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Nachman of Breslov may have been an 18th-century Hasidic master, but his spiritual teachings – especially ...
2020-05-15 14:00:00

The Teacher of Joy
A Hasidic Way to Happiness

Daniel Mróz – drawing from the archives (no. 521–522/1955)
The Teacher of Joy
The Teacher of Joy

Nachman of Breslov was Hasidic to his core, but he spent a long time trying to find his own spiritual path. He found it in stories.

Read in 3 minutes

Nachman was born in 1772 in Medzhybizh, in today’s Ukraine. As he was a great-grandson of the founder of Hasidism, Baal Shem Tov, expectations for him were high – he was expected to become a great tzadik, at the least. Supposedly, in his youth he tormented himself, fasted and completely shunned peace and quiet, hoping that in this way he would receive visions. At night he would run in the woods and wilderness, speaking to God there.

A breakthrough in Nachman’s spiritual life came on a trip to the Holy Land. While during the journey his behaviour was strange to say the least (he engaged in various provocations, wore disguises and in general acted like a paranoiac – supposedly he wanted to fool the evil eye), he always attributed great significance to this period. He dated his life from the time of that journey, and said his teachings from before it should be forgotten, and the written ones destroyed. Nachman used to say: “Wherever I go, I am going toward the Land of Israel.”

After returning, he settled in Zlatopil, and soon thereafter moved to Breslov, where he developed his highly unorthodox teaching. Nachman discarded ascetic practices and started to look for God in everything, and particularly in nature. “Listen! Every blade of grass has a song of its own! Each blade sings out to God, not expecting any reward,” he taught.

Nachman spoke about health and spiritual fullness, teaching how to be a living person, and sought to show that despite all opposition, this can be achieved by finding joy and hope in oneself. He also recommended that his students engage in daily solitary prayer and meditation. This was to be done in the bosom of nature, and take the form of an earnest internal dialogue with God, in which the faithful, using the vernacular (meaning Yiddish), would pour out their regrets and longings.

A few years before his death, feeling that his teaching methods weren’t working, Nachman started to tell his students strange stories. They recalled typical Eastern European folk tales – with princesses, kings, beggars and giants, and a hero who faces an extraordinary mission and along the way must overcome the most diverse obstacles.

Nachman said the complicated, difficult to interpret plots of these tales, with multiple stories within stories and subplots, hid deep truths of the faith, true Kabbalistic mysteries. These tales, their author said, were to be just the garments in which his teaching was clothed. In contrast to other stories, told to put the listener to sleep, Nachman’s were intended to awaken. He also believed that the listener didn’t even need to understand them: they would implant into the hearer’s heart a mystical idea or life truth, which could be awakened in them years later.

When he decided death was near, Nachman was guided by intuition to move to Uman, to die and be buried there. He lived next to the cemetery, believing that his last mission was to help the souls of Jews who wandered there – the victims of a massacre in 1768. (During the Koliyivshchyna, a rebellion led by Zalizniak and Gonta, many thousands of Jews and Poles died in Uman.)

Nachman died of tuberculosis in Uman on 16th October 1810. After his death, his students, unlike the other branches of Hasidism, never took a new tzadik (which is also why they’re called ‘the Dead Hasidim’). To this day, every year on the Rosh Hashanah holiday, Breslov Hasidim from the entire world gather in Uman to pray at his grave.

Nachman’s extraordinary stories were written down and published in 1815 by his student Nathan of Breslov. Their extraordinary literary form and the author’s fertile imagination meant that Nachman’s fame spread far beyond the world of the religiously Orthodox. In fact, researchers believe his obscure, allegorical stories influenced the work of Franz Kafka, Isaac Leib Peretz, and even Paulo Coelho.


Nachman of Breslov’s recipe for joy

You are wherever your thoughts are.

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Work on having only positive thoughts. It will do wonders to your mind.

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Always remember: Joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.

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When you get angry, your soul leaves you.

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Nothing is as liberating as joy. It frees the mind and fills it with tranquility.

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Finding true joy is the hardest of all spiritual tasks. If the only way to make yourself happy is by doing something silly, do it.

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Depression does tremendous damage. Use every ploy you can think of to bring yourself to joy.

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Today you feel up. Don’t let yesterdays and tomorrows bring you down.

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If despite your desire to be happy you feel down, draw strength from happier times gone by. Eventually joy will return.

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If you don’t feel happy, pretend to be. Even if you are downright depressed put on a smile. Act happy. Genuine joy will follow.

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Most people think of forgetfulness as a defect. I consider it a great benefit.

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Get into the habit of singing a tune. It will give you new life and fill you with joy.

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Even if you can’t sing well, sing. Sing to yourself. Sing in the privacy of your own home. But sing.

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Get into the habit of dancing. It will displace depression and dispel hardship.

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Always wear a smile. The gift of life will then be yours to give.

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Sometimes people are terribly distressed but have no one to whom they can unburden themselves. If you come along with a happy face, you cheer them and give them new life.

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Never despair! Never! It is forbidden to give up hope.

 

These aphorisms are from: The Empty Chair: Finding Hope and Joy – Timeless Wisdom from a Hasidic Master, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, edited by Moshe Mykoff.

 

Translated from the Polish by Nathaniel Espino

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