Wednesday, September 15, 2010

From Sadness to Joy

In recent years, the tradition of Breslov Hasidim to celebrate Rosh ha-Shanah at the tomb of Rebbe Nachman in the central Ukrainian town of Uman has become increasingly popular. Thousands make the pilgrimage each year. This recent Rosh ha-Shanah, however, culminated in disgraceful, riotous behavior on the part of some of the younger pilgrims. Football hooliganism should have no place in the conduct of any believer of any religion. Happily, the majority do live their lives in a way that honours God and respects their fellow man. Because of the international scandal, it is to be expected that more and more people are wondering who these Hasidim are, and what the pilgrimage is about. This is why I thought I would share a little on the founder of Breslov Hasidism, including excerpts from his teachings.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov was the great grandson of the Baal Shem-Tov (or Besht), considered the founder of Hasidism. He blazed a new path in the world of Hasidism, at the same time a path he paradoxically considered to be old as well. "It is impossible for there not to be controversy over me, for I am walking along a new path that man has never ever walked in before, even though it is a very old path, but nevertheless it is entirely new."[1]
R. Nachman revelled in the paradoxical. He alternated between saintly behaviour and foolish pranks. Perhaps more than any other Hasid, R. Nachman found in stories and music a path to God. His stories are elaborate, mysterious, Kafka-esque constructions of stories within stories, so much that one loses sight of where he started and where he was going. The point, one might with some justice say, is in the world created by the story, more than anything else.
R. Nachman's path brought him into conflict with everyone. He attacked the Haskalah, or Enlightenment, despite being influenced by them and agreeing somewhat with their programme. What he considered dangerous was not the particulars, but their outlook on life, and what their path would lead to in the spiritual life of Jews. Indeed, he set up his residence in Uman, which was a centre for the Haskalah movement. This is also where, three weeks before his death, he instructed his followers to celebrate Rosh ha-Shanah each year.
The other Hasidic masters R. Nachman accused of complacency and spiritual stagnation. They in turn considered him and his followers dangerous heretics, persecuting them both during and after his lifetime. Many are the accounts of bans, beatings, and being informed on to Tsarist and Soviet authorities.
R. Nachman apointed no succesor, and his followers are often known as the Dead Hasidim, for having no living tsaddik to lead them.

"A great mitzvah[2] is to be ever joyful."[3]
One of R. Nachman's main preoccupations was with finding joy, or, rather, that sorrow gets in the way of worshipping and drawing closer to God. One of his better known statements is one in which he compared life with crossing a narrow bridge. "And know, that a man must pass over a narrow, narrow bridge, and the point and principle is that he fear not at all."[4]
The following is a further example of his philosophy, of how he sought to find the joy in even what appeared to be hopeless situations.
"And you have withheld some of God from him, and have crowned him with honour and splendour."
(Psalm 8)

It is known that whatever is missing in man, be it spiritual or be it temporal, is because of the lack of the Shechinah,[5] which is as God. And this is [the meaning of] 'And you have withheld', certainly, some of God, that is, the lack is certainly on God's part, that is, the Shechinah. But when a man knows that the lack is from above and from below, he will definitely have great sorrow and sadness, and wont be able to worship Ha-Shem Yitbarach[6] with joy. Because of this he must answer to himself what am I and what is my life, for the King himself is telling me his shortcoming, and can there be a greater honour than that? From that he comes to a great joy, and his mochin[7] are become new again. And this is [the meaning of]: 'and have crowned him with honour and splendour.' That is, by the honour and splendour which he has, that the King himself tells him of the lack, you have crowned him with new mochin.
-Likuttey Moharan, 89.

[1]Shivchey Moharan, Inyan ha-Machloket 1, 17a.

[2]Lit. a commandment, but also with the added meaning of an act of piety.

[3]Likuttey Moharan Tanina, 24.

[4]Likuttey Moharan Tanina, 48.

[5]Or Divine Presence. In the Kabbalah the Shechinah is personified as God's wife, who, as a result of going into exile when the temple was destroyed, became separated from her husband. The world will not return to a perfect state until the two are reunited.

[6]The Name, may He be blessed. Another term for God, used so as to avoid profaning God by too frequent a repetition of his name.

[7]Lit. brains. In Hasidism the term refers to states of consciousness.

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