Guest Posting From Rabbi Dovid Sears - Rabbi Nachman's "Self-Praise"
In honor of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov's birthday, Rosh Chodesh Nissan, Rabbi Dovid Sears, Director of the Breslov Center for Spirituality and Inner Growth, and author of many books on Jewish thought provided the material for the posting below. It is excerpted from an e-mail interchange between himself and a person studying Breslover Chassidus.
Rabbi Nachman's "Self-Praise"
In Chayei Moharan 241-290, Rabbi Nachman indicates that he reached a level above that of the Tannaim, and speaks about his uniqueness as being beyond compare. How does this relate to the concept of "yeridas ha-doros?" To say that he was the greatest tzaddik of his generation (or since) doesn't bother me so much. I simply don't understand how this could be, or how one could surpass the Tannaim. What was the Rebbe's true intention in saying such things, and how is this understood, by knowledgeable Breslover Hasidim?
He also mentions that there were four unique figures: Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the ARI HaKadosh, the Baal Shem Tov, and himself. But that seems to leave out quite a few. What about Moshe Rabbeinu? What about the Patriarchs? There seem to be many others, too, who brought major chiddushim to the world.
I would like to understand how to understand these things in terms of hashkafah, and also to understand the Rebbe's intention in making these statements. Rabbi Chaim Kramer told me the answer in passing: "So we would know what we're dealing with!" I hear that answer, but still feel the need to understand a little more. The advice and derech of the Rebbe have been very healing in my life, and his teachings speak to me in a very profound way. From his Torah, my sense of wonder in life and in the Torah has been restored. I want to go forward, and have actually made some progress. (I have really wrestled greatly with these kinds of things, internal battles about Breslov's legitimacy, etc.). Thank G-d, I have been able to come closer. But I want to be sure that I know why I am doing what I am doing -- "what to answer the apikorus (within me)" -- and that is why I ask these questions.
The idea of yeridas ha-doros gets a lot of emphasis in the yeshivah world, which is heavily influenced by the hashkofahs of the Rambam. However, the mekubalim teach us that simultaneously -- although we are moving away from Sinai both temporally and spiritually -- pnimiyus ha-Torah, the inner dimension of Torah, is becoming progressively more revealed. That is, the keilim / vessels of human consciousness are subdividing and multiplying, which inevitably dims the light of divine revelation; however, at the same time, these oros / lights are shining from a higher spiritual altitude, or from a deeper source, so to speak. Ironically, this is gives these later generations an advantage over their predecessors.
This principle underlies the Rebbe's statement about the four pre-eminent tzaddikim, each of whom, according to Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig's Chayei Nefesh (chapters 21, 34), revealed a "hischadshus be-kol ha-Torah kulo" -- that is, they revealed an entirely new dimension of Torah. Needless to say, this process begins with Moshe Rabbeinu, who is the personification of the "tzaddik emes" throughout Rabbi Nachman's works. The Rebbe focuses on Moshe Rabbeinu, and not so much the Avos, because Moshe includes the Avos within himself. That is, Moshe, who represents the sefirah of Da'as, includes Chesed-Gevurah-Tiferes, which come forth from Da'as, and are represented by the Avos. The Rebbe says so explicitly in Likkutei Moharan I, 58:4.
As for the Rebbe's hispa'arus (self-praise), these statements come as a shock to most new mekurovim, because they seem so out of character for the Rebbe, or for that matter, any tzaddik. The Torah describes Moshe as " 'anav me-kol adam... the humblest man in the world." How can a tzaddik praise himself so shamelessly? However, this very pasuk provides an important key to understanding the entire problem. Moshe himself wrote these words -- yet he remained totally unimpressed with himself in doing so. This indicates that he had completely overcome any need to "prove himself," and had purged himself of even the least trace of self-importance.
Reb Noson discusses this in Shevachey Ha-Ran 22. He also adds that many tzaddikim in the Gemara behaved similarly; e.g. R' Yossi who declared: "Do not say that humility does not exist, because I am still here!" (Sota 49b).
Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is also famous for such statements, e.g. "I have seen people of high attainments, but they are few. If there are one thousand, I and my son [Rabbi Elazar] are among them. If there are one hundred, I and my son are among them. And if there are only two, they are myself and my son" (Sukkah 45b). He also said: "I am able to absolve the world from heavenly judgment from the day I was born until now. If my son were with me, we could absolve the world from the first day of creation until now. And if Yotam ben Uziah [King of Yehudah] were with us, we could absolve the world from the beginning until the end of time" (ibid.).
Moreover, it is known that there is an intimate connection between Reb Shimon and the Rebbe -- this being why Reb Noson placed the teaching "Lekhu chazu..." about Rabbi Shimon at the beginning of Likkutei Moharan.
A few years ago, I translated some quotes about humility from the Breslover seforim in "The Tree That Stands Beyond Space" (Breslov Research Institute), pp. 8-17; however, there are many more such teachings. In addition, the Rebbe indicates that bittul ha-yesh (nullification of ego) is the goal of hisbodedus and the doorway to all divine perception; see Likkutei Moharan I, 52 ("Ha-ne’or Ba-laylah"). So we are not discussing an issue that the Rebbe was unaware of, chas ve-shalom!
Maybe the answer lies in the debates between the various tzaddikim in the Rebbe's awesome story, "The Seven Beggars." It is axiomatic that no two tzaddikim occupy the same madreigah. Therefore, there must be one who is the highest: the "tzaddik bechinas Moshe," or "tzaddik emes." This tzaddik alone can lead all of Klal Yisrael, and enable each person to reach his or her tachlis / spiritual goal, together with all neshamos and all creation. However, we must do our part and recognize the "tzaddik bechinas Moshe" as such. This is what we failed to do again and again throughout the forty years in the wilderness; and this is our final challenge in these times, be-'ikvasa de-meshicha. The other tzaddikim in particular need to recognize this.
See what the Tcheriner Rav writes about this problem in Rimzei ha-Ma'asiyos in connection with the debates in "The Seven Beggars." In the section that discusses the Sixth Day (although he also mentions the fourth day), beginning "le-'inyan hispa'arus," the Tcheriner Rav states: "When [the other tzaddikim] finally begin to perceive their own inadequacy, realizing that they are far from the power that [the Beggar With No Hands] possesses in his hands, then it will be possible to complete the healing of the Queen's Daughter all the more speedily -- may this be His will, speedily in our days!"
If the Rebbe had not said these things, we never would have known.
And we really need to know!
"The Stone That the Builders Rejected"
There is a story in Reb Avraham Sternhartz's Tovos Zichronos (oral traditions) about some astounding things one of the Reb Noson's talmidim told him in his youth about the Rebbe's power of tikkun ha-neshamos. An English translation by Rabbi Chaim Kramer appears in the back of The Breslov Haggadah.
This is a slightly shorter version: Reb Pinchas Yehoshua was the son of Reb Isaac the Sofer, a close disciple of Reb Noson. He was very poor, yet well known for his piety and great devotions. One day, Reb Pinchas Yehoshua made the pilgrimage to the Rebbe's gravesite in Uman, together with Reb Avraham Sternhartz, then in his early twenties, and Reb Motele Shochet, both of whom were very close to him. The three of them prayed there for many hours.
Reb Avraham writes:
As we turned to leave the Rebbe's gravesite, Reb Pinchas Yehoshua began to tremble with great trepidation. "My friends," he said, "I looked at myself, and I saw that I have been reincarnated again and again into this world."
He then began detailing the various generations in which he lived. He said that he had been alive in the time of a certain Tanna, and then in the generation of a particular tzaddik... As he spoke, Reb Pinchos Yehoshua carefully weighed his words, their truth being clear. We believed him because we knew of his greatness and his incredible devotion to G-d. He even told us how many times his soul had already come back to this world.
Reb Pinchas Yehoshua found it very hard to understand why, of all the people that lived in the world when his soul was first incarnated, he alone had to endure this. The Tanna had rectified other souls. Why not his? Why did he have to suffer so many incarnations? Reb Pinchas Yehoshua began saying to himself, "Why was my soul left without a tikkun? Why was I left in the depths, in the abyss of my sins, so that I had to come down to this world again? Perhaps I will be rectified the second time around..."
Then he told us that he came back in the generation of a different tzaddik. This tzaddik worked diligently to rectify neshamos and bring them back to their source. But as before, his soul was left without its tikkun, and he had to return again -- and again.
