An antidote to the confusion of our times can be found in teachings two centuries old.
By Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
The Story Behind “Na-Nachman”
The great allure of Reb Nachman combined with his physical absence makes it inevitable that a variety of fringe elements should be trying to project their own ideas onto Breslov. Among the most conspicuous are followers of the late Reb Yisroel Ber Odesser, a Breslover Chassid who lived to be over 100 and who advocated the invocation of Reb Nachman’s name as a kind of mantra (“Na Nach Nachma Nachman miUman”). Writing out holy names in this manner (achorayim) has impeccable roots in Kabbalah, but traditional Breslov literature lacks explicit reference to use of the Rebbe’s name in this way. Nevertheless the so-called “Na Nach” camp’s frenetic poster and graffiti campaign in Israel and elsewhere has certainly had the effect of making Reb Nachman a household name in many parts of the Jewish world.
In the Soviet Union of twenty years ago, praying at Rebbe Nachman’s grave carried the risk of landing you in jail. This just added further irony to my first visit there in 1979, a Cambridge-educated, former atheist-libertine, baal teshuvah looking for the spiritual world of my forefathers.
Was that me with the bushy new beard in the Moscow airport, pleading with a fat customs’ officer not to confiscate half my kosher food for our week’s foray behind the Iron Curtain? My traveling companion and I had secret plans to take a ride from Kiev through the Ukrainian hinterland to the drab town of Uman, where lay the gravesite of the legendary Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) in a totally undistinguished private backyard.
This Chassidic luminary, great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, known in his lifetime as a masterful story-teller and source of inspiration, wisdom and comfort, promised before his death that if even the worst sinner would come to his grave and there recite 10 Psalms and give a penny to charity, he would span the length and breadth of the universe to save him from Hell. Reb Nachman’s unique promise seemed to justify the risks.
The next time I went to Uman was in broad daylight nine years later. By then the Soviet Union was breaking down. I was with a group of 200 Chassidim going to celebrate the first officially-tolerated public Breslover Rosh Hashanah gathering since the days of Stalin. It was held on the very site where the Nazis had rounded up Uman’s 20,000 Jews for deportation. Another irony.
A thousand people came for Rosh Hashanah of 1989. Each year the numbers increased until in 1998 there were nearly 10,000. They flew in from as far away as Argentina and South Africa as well as Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Williamsburg, Borough Park, Flatbush, Monsey, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal. They included rabbis and Torah scholars, accountants, lawyers, doctors, university professors, scientists and technicians; Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Yemenites, black-hatted Chassidim, and wearers of knitted kippot.
What is the secret of the magnetic pull over exponentially-growing numbers of Jews by a Chassidic Master who passed from this world 190 years ago, leaving behind little more than a few followers and an assorted legacy of stories, parables and Torah teachings?
Today, it is primarily through his teachings that we can have any connection with Reb Nachman. For me personally, the key to the power of those teachings that thoroughly transformed my life and world view lies in their enabling me to connect with my own long-lost heart, and to discover the heart in Judaism. To enable someone as jaded and over-intellectual as I once was to experience joy in prayer and song and feel a genuine sense of personal connection with God is no mean achievement. In the recesses of our hearts may lurk the strangest thoughts and nagging doubts, darkness, depression and despair. Reb Nachman knew all this. With unfaltering grace this master psychologist – a true doctor of the soul — shows each one the way out of his or her sufferings to find comfort and consolation.
Many of Reb Nachman’s unapologetic pronouncements used to bother me greatly when I first read them, yet I could not get them out of my mind. One example: The only time a person can think clearly is when he is dead. When he is lying on the ground with his feet to the door he will finally see the truth. Lying there dead he will realize that he wasted his days in vain. He will know that his most overwhelming desires were mere foolishness and silliness. For who really forced him?
Reb Nachman’s sparkling tales and dazzling spiritual teachings were such “nectar for my soul” that I felt compelled to make sense of the various other statements he made that flew directly in the face of the rationalist, science-based world-view with which most of us grew up.
Again and again Reb Nachman stresses the crucial importance of making it a regular practice to speak directly to God. But so often my experience of synagogue services was as dry, meaningless rituals, having no relevance to modern life and needs. Speaking directly to God was something that my college friends and I passionately may have wanted to do, yet somehow we could just never take the leap.
