Understanding: Rabbi Nachman
1) True understanding is in the heart. Even the heathen nations possess understanding but not in their heart. The heart must be filled with awe. It is not enough to acknowledge God in the mind alone. It is necessary for one to draw his understanding down into the heart and to be so aware of the Creator that one’s heart is filled with awe and fear of the greatness of God and one is aroused to serve Him with true devotion in the knowledge of His utter exaltedness. The way to achieve this is through meditation, through examining oneself and weighing all one’s actions. This is the path to the `light that is treasured up for the just’ (15).
2) If people feel they have problems and difficulties in life or that they are lacking certain things they need, be it sufficient income, children, physical health or whatever, the reason for their feeling is that they lack true understanding. When understanding is perfect, nothing is lacking. The essence of the eternal life of the future is bound up with the degree of understanding that will exist then. All will have knowledge of the Creator, and through this they will all be merged in His unity and live eternally just as God does. It is through knowing Him that we become merged with Him, and this is the main joy of the World to Come. For this reason a person should be very careful to guard his thoughts in purity and holiness and to avoid any bad thoughts. He should think only about Torah and devotion, and should constantly aim to attain higher levels of perception of God. Everything depends on this (21:11).
3) In order to attain Da’at, understanding (see 15), you must sanctify your lips, your nostrils, your eyes and your ears. Guard your lips from all falsehood. Sanctify your nostrils with the fear of Heaven, as it is written: `…he will scent the fear of God’ (Isaiah 11:3). Use your ears to listen to the words of the Sages and have faith in what they say. Lower your eyes and avert them from evil. Then you will attain perfect understanding and through this your heart will burn with passion for God. Because it is through the activity of the mind that passion is born in the heart. The more one thinks about Torah and devotion, the more one’s heart becomes fired for God. The deeper one’s understanding, the more one’s passion burns. This passion purifies the heart and prevents it from being inflamed with evil desires, which merely pollute it. When a person’s heart is pure, he will never be at a loss for words when he speaks to God. He will always find new words and new approaches (Ibid. 2; see also 156).
4) The way to sanctify the nostrils is through meekness and humility. You must be patient and not allow anger to burn within you even if people treat you badly. The way to sanctify the ears is with loyalty and discretion. If people tell you a secret, be sure to keep it and not reveal it to anyone (21:6).
(The biblical expression for anger is a burning in the nostrils.)
5) One who sanctifies these seven `lights of the head’ can attain awesome levels of perception of God. These heights of understanding are a blessing from God which is bestowed from above without any preliminaries and introductions. This is the gift of ruach hakodesh, the holy spirit (Ibid. 2).
6) There are certain questions which trouble many people, such as the problem of how free will can exist if God knows the future. It is necessary to realize that it is beyond the capacity of the human mind to understand these matters. The answers to such questions lie in a sphere of wisdom that is so transcendent that the human mind is unable to attain it. This wisdom can never enter the human mind. It encompasses the mind from outside. One who apprehended this wisdom would not be human at all, he would be an angel. It is precisely the fact that we do not understand these questions about free will that actually gives us the freedom we have. In time to come, when men’s minds will expand and the secrets of free will and providence will be revealed, free will as such will disappear. Man’s mind will emerge from its limits and he will become like an angel with free will (Ibid. 4).
7) When a person lacks respect for the Tzaddik, the light of wisdom and understanding is hidden from him. He will never have original Torah ideas or reach new perceptions. He is no better than a dead person (Ibid. 6).
8) There are times when understanding can be very elusive. It is very good then to cry out as one prays or studies. In this way fresh understanding and insight are born (Ibid. 7).
9) The mind is man’s very essence. Wherever a person’s thoughts are, that is where he himself is — all of him. This explains why it is so important to avoid all bad thoughts. Otherwise that is where your place will be. You must force yourself to think good thoughts so that you will be worthy of knowing and understanding God. Then your place will be with Him: you will be merged with Him. The greater your perception of God the more you will become merged with him, and then you will achieve eternal life (Ibid. 11).
10) Lack of understanding strengthens the hold of the Divine face of severity and harsh judgement, giving rise to anger and unkindness. This is why sick people, who are under the sway of harsh judgements and constricted consciousness, are so often filled with anger. Expanding one’s understanding helps to sweeten the harsh judgements: then anger and unkindness are dissipated and in their place comes lovingkindness. A person who has understanding realizes that God is wholly good and therefore all the experiences that are sent to him are for his own good (Ibid.).
11) The very prosperity and greatness of the nations of the world will in the end turn out to be for our own ultimate good. It may be impossible to understand this at the present time: we cannot deny the realities of our situation and our experiences. But in the future, Da’at, understanding will grow to the point where even the nations of the world themselves will know and understand that all the greatness and advantages they enjoy today are really for our own benefit (Ibid.).
12) Understanding and perception of Godliness give hope and consolation in times of trouble. They constitute the very essence of the life of the World to Come, and they are the source of all its bliss. In time to come the whole world will be purified and all will become worthy of knowing God, even the nations of the world. As it is written: `For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God like the waters cover the sea’ (Isaiah 11:9). But there will be a great difference between the understanding they will attain and ours. Even within the Jewish people itