Most Jews are not familiar with the many different Hassidic groups. They think that they are basically all the same. They certainly look the same. They all talk some combination of Yiddish and whatever the local language is. They tend to be extremely insular and really don’t want any outsiders poking into their business. The only two groups that the uninitiated are likely to be familiar with are Chabad, who are found all over the world, and Breslov who are found in Israel and parts of New York and not too many other places. Chabad is probably the best known Orthodox group in the world, and likely the only one that non-Orthodox Jews will have any contact with. Breslov, on the other hand, is only known to those who know what to look for.
Unlike almost every other group, they have no spiritual leader, or Rebbe. At least their Rebbe is not alive. Their Rebbe, Nachman of Breslov, died in 1810. He was the only Rebbe they ever had, and they have no interest in finding a substitute. Rebbe Nachman’s considerable written works are enough to keep them going until the coming of the Messiah. This is because Rebbe Nachman was not just any old Rebbe – he was, and is, Rebbe Nachman.
He was born in 1770, a great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. His life was endless turmoil, both physical and spiritual. He endured challenges from secular Jews, from anti-Hasidic Orthodox Jews, and from other Hasidic Rebbes. After various journeys, he settled in the town of Breslov (Bratslov) in the Ukraine in 1802, were he firmly established his reputation as a Rebbe, gaining the following of thousands of Hasidim.
In 1808, after contracting tuberculosis and the living through the death of his first wife, a fire destroyed his home in Breslov and he moved to Uman also in the Ukraine. He died of tuberculosis in 1810. Uman became the site of a renowned pilgrimage for Hassidic Jews following his death. Even though he died over 200 years ago, and the town of Uman is hardly on the map, this pilgrimage has grown exponentially as the years go by. Currently, over 25,000 Jews from all walks of Jewish life convene there for the week surrounding Rosh Hashanah. They are Breslovers and non-Breslov Hasidim, non-Hasidic and non-religious – everybody forgets their differences and their religious affiliation and celebrates the legacy of Rebbe Nachman.
Rebbe Nachman’s major discourses were written by his main disciple, Reb Noson (Nathan), an unusual personality in his own right. They are deep and far-reaching, covering an enormous variety of issues that were important in Rebbe Nachman’s time and equally important now. Among the issues covered is the purpose of creation. In chapter 39 of the second section we find the following:
‘It is truly a wondrous and amazing thing, that Hashem created all of the creation which contains so many wonderful and awesome creations. How marvelous are your works, Hashem…And it was all created only for the sake of Yisrael (the people), and they were created for the sake of the Shabbat which is the purpose, since it is the purpose (completion) of the act of creation. This is the concept of the world of souls - the dimension which is entirely Shabbat and all will comprehend God with no veils and no restrictions and there will be complete unity.’
So what was it all created for? For Yisrael – well Yisrael itself was created for something else so that can’t be the ultimate purpose. Yisrael was created for Shabbat, whatever that may mean, so maybe that’s the answer. But Shabbat seems to be not just the 7th day of the week with gefilte fish, no driving, no cell phone, etc. It is this ‘world of souls’, which somehow is ‘entirely Shabbat’, complete with perfect comprehension of God and complete unity. It is this final idea that really seems to be the ultimate purpose – comprehension of God with perfect unity. But this is really nothing new for those who have come this far in this quest. The real question on this passage is what did Rebbe Nahman need the earlier steps of Yisrael and Shabbat for?
Perhaps the answer to this question lies in a later sentence in this same passage. ‘In truth this is an amazing and awesome revelation that comprehending the purpose, which is a great step in understanding God, depends precisely on the creations in the lower world and all souls must pass through this world to attain the final purpose’. One cannot simply jump right to the ‘perfect comprehension of God’ without going through the necessary steps. Those steps are only available through living among the rocks and trees and flowers. As Rebbe Nahman emphasizes, it is indeed amazing that one must go through the material world in order to rise to spiritual heights. But such is the case, so we must play by the rules.
And what are those rules? Rule number one is that comprehension of God comes through God’s creations. This alone is nothing remarkable. Similar statements can be easily found in the Tanakh, the Midrash, and Maimonides. What is remarkable is his stress on the need to be amazed. This is not mere intellectual understanding. It may include some of that, but there is an emotional component that cannot be overemphasized. It was this emotional element that many find lacking in the intellectual oriented systems of philosophy and, to some degree, mysticism. This is just getting out there and taking it all in, doing whatever it takes to be amazed.
