Question & Answer With Moshe David Tokayer - Sfas Emes & Rebbe Nachman
A Simple Jew asks:
The Imrei Emes related that his father, the Sfas Emes, often learned Likutey Moharan and Likutey Halachos. After consistently reading your blog Sfas Emes for some time now, I am struck by the numerous similarities between the teachings of the Sfas Emes and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Have you also noticed this as well?
Moshe David Tokayer answers:
I posed your question to some of my children who are more knowledgeable about Rebbe Nachman's seforim than me. They said that there are close similarities between Rebbe Nachman's ideas and the Sfas Emes. In fact, many times when I say a Sfas Emes at the Shabbos table, they embellish with quotes from Likutey Moharan or Likutey Halachos.
I know that the Sfas Emes quotes the Tanya a few times and some Chabad friends have told me of the historically close relationship between Gerer Chassidus and Chabad.
The most surprising discovery I've made, though, are the similarities between the Sfas Emes and the Nefesh HaChaim. Coming from a background that stresses the differences between Chassidic thought and practice and non-Chassidic thought and practice, the similarities between these two classics from opposite poles came as a complete surprise, one that demanded a re-think and resulted in a new way of approaching both Chassidic and non-Chassidic classics.
First I must apologize because I'm a bit off the topic of the question. However, to find similarities between Breslever thought and the Sfas Emes is not really all that surprising. Regardless of the bad rap that Breslever Chassidus may have gotten over the years, we find Rebbe Nachman's seforim and ideas surfacing in other Chassidic courts. For example, not long ago I read a quote from the Klausenberger Rebbe encouraging the saying of the 10 chapters that comprise the Tikkun HaKlali. He said that whoever says these 10 chapters of Tehillim with kavannah, can break through metal barriers.
To find close similarities between a Chassidic master and Reb Chaim Volozhiner, one of the standard bearers of hisnagdus, came as as complete surprise to me and makes me wonder whether the gap between Chassidic and non-Chassidic thought is all that great. To be sure, Reb Chaim rails against what he saw as a breach in the keeping of halachah. He writes particularly against the practice of not saying Krias Shma and davening in the proper time. Other than that though, to the best of my knowledge he does not complain in the Nefesh haChaim about anything else that can be attributed to Chassidus. If someone could point to some other complaint, I'd be grateful.
Here, though, is the major difference that I noticed between the two. Reb Chaim Volozhiner stresses the overriding importance of learning Torah and fulfilling the mitzvos whereas the Sfas Emes stresses the intent and preparations that must precede the mitzva. Reb Chaim was concerned, because of the stress on intent etc, that people would think that learning Torah shelo lishma, for example, is worthless and would refrain from learning altogether. Although he states clearly the importance of proper intent and its benefits, still, he stresses the importance and great benefits of kiyum hamitzvos even without proper intent.
And perhaps therein lies the big difference between Chassidus and non-Chassidus. The Chassidic movement enabled people to dedicate their lives to serving HaShem with the tools they had at their disposal. A Gerrer Chassid who was working long hours in order to support his family, could nevertheless experience closeness with HaShem by fulfilling the mitzvos with intense kavannah. Those long hours of work themselves could be turned into mitzvos "simply" by intending to fulfill HaShem's will through them, instead of feeling guilty his whole life that he was not learning during most of his day.
Although this is no doubt an oversimplification, with the proper qualifications, I believe it is true that the Jewish world is in the midst of a process of synthesis wherein halacha is given its proper status and importance and, at the same time, people are more open to imbuing meaning into their daily activities and trying to serve HaShem by all means at ones disposal. This type of synthesis is a beautiful thing and, to my mind, is a strong indication that the geula shleima is right around the corner.