A conversation with HaRav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, shlita, on the Breslev phenomenon today.
Q. Generations have come and gone in the two hundred years since the passing of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev. After all this time, and perhaps contrary to logic, Chassidut Breslev and the teachings of Rebbe Nachman have garnered tremendous interest, touching the lives of thousands upon thousands of Jews. How is it possible to explain this phenomenon?
Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig: Within the last two hundred years, we have seen something remarkable about the influence of Rebbe Nachman. He had not yet reached the age of forty years old when he passed away in 1810. Toward the end of his life, he said in Yiddish, Mein firerl vet shoin talyuen biz mashiach vet commen. “My fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach.”My father and teacher (Reb Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, zt”l) would always say in the name of his teacher, Rav Avraham Sternhartz, zt”l, that the Yiddish word talyuen (burning) connotes a certain type of fire, that, for example, catches onto a piece of wool clothing. In the beginning, it burns strongly in one place, and then goes out; it then unexpectedly breaks out in another place. Thus, when Rebbe Nachman said, “My fire will burn until the coming of Mashiach,” he meant to say that suddenly there will be an awakening in one place, and then just as suddenly, the same fire will be ignited in a different place.
When we look back over the last two hundred years, we see this quite clearly. During his lifetime, Rebbe Nachman lived in the Ukraine, in the vicinity of the town, Breslev. This was where the fire started. When the communists came and took over Russia [during the First World War] it looked as though his fire was extinguished. But all of a sudden it broke out elsewhere in Poland. This same phenomenon occurred after the Holocaust. It appeared as if the fire expired, perishing along with everything else. Again, it was precisely at that point that his fire reignited elsewhere, this time in Israel.
Today, two centuries later, the fire is no longer in the category of talyuen, where it intermittently breaks out here and there. It is ablaze nonstop at full force. [Two millennia ago] the new moon was announced each month from Eretz Yisrael through signal fires lit from mountaintops. In describing this process our sages state, “In the beginning, they would lift up beacons of light from mountain to mountain, until at the end, they would see the entire golah, the lands outside of Eretz Yisrael, lit up as one bonfire.” Likewise today, we see that there is no place in the world not influenced in some way by Breslev Chassidut. Tens of thousands, and in certain cases millions, of Rebbe Nachman’s books are printed in every language, reaching every corner of the globe. Jewish communities around the world have heard of Rebbe Nachman, and are familiar with his sayings: “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, the main thing is not to be afraid at all.” “It is a great mitzvah to be always happy.” “There is no such thing in the world as despair!”
His teachings have the potential to touch anyone along the Jewish spectrum from those not particularly learned in Judaism, to talmidei chachamim, accomplished Torah scholars, who have also spent years learning Likutey Moharan, Rebbe Nachman’s main work. Both these types of people, as well as anyone in between, receive wondrous uplift in their lives from learning the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. Thus, Rebbe Nachman’s “fire” possesses an impact that is all-inclusive, and is an inheritance that belongs to the entire Jewish people.
We witness his encompassing reach in Uman on Rosh HaShanah, where both Breslevers as well as those from every conceivable community or background come to Rebbe Nachman’s grave. A Chabad chassid recently told me that in the Chabad minyan in Uman, there were 220 people last year on Rosh HaShanah. This was true with the other minyanim as well. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people from all religious backgrounds, each group praying in their own style and tradition.
Q. What is the explanation for this incredible phenomenon?
The explanation is simple. We see now, in a revealed fashion, what Rebbe Nachman saw with his ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration, two hundred years ago, regarding the current situation of the Jewish people. Our generation is called the generation of ikva d’meshicha, the “heels of the Messiah”. One needs to understand that two hundred years ago, the situation of the Jewish people was quite different. Unlike today, there were not many Jews who were far from Judaism. Nonetheless, Rebbe Nachman’s entire message is essentially directed toward the fallen souls of our generation, to encourage and uplift them. The task of the tzaddikim is always to strengthen fallen souls, and this is exactly what Rebbe Nachman is doing at the highest levels.
It is important to point out that “fallen souls” can also refer to those who grew up in a Torah-observant home. Anyone can encounter circumstances that weaken the soul and cause unhappiness. Rebbe Nachman strengthens these souls, as well as those who are completely distant and almost completely lost. It is as if he says to them, “You went too far? There is still hope.”
Q. Is there a special importance connected with Jews, who are so distant from Judaism, coming to Uman?
They have a spiritual situation we cannot judge. Despite their distance from Judaism, these are nonetheless Jewish souls. It is hard to understand exactly who or what is attracting them, but they make the journey because they feel a desire to come. Indeed, it is impossible to see the spiritual dynamics involved, but something is pulling them there. Anyone who arrives in Uman receives [a spiritual gift] and undergoes transformation. This is not always immediately apparent, but something certainly happens to the soul.
