Shivchei Moharan and Chayei Moharan, as well as various recorded conversations, are filled with stories about Rabbi Nachman’s weeping and his outcries regarding these decrees that the Russian government was planning against the Jews.
[the remainder of this chapter—pp. 175-183—is not available in this preview]
Chapter Twenty-Two: How the Great Light and the Small Light Sought Each Other
In the town of Nemirov lived a young man named Nosson. He was a young man like many other Hasidim in the first era of Hasidism: lively, singing and dancing, not profoundly learned, praying a good deal, sitting at meals with his fellows, drinking vodka liberally in honor of the yahrzeit of one tzaddik or another, or in honor of this or that holy day. Often, he carried out a prank with friends, or a prank on some misnaged: made fun of him or directed a sharp Hasidic witticism at him, told great things and wonders about various leaders and dismissed other leaders (in particular, those who were not Hasidim) as inconsequential.
But within, Nosson was not at ease—he was a soul who sought the truth of life with an ache that had no equal with an earnestness and truthfulness that only a few in each generation possess. He was a person with genius, even though his gifts of genius were still more potential than worked out, more hidden than revealed. He had an iron character, he was a mighty warrior: not physically (although it appears that he was also physically strong), but spiritually. He sought the truth: all his desires, thoughts, senses and actions were dedicated solely to that search. Were he to find the truth, as he understood it, it would not be possible for any force to keep him from bringing that truth into his life: to the smallest detail, to the smallest word, to the smallest movement. It was no longer possible that even the strongest person in the world could by a hairsbreadth and for a moment make him deviate from the path that he believed to be the only straight road, or that any imaginable obstacle could hold him back from feeling, even in the greatest need and danger, whatever he understood to be the will of God.
At this time, when Nosson was twenty-two years old, he had not experienced many events in his life. He had been born in 5540  in Nemirov; gotten engaged to a daughter of Rabbi Dovid Tzvi, the av beis din of Sharigrad, in 5552 ; married in 5553 ; lived in the home of his father-in-law and learned for two years; and was a fiery misnaged. His father-in-law hated Hasidim, and the twelve-year-old youth was influenced by him. At the beginning of 5556 , he and his young wife went to live with his father in Nemirov, who supported him. At that time, he began learning with a Hasidic young man. This man did all he could to lead Nosson onto the path of Hasidism. But Nosson did not follow—”because,” as he later wrote, “of the poisonous words with which that my father-in-law, of blessed memory, had filled me. Although he was a tzaddik and a God-fearing man, he did not come to recognize the light of holiness and the truth of the tzaddikim and leaders of the Hasidim.” But this iciness in Nosson broke. He became a Hasid and was, as said above, superficially no different than other Hasidic young man.
So it was—on the surface. But his inner life was quite rich. A little-known tradition from old Hasidim of Uman tells the following story about Rabbi Nosson (I heard this from the wandering Breslover Hasid, Rabbi Ben Tzion, who spent many years of his life in Uman and heard many things from the oldest and most trustworthy Hasidim).
When Nosson was a child of four, he saw a leader—a parnas—of the community led to the synagogue on the eve of Shemini Atzeres. Over him was a canopy, embroidered with flowers and other illustrations; young people carried the poles; older, distinguished Jews carried lights in front; men and women sang and danced in the streets; groups of children ran before and after the canopy, deafening the street with their young voices. The child Nosson also ran before the canopy, and he looked the community leader in the face. This man walked with an uplifted face and confident steps: the world was his.
A few months passed. It was winter, a dismal day, depressing and miserable. The shamashim of the Burial Society were carrying a bier covered with a black sheet. Women and children wailed, Talmud Torah children preceded the bier and called out, “Justice goes before him.” The charity box was ringing. Children threw in coins and wiped their tears. The stores were closed, heads hung low. The child Nosson ran ahead again.
“What is it?” he asked. And he received the reply: “The parnas is dead.”
“What is death?” To that, he received no reply. But he did not cease asking the adults: “What is death?”
When they could no longer evade him, they replied: “Death—is death.”
But this answer did not make the child any wiser. The matter began to disturb him deeply: What is death? He ran further, remained with the procession until it came to the cemetery, watched as the corpse was buried. Woe! Is this him, the parnas? Not long ago he was radiant—not yellow, a silent stone. Death! But what is this? Why does one live and then die? What is life? What is death? If everyone must die, why are people born?
The child grew and went to cheder, but he never ceased to search for an answer to this question. He grew into a young man who learned under outstanding scholars. He asked and asked his question, yet received no answer. He searched in the books but received no clear answer from them either. He asked his father-in-law, the av beis din, who was a Torah genius—but from him he received no satisfying answer either.
Even as he learned with the Hasidic young man, Nosson held firm in the opposition to Hasidism that he had received from his father-in-law. Soon afterwards, he went to Kremenitz. There he learned for a while with a man who would become the head of the Russian Haskalah: Isaac Ber Levinson.
One day, Rabbi Nosson passed by a house from which he heard psalms being recited in such a way that his entire body trembled. Who is reciting psalms with such a full heart? It is probably a great tzaddik. Rabbi Nosson decided: I will become the student and servant of that Jew, whoever he is. He investigated and learned that this was Rabbi Mordechai, a son of Rabbi Mikhele of Zlatshev. Rabbi Nosson became his Hasid. But he did not receive an answer to the question that disturbed him from Rabbi Mordechai of Kremenitz either.
Later, Rabbi Nosson became a Hasid of Rabbi Zushia of Anipoli. He learned fervor from that rabbi, who was an angel of God. But he did not receive an answer to his question from him either.
In Elul 5562 , he left Zlatapolia and settled in Breslov, not far from Nemirov, where his parents were still living. Rabbi Nosson decided: let me learn who this rabbi is about whom people are so divided. And he remained with Rabbi Nachman for the rest of his life, for here he received answers to all his questions, including his greatest question.
Another tradition passed down by Breslov Hasidim tells of Rabbi Nosson’s transformation [?-bakerung] from a typical Hasid to Rabbi Nachman’s most fiery and outstanding disciple:
Rabbi Nosson kept the company of a joyful group of Hasidim. Once they were rejoicing at a meal, and they sent him out to get bagels. Rabbi Nosson brought the bagels and again rejoiced with his friends. But after the meal, when he remained alone, he grew deeply ill-at-ease. What meaning did this have? Was man created to make his way through life dancing, with festive meals and meaningless words? He cried out to the Master of the world, “Lead me on the right way. The way upon which I am going is not yet the right one.” And he cried himself to sleep. In his sleep, he dreamed that before him stood a tall ladder reaching up to heaven. Rabbi Nosson began climbing the ladder. He went up rung by run, higher and higher, until he grew dizzy and wanted to descend. Suddenly a young man with the appearance of an angel and eyes burning like two suns appeared to him. “Hold firm!” the young man called to him. “Be strong! Do not go back down!”
Rabbi Nosson woke up. And then he began to seek the man with that angelic face.
When he came to Rabbi Nachman, he recognized him as the man who had not let him descend the dream-ladder. “This is the true rebbe!” Rabbi Nosson said to himself, and he bound his soul to Rabbi Nachman forever.
Just as Rabbi Nosson had sought the true rebbe and found him in Rabbi Nachman, so had Rabbi Nachman sought all his days for the true disciple, and found him in Rabbi Nosson. Why did Rabbi Nachman need a true disciple—that is to say, not only an outstanding student, a genius, a prodigy, a master of piety, a man of reverence, a person with a brilliant grasp, understanding and ability to communicate, but a student who was literally one with his rebbe, who never overlooked the slightest word that came from the rebbe’s mouth, nor the slightest movement, the slightest hint, or the hint of a hint, that others might interpret as simple conversation or meaningless words? Why did Rabbi Nachman need a completely extraordinary student, rather than making do with the many students and Hasidim whom had had already acquired?
Rabbi Nachman had sought passionately for Nosson for three simple reasons and another, deeper reason.
The three simple reasons were as follows:
1. He wanted a person who would write down everything he said without overlooking the slightest nuance.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi had once said about three people who wrote down his teachings: “My brother, Rabbi Leib (Rabbi Leib Yanavitsher, an outstanding student of Rabbi Schneur Zalman) writes down what I say. My son, Rabbi Ber (the Middle Rebbe, the first to be known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe) writes down what I mean. My grandson, Rabbi Mendel (the Tzemach Tzedek) writes both what I say and what I mean.”
In his own way, Rabbi Nachman looked for someone who would write down his oral teachings as he said them and as he meant to say. Rabbi Nosson’s task was thus infinitely more difficult than that of the students of Rabbi Schneur Zalman. Rabbi Nosson had to write down exactly (even as he incorporated the deepest intent) not only Rabbi Nachman’s teachings but all his conversations as well, and also the stories and short narratives he told—which must be transmitted exactly as he had heard them from the great servant of God, without omitting one image, one nuance, one detail—and with all that, in accord with its deepest intent. One had to stand and listen and tremble over every letter—at the same time, one had to take care that the story should be free, flowing and alive, as though from an ever-fresh well, renewed every moment from a private, divine source.
2. Rabbi Nachman saw in Rabbi Nosson a mighty man—a man mighty in his determination—a man who would never grow ungrateful; a man who would face the challenge of the greatest opponents; a man who would never allow himself to do anything that contradicted the wish of the rebbe, and who would also never allow himself to interpret that wish falsely or crookedly.
3. Rabbi Nachman saw in Rabbi Nosson a man with a mind radiant in Torah and in worldly matters, although superficially there was nothing extraordinary about him. “However he appears,” [?] Rabbi Nachman told his daughter Hodel soon after Rabbi Nosson became his follower, “he is an outstandingly intelligent man. With one glance at the entire synagogue, he could tell you its exact height.” And once, Rabbi Nachman said of him that “when it comes to teaching Torah, he is unique in the generation.”
And the deeper reason was as follows:
Rabbi Nachman saw in Rabbi Nosson his Joshua—the man who would carry out his life work. It is noteworthy that Rabbi Nachman taught Lesson 6 of Likutei Moharan, “Summon Joshua,” which certainly relates to Rabbi Nachman and the true disciple whom he had sought.
Rabbi Nosson tells:
“Rabbi Nachman taught ‘Summon Joshua’ on Shabbos Shuvah 5563 (1803). At first, he quoted the verse, ‘Upon the throne, the image like a vision of a man upon it from above.’ Then he took hold of the two arms of his chair and swayed together with the chair, and he said in fear and awe and great concentration, ‘When one sits upon a chair, one is a man.’ (This refers to Zohar Tazria 48a: ‘When is it said that there is perfection in the heights? When the Holy One, blessed be He, sits upon the throne. Until that time, perfection does not exist. As the verse states, “Upon the throne the image like the vision of a man….’) And then he delivered this awesome teaching.
“At the time he gave this discourse, he said nothing about the mystical intentions that relate to Elul. But afterwards, when he had already finished the discourse, recited the evening prayers and made Havdalah, he again spoke about this teaching, as his custom invariably was. Then he said to the old, distinguished Jews sitting about him, Jews who prayed from the Siddur of the Ari [with its mystical meditations], ‘Tell me, where in my teaching are the Ari’s mystical meditations on Elul?’ They all remained silent, because it is impossible to see how they are alluded to in this teaching. And so he asked for an Ari siddur. He opened it and showed them the kavanot (mystical intentions) of Elul. And then he opened his holy and awesome mouth and began to reveal the wonders of how all the kavanot of Elul are alluded to in a wondrous, awesome way. It is impossible to describe in writing the joy and the sense of the wondrous that I felt when I heard all this.
“After Shabbos, Rabbi Nachman again discussed this teaching, which deals with Moses and Joshua and the tent of meeting—which are, respectively, the upper line of the alef, the lower line, and the long line in-between. And he then told me the following: ‘Everywhere, whenever a teacher comes together with the student, there is a level of Moses, Joshua and the tent of meeting.’
“All this took place when I was still connecting to him, when I had not yet begun to write his great teachings before him, but only made notes for myself of his short teachings, and I longed greatly to receive a teaching from him in his holy handwriting. I only attained this after Purim, at which time I was with him in Medvedevka. Then I sat before him and wrote down a teaching in his presence. He read it to me aloud from his own holy notes, and I wrote. Afterwards, that night, I came to him when he was already sitting in bed and ready to go to sleep. I spoke with him at length. Then he revealed to me the topic of ‘the Jews were given three commandments when they entered the Land,’ which is connected to the above teaching. And then he concluded: ‘All these three mitzvos are on the level of repentance.’
“I asked him, ‘How are they all on the level of repentance?’
“He said to me, ‘You tell me.’
“With this, I left him. I immediately began to think about the matter. As I was going to my quarters, God inspired me with fine insights. Coming to my room, I found pen and paper, with God’s help, and I immediately wrote down what God had graced me with.
“This was the beginning of his training me in his compassionate and wondrous ways. The next day I brought him what I had written, and he liked it. He smiled happily and said, ‘You will be able to learn, and you will desire to do so.’
Once, Rabbi Nachman said to Rabbi Nosson, “I have already removed some of the yoke of this world and the way of this world from you.” And: “I have already taken you away from this world.”
(Another time he told his students, “I have looked at each of you individually.”)
Once he said that Rabbi Nosson and his colleague Rabbi Naftali “are diamonds.”
When someone close to Rabbi Nachman told him that Rabbi Nosson “will surely become a guter Yid”—a rebbe—Rabbi Nachman replied, “He is already a guter Yid.”
When Rabbi Nosson and Rabbi Naftali first began coming to Rabbi Nachman, he told them, “We have known each other for a long time, but it has been a long time since we last saw each other. And today we are meeting again.”
When Likutei Moharan was published and Rabbi Nosson was sad for some reason, Rabbi Nachman told him, “Can’t you cheer yourself up with the thought that you have such a great part in this work? The entire book is yours, because if not for you, it would never have come into being.”
Later he again told Rabbi Nosson how it was through him that this book came into being, and he added, “You know a little of the worth and greatness of this work, and its holiness. More than that, you must believe in its greatness.”
Rabbi Nachman also spoke of Rabbi Nosson to others. He would often say, “Nosson has a great part in this book.” And “You must all be grateful to him, for if he had not taken part, not one page would have remained of my teachings.”
Once, he told his students and Hasidism, “Everyone of you has a part in this book. But Nosson has a greater part than all of you together.” And he added, “If not for him, you would not even have had one page of notes.”
Once, he said to Rabbi Nosson, “Are you unhappy? You have an obligation to be incredibly happy!” And another time: “Are you letting yourself grow downcast? You will still succeed, brother—hold on!”
The first teaching in Likutei Moharan discusses two suns: wisdom (associated with Jacob) and false wisdom (associated with Esau). There is a moon, which represents malchus, royalty. This moon receives its light from Jacob, and then grows as great “as the light of wisdom.”
Wisdom, chochmah, begins with the letter ches. Malchus is represented by the letter nun, as in the verse, “A long as the sun exists, his name will rule”—lit., “it will be nun.” Together, ches and nun make the word chein, “grace.” When wisdom and malchus unite, a person gains grace in God’s sight, and his prayers are accepted.
When the letters ches and nun unite, they are joined by the letter tav—which means a “sign,” an “impression.” The three letters together spell out nachas—pleasure.
False wisdom is also accompanied by its own malchus (or letter nun). That false wisdom is overcome only through pure, holy wisdom. Now the letter mem (the first letter of the word malchus) is also used in combination with the others.
In total, the letters used in combination are two nuns in each name, a ches and a mem in one name, and a tav in one name. These are the letters that spell the names Nachman and Nosson.
To someone acquainted only superficially with Rabbi Nachman’s teachings, this can sound strange and wild. But someone who has studied them deeply knows that Rabbi Nachman did not only interpret verses, Gemara, midrash and Zohar simply, but would fill his teachings with many hidden combinations of letters.
In the Hasidic world, praises and exalted appellations are not rare. There is a well-known saying of the misnagdim based on the verse, “Sing to Hashem a new song, for His praise is in the congregation of the pious (the Hasidim)”: seek new praises for God, for all his old praises have been appropriated by the Hasidim for their rebbes.