Reb Nachman doesn’t brook excuses, encouraging you to pray unabashedly: You must pour out your thoughts and troubles to God like a child complaining and pestering his father. You must pray for everything. If your garment is torn and must be replaced, pray to God for a new one. Make it a habit to pray for all your needs, large or small, and especially for fundamentals, that God help you attach yourself to Him. You can meditate in thought, but the most important thing is to express your thoughts in speech.
I used to associate speaking to God with my elderly grandmother and “Fiddler on the Roof.” But I have come to understand that this is the single most vital spiritual practice needed by all of us in the sick civilization of our times. Indeed doctors and psychologists increasingly admit that meditation and spirituality are the only genuine cures for anxiety, hypertension, heart disease, substance abuse, dependencies and many other ills.
Reb Nachman’s great emphasis on simplicity — saying your prayers with simple faith and trust, snatching each opportunity to practice charity and kindness, keeping yourself happy with cheerful songs and tunes — is a necessary antidote to our super-sophisticated culture. We have internet, mobile phones, jet travel and every other convenience, but we do not have mental clarity or peace of mind. Nor can they be attained with psychiatric drugs or herbal compounds.
Precisely because we are all up to our ears in work and other tasks and commitments, it is vital that we learn to stop relentless activity. We must set regular times to sit quietly in order to think seriously about where our lives are going and what we need to do. We must make it a habit to ask God in our own words to help us accomplish the goals that give meaning and purpose to our brief stay in this world.
The most famous of all Reb Nachman’s sayings — “It’s a great mitzvah to be happy always”– is surely a challenge to a civilization in which depression is the number one complaint people bring to their doctors. So often there seems to be everything in the world to be depressed about — making a living, health problems, personal disappointments and frustrations, difficult relationships. The problems are compounded by the fact that our materialistic culture sets preconditions for happiness that the majority can never fulfill, such as having good looks and plenty of money. Those who lack them (or think they do) are left disappointed and frustrated.
Photos of stars and celebrities invariably show them smiling and self-confident, as if to say worldly happiness is for real. Reb Nachman taught otherwise: “Whether you are rich or poor, your life will be filled with struggle and suffering. The fact is that man’s lot is suffering and pain.” Grim? Surely it’s better to be forewarned: disappointment is less when hard times strike. Reverses and obstacles can be accepted with equanimity as part of the necessary suffering of this world.
Reb Nachman taught that the only way to find genuine happiness is by learning to take delight not in material pleasures, most of which are in any case imaginary, but in the only things that endure forever: Torah, mitzvot and good deeds. For him, each little prayer, each act of kindness and charity and every other good deed is a “good point” or “good (musical) note.” Our task in this world is to seek out these good points or notes and gather them together one by one. This way we create a melody. Each person has his or her unique good points and unique song. This is the music of life that banishes depression and negativity, bringing vitality and joy into the soul.
This idea of slow, measured change is brought out in Reb Nachman’s famous parable about a prince who went out of his mind and thought he was a turkey. He took off all his clothes and went to sit under a table. None of the doctors could cure him. One day, a wise man came, took off all his clothes, and sat under the table next to the prince. Instead of trying to impose drastic, all-encompassing lifestyle changes on the poor boy, the wise man befriended him and then handed him a shirt, saying, “You can wear a shirt and still be a turkey if you want.” One small act — a good point! Later on the wise man gave him pants to put on. Another good point! Afterwards he gave him regular food instead of crumbs and bones. Each time the wise man helped the prince take simple steps to put more goodness into his life, helping him to dispel the negativity that was making him sick. In this way he eventually cured him completely.
Among the thousands who annually make the pilgrimage to Reb Nachman’s grave in Uman, and the many more who are uplifted by his stories and teachings, very many see Reb Nachman as the wise man who helped them make the transition from their own form of insane living to a life of greater balance, depth, wisdom and true simchah.
London-born, Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum is a Cambridge classics/social sciences graduate and served as a BBC radio commentator and producer. He has published over twenty books including translations of Rebbe Nachman, “Under the Table and How to Get Up,” a handbook of Jewish pathways of spiritual growth, and “The Wings of the Sun,” a major study of the Jewish healing tradition. Rabbi Greenbaum lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children and is director of the Azamra Institute, an independent non-profit organization devoted to communicating Jewish spiritual teachings.