Similarly, we see the same phenomenon on Lag B’Omer at the gravesite of Rebbe Shimon bar Yochai, buried in Meron in the Upper Galilee of Israel. People who are very far removed from observant Jewish life come to celebrate the day at his resting place. Afterwards, it appears as if nothing changed in their lives. However, on a spiritual level, it is clear that something affected them.
The entire subject of what exactly goes on with those who are distant is a spiritual matter. The tzaddikim are completely involved in rectifying these souls and we have absolutely no permission to interfere with their work repairing these individuals.
Q. On the face of it, it looks like Breslever Chassidim have it easy. They come to Uman, recite the ten specific chapters of psalms, called the Tikkun HaKlali, atone for their misdeeds, and Rebbe Nachman starts pulling them out of the lowest pit… Is this really the case?
Rebbe Nachman’s [path] certainly provides the tools to strengthen a person, but this doesn’t mean that one has it easy as a Breslever chassid. On the contrary, every chassid knows that Rebbe Nachman demands total investment of one’s strength in prayer. He demands an hour a day of hitbodedut, i.e., speaking to God in your own words, with a spiritual accounting of your deeds and praying for your needs. He also stipulates rising at midnight to say tikkun chatzot, the lament over the destruction of the Temple, and afterwards, many then go out to a field for an hour of hitbodedut. He also requires the learning of Jewish law every day, as well as diligence in Torah study and mitzvot observance. This isn’t easy work. The power of Rebbe Nachman infuses light and vitality into a Jew so he can function as needed, with joy and enthusiasm.
Q. Now that many have drawn close to Breslev, we see there has also been an increase in different types of communities, even within Breslev itself, each with another style. Isn’t Rebbe Nachman’s path singular?
Rebbe Nachman’s way is open to everyone in Klal Yisrael. As with anything in life, there are many gradients in the spectrum of holiness. Wherever in the spectrum a person falls, Rebbe Nachman’s teachings enlighten them in their place and according to their level of knowledge. This being said, it is always possible to make a mistake in one’s spiritual path. Shigiot, mi yavin? (Psalms 19:13) Who can understand mistakes? Everyone must constantly examine themselves to ensure they are not in error. Even for those who learn Torah, it is possible to err in one’s learning. Happy is one who has a good teacher who gives proper instruction as to how to learn, and gives the ability to understand in a straightforward and in-depth manner.
Q. So variation in Breslev is desirable?
My father and teacher (Reb Gedaliah Aharon Kenig, zt”l) used to quote the verse, Ki yasharim darchey HaShem, to make the point that the ways of God are many. Everyone lives their life according to their place and their in-born nature. The holy Zohar comments on the verse, Yisrael asher b’cha etpa’er— Israel in whom I take pride,” saying that within the Jewish people, there are many types of Jews who excel in different ways of learning and service of God. Take, for example, the mitzvah of tzedaka. There is variation even within the mitzvah of tzedaka itself, where there are those who focus on redeeming captives, or those exclusively involved with collecting funds for new brides. God takes pride in the tremendous variation within the Jewish people (see Likutey Moharan 17). The more variation there is, the more everyone is joined together and transformed into a special and unique harmonious entity.
Perhaps the main point in discussing variation among Jews, is not to dismiss or disrespect one’s fellow man. Everyone has their own path in serving God, and it is incumbent upon each of us to value and see the delightful beauty in someone else who serves God in a different way than we do.
Q. In conclusion, two hundred years after Rebbe Nachman’s passing, millions of his books have been printed and distributed, tens of thousands of people are coming close [to Judaism], many of whom fly to Uman for Rosh HaShanah, and the name of Rebbe Nachman of Breslev is famous throughout the world. Where do we go from here?
We aspire to what our sages described regarding the beacons of light that signaled the new month from mountaintop to mountaintop. The light spread out to the entire diaspora in a way that it appeared as one big bonfire. Thank God, we indeed witness how Rebbe Nachman’s message and teachings are publicized throughout the world today. We all await the moment, with God’s help, when “the entire world will be filled with the knowledge of God” [like waters that cover the sea] and “all of your sons are learned in Torah.” We await the time when the entire people will return in teshuva, and we will be worthy of being completely redeemed.
May the entire Jewish people be signed and sealed for a good year, and be blessed with health, livelihood, happiness, and nachat from our children. May we merit educating our children in the way of God, together with the complete redemption, the coming of Mashiach, and the building of the Jewish Temple speedily in our days. Amen.