But when Rabbi Nosson applies such appellations to Rabbi Nachman, one feels in particular that he cannot tear himself away from this song of praise. Respect by a student for his rebbe to such an extent can be found nowhere else.
Take, for example, the salutation of a letter by Rabbi Nosson to Rabbi Nachman, written in Nissan of 5567 (1807):
“Let the mountains extend peace to the hidden treasure, the righteous one who is the foundation of the world, our esteemed master, teacher and rabbi, our greatest strength, the diadem of our beauty, the beauty of all Israel, the head of the exile of Ariel, the great winged eagle, in whose shadow we shall take refuge permanently, may he revive us always, on the third day may he arouse us so that we may live before him. May he live forever until the heavens wear away—the great genius, the holy lamp, the truly pious one who is true to his Creator, who gives life to the living, to whom silence is fitting praise. I have not come to an end of all the praises, for if all the seas were ink, etc., it would be impossible to conclude his praises. Happy are we and happy our portion, for we have fallen into his portion and his lot. My lot is in the pleasant places, an inheritance that is beautiful to me (Psalms). The light is sweet and good to the eyes. Happy are we, happy is the eye that has seen all these: the light of the seven days, hidden and concealed. From God has this come, from heaven. The honor of the greatness of his name, awesome and exalted, greatly uplifted, our master and rabbi, Rabbi Nachman, may God bless and protect him. May it be proclaimed in Tziltzach, and may he live forever more.”
Perhaps you will think that with this salutation Rabbi Nosson fulfilled his obligation—but the letter itself contains more new praises. It is obvious that to Rabbi Nosson, Rabbi Nachman was literally the revelation of Godliness on earth, the highest state to which a soul can attain.
Chapter Twenty-Three: The Final Years of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov
Rabbi Nachman settled in Breslov. Due to the efforts of his uncle, Rabbi Boruch, he received the post of city maggid. Rabbi Boruch had himself once been maggid of Breslov. He had not held the position long: he had been too fearsome. But as for Rabbi Nachman, he said, “We took Breslov through dancing.”
The Talmud states that “although the righteous desire tranquility, the Holy One, blessed be He, says that it is not fitting that they should enjoy in this world that which has been prepared for them in the world-to-come.” In the case of Rabbi Nachman, something extraordinary occurred. He was not able to live in tranquility due to outside causes—although he had “conquered” Breslov, outside the fires of the hell of controversy burned. But in addition, Rabbi Nachman himself did not want to remain in tranquility for even one day. Something drove him from place to place, as though he were constantly running from his own family, running from his best students, running from himself.
He was constantly fleeing, constantly moving. But with great toil and effort, with great searching and seeking, his students succeeded in receiving his teachings. And so every teaching in Likutei Moharan has its own history: when it was taught, who heard it, when it was first written down and by whom, when and by whom it was reworked and at what point it was finally edited by Rabbi Nachman. Often, when Rabbi Nosson discusses Rabbi Nachman’s teachings, he uses expressions such as “he revealed,” “he gave us,” “he transmitted to us.” To Rabbi Nachman’s audience, particularly his close students and Hasidim, every teaching gave the impression of being a new revelation (and regarding Rabbi Nosson, I will not exaggerate when I say that it was in the category of a new giving of the Torah) which one was able to hear due to the merit of one’s forebears and due to a special grace, or because of one’s sufferings, or as a result of overcoming all sorts of obstacles.
It would lead us too far afield to relate here all the details of Rabbi Nachman’s travels and wanderings. Therefore, I will only relate a few short episodes that illustrate the unusual relationship between the rebbe and his students.