"I tried as hard as I could to understand why this was happening," Reb Pinchas Yehoshua continued. "Finally, I realized that I alone was responsible for my fate. I, myself, because of my difficult nature and improper deeds, had made it impossible for anyone to provide me with a tikkun. Had I not learned in the Gemara that 'the tzaddikim are builders?' It must have been my fault that these righteous leaders were powerless to include me in the buildings of holiness that they had built."
I looked at Reb Motele Shochet, and he looked back at me. Neither of us could believe what we were hearing. We stood there transfixed as Reb Pinchas Yehoshua went on.
"When constructing a building," he said, "a mason gathers all the stones that he needs for the first level of the building and starts cutting and chipping away at the corners. He forms the stones so that each one fits properly into place. When he has finished the first level, he again gathers the stones he needs and shapes them, so that he can then erect the second level. So it goes, level after level. At each level, the mason must make sure that all the stones he uses for the building are suitably formed. Many times we see that builders come across certain odd-shaped stones, which they try to use, only to find them too awkward to fit properly. In the end, they have no choice but to discard them.
"The same is true in spirituality. The great tzaddikim try to 'build' by attempting to rectify the souls of Israel. The Torah calls these souls 'stones.' The tzaddikim work hard at this. Each stone they come across, every soul they encounter, they do their very best to fit into the building of holiness they erect."
Reb Pinchas Yehoshua interrupted his words with a long, deep sigh. Then, with even greater intensity, he began again. "When it was my soul's turn to play its part in the building, I came before this great Tanna. He attempted to correct me, but found that he could not succeed. He worked very hard to ' shape' me, trying all different angles. However, no matter what he tried, it did not work. As soon as he corrected me on one side, I was found to be crooked on another side. Whichever way he turned my soul, it was still impossible for him to find a place for me in his 'building.' Seeing that it was futile, this Tanna left me alone. There was absolutely nothing he could do. The exact same thing happened the second time my soul descended into this world; and so it was with every subsequent incarnation. All the tzaddikim tried to rectify me, but their efforts failed. I was left alone through all those generations, thrown away like an odd-shaped stone, to be cast and kicked about forever.
"Yet G-d, Whose kindness is everlasting, wants all souls to be rectified, no matter what they have done. He saw my difficulties and sent me back to this world again. However, this time, in my current incarnation, I discovered something completely new: a tzaddik with a 'building power' that I had never seen in any of my previous incarnations. This was Rebbe Nachman of Breslov! All the Upper Worlds tremble in awe of his greatness and his holiness. Rebbe Nachman believed that a person could always come close to G-d, no matter how distant he was. In a strong voice he called out from the depths of his heart, 'Never give up! Never despair!' This Rebbe Nachman described himself as 'a river that can cleanse all stains.' From Creation until today, there never was a tzaddik who spoke such words, and with such strength and such power. In addition to hearing about Rebbe Nachman, G-d gave me the privilege of knowing Rebbe Nachman's closest disciple, Reb Noson. He taught me Rebbe Nachman's lessons and brought me to serve G-d.
"This is where I am now. "
And now, when I think about this, I cannot help but wonder: How, after being so distant from G-d all those years, how is it possible that I should I merit such a great light? How could someone so undeserving come to know of Rebbe Nachman?
"I only understood this after I contemplated the psalms of Hallel. 'The stone despised by all the builders has become the cornerstone.' In other words, this soul -- the very same soul that had been discarded by all the great tzaddikim -- has now come to the tzaddik, who is the 'cornerstone,' the foundation of the entire world. 'This has come from G-d; it is wondrous in our eyes.' It is truly wondrous how G-d deals with every single soul, making certain that it achieves its tikkun. The great tzaddikim never give up trying to correct all souls, because this is what G-d truly wants.
"I saw from this," Reb Pinchas Yehoshua concluded, "that no matter what happens to us, we must understand that there is salvation. We can always come back to G-d.
"And these are the next words we say in the Hallel: 'This is the day that G-d has made, we will rejoice...' For today, in our generation, G-d gave us such a great leader, Rebbe Nachman, who instilled in us the faith that we can always turn to G-d, no matter where we are. Then G-d will redeem the Jewish People, and we will know nothing but great joy and happiness all the rest of our days, amen!"