Rule number two is there must be a group of people who are dedicated to doing this. ‘Once in a blue moon’ amazement is not enough. An individual here and there is also not good enough. It has to be a group, a religious group, whose devotion centers around finding God in nature. There may be other equally important aspects of Judaism that Rebbe Nahman isn’t emphasizing here, but this particular piece centers on the ‘Yisrael’ as a people who seek to be amazed at God’s creations. There is nothing bigoted or arrogant about his claim that God’s amazing works were created specifically for ‘Yisrael’, although it certainly seems so at first glance. He is not talking about the Jews - those sometimes great, sometimes not so great, heirs of the primordial prototype called Yisrael. He means Yisrael, the people who the Jews were and are supposed to be.
The third rule is that time must be set aside to make this happen. All the intention in the world is not enough to comprehend God through nature. This is where Shabbat comes in. Shabbat, or Shabbos, as Rebbe Nahman would have called it, is a day during the week. But it is obvious from this passage that he is not talking about a 24 hour period in which one eats, sleeps, and does little else. Shabbos does exist in the regular world - that is clear. But it also exists in the ethereal spiritual world. Rebbe Nahman speaks of the spiritual Shabbos, the world of souls.
This aspect of Shabbos is indeed the purpose of creation. All those wonderful creations were not created just to be there. There were created so that the soul could marvel at them and somehow pierce through their material armor to find what lies hidden underneath. The ultimate goal of all this, of course, is to comprehend God. It is only the soul - the naked soul stripped of all the cumbersome trappings it must bear, that can truly experience this epiphany. Shabbos, according to this, is not really a time period at all. It is the spiritual experience that is the completion of the natural world.
In summation, the purpose of creation is so that a group of people could use their latent potential to experience God through the natural world. This experience is called Shabbos. That Rebbe Nahman clothes such a lofty goal within rather familiar things, such as the Jews and Saturday, should come as no surprise. Deep Torah concepts are always clothed within the mundane – it is the only way that we gain basic access to them. But they were not meant to remain mundane. They were meant to be elevated beyond their normal confines, much as the natural world was meant to be a steppingstone to the comprehension of God. The amazing thing is not that we can find God by peeking through the veils of the mundane. Of course God must lie in there somewhere. The amazing thing is that we truly need the mundane natural world to find God. There are no shortcuts. The path to God is through nature and the unceasing miracle of creation.
If only we could just do it. If only a Jew could cut through all the Jewish baggage and become what a Jew was supposed to become. If only every person could cut through their own baggage and become a soul. If only one day a week we could all ditch our problems and hang-ups and the million things that keep us too busy to experience the spiritual in the natural. If only every day was another opportunity to cut through those veils and actually experience life as it was meant to be. This is all just wishful thinking. How does one make it happen?
If anyone out there has the answer, please let the rest of us know. In lieu of that, we can offer a few suggestions. Nothing remarkable, no great revelations – just a few tips that may help get you started. First of all, like so many other examples in this project, the first thing is setting aside the time. If Shabbos doesn’t work for you, do it on Tuesday, or Sunday morning, or every full moon. Just find a time and dedicate it. Make it holy - it is. Next, get yourself into the right frame of mind. You have a soul - whether the scientists have confirmed it or not is pretty irrelevant. That soul is you. It is really waiting for the chance to do something like this. It is waiting for a spiritual experience. Spiritual experiences are not limited to holy men on mountain tops. They are out there available for everyone. It’s just a matter of letting yourself do it and then persevering until it happens.
The third thing is recognizing that the prop you need to have this spiritual experience has been right there in your own backyard all the time. The prop is the world. It’s pretty hard to see it amidst all the plastic and the superficialities. But you needn’t look all that hard to find the alternative. It’s simply the world as it was created. It just means cutting through veils of cyberspace and gossip and thrills and comforts. It means taking a long walk or a short drive to the nearest place that’s free of all the glitter and the artificial and the superficial. It might be right out your back door. It has probably been there all the time and you just never noticed it. It really doesn’t matter – the main thing is to find it and experience it. It’s nature and it’s fun. It’s wonderful in the true meaning of the word. It is also, if we allow it, a window into God’s world.
Food for Thought
Nature is holy. Shabbat is holy. The Jews are a holy people. Why are we so reluctant to seek out holiness in the world and in ourselves? What changes must we make in our lives to be able to sense the holiness of time and place and holiness of the human soul?
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