“When I was in Nemirov,” Rabbi Nosson tells, “I used to go to Rabbi Nachman in Breslov. Once I was told that he said that he was displeased with those who, traveling to him, did not go by foot. I thought into this and realized that one must indeed go to him by foot. I had a great yearning to do so. So God brought it about that I was able to go to him by foot three times. And as a result, I gained a great deal. If I had not determined to go by foot, I would never have had the necessary resolve to go at all. Praised be God—Who is good and does good for the good and the wicked—that I attained this. I understand somewhat of what I attained on these three occasions, for I still recall what I then heard. And as for the rest, I will understand it in the world-to-come. My friend, Rabbi Naftali, also began to go to Rabbi Nachman by foot, for he heard of Rabbi Nachman’s words as well. And some comrades went by foot a long way, because of their poverty. Happy are they and happy their portion. Thank God, I had enough to pay expenses, for I was then well-off. But due to my great yearning, God helped so that I should be able to go to him several times by foot.”
Elsewhere, Rabbi Nosson writes, “At the time that Rabbi Nachman traveled to Levov after the Succos of 5568 (1807), he went through Krasne, where he spent the night. In the morning he left suddenly, and we followed him until we caught up with him at the bridge. One of us approached him and asked him to wait. When I and my friend Rabbi Naftali reached him, he took some pleasure from this, and he said, ‘What would you prefer: that I bless you or teach you?’ I replied, ‘You will be able to bless us when you return from Lemberg. So now teach us.’ He said, ‘I will explain to you the beginning of my journey.’ And he spoke about the tabernacle that every tzaddik builds, as is now found in Likutei Moharan 282, ‘Azamra—I will sing to God with my being.’ He had delivered that teaching on Shemini Atzeres (the last day of Succos). Now, on the wagon, he continued…. Afterwards, we kissed his hand, and he immediately told his wagon driver to continue. In this way, he left us. And to this day we do not understand how that teaching alludes to his journey to Lemberg.”
Rabbi Nosson writes elsewhere, “The teaching called ‘A Seal Within a Seal’ (Likutei Moharan 22) was delivered suddenly. [Rabbi Nachman] was sitting and talking with us, as was his custom. He had sent someone to get an olive oil lamp. He would often light olive oil as a way of sweetening judgments. As soon as he lit the oil lamp, he set it next to the table and began to speak with great awe. He asked for a book of selichos, opened up to a Yom Kippur selichah, and began to read from it. He sat on a chair as we stood around him. He began saying that the Garden of Eden and Gehennom are both here in this world. And he passed from topic to topic until he taught the entire lesson. In all, he spoke for about four hours. What took place cannot be described in writing. Happy are the minutes and hours that we merited to stand before him.”
[to p. 199]
continuation of Chapter Twenty-Three and the following chapters not included in this preview
Chapter Twenty-Four: Uman, Rabbi Nachman’s Pssing Away and Rabbi Nosson’s Dedication (pp. 208-214)
Chapter Twenty-Five: Rabbi Nosson in the Light of His Letters (pp. 215-223)
Chapter Twenty-Six: Rabbi Nachman’s Stories (pp. 224-239)
Chapter Twenty-Seven: The Elements of Rabbi Nachman’s World View (pp. 240-247)
Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Messiah and the Light of the Messiah in Rabbi Nachman’s Approach (pp. 248-277)
Chapter Twenty-Nine: From Likutei Moharan: Advice, Practices, Ways to God (pp. 278-294)
Among Breslov Hasidim (From a Visit to Berditchev in 1911) (pp. 295-298)
 For the antagonism to a tzaddik is often concealed under a cloak of Torah and elevated thoughts.
 In those days, the journey from Poland-Russia to the land of Israel was fraught with terrible difficulties. This particular journey took place in the midst of the Napoleonic wars in the East. Also: who was the person who traveled with Rabbi Nachman on this long journey, who shared all the dangerous difficulties and tolerated all the caprices of this brilliant messiah-seeker? Although the writings and oral traditions of Breslov are silent on this point, it seems that this was none other than Rabbi Nachman’s friend of his youth and first student, Rabbi Shimon.
 This story corroborates my idea that Rabbi Nachman’s travel-companion was Rabbi Shimon. As you may recall, on an earlier journey of Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Shimon to Kamenetz, they took along a man from the small village of Volchovitz.
 This legend about Rabbi Israel is recorded as well by A. Rechtman in Luach Achiezer, Volume II, New York, 5681. Taking into account the version brought here, it receives an entirely different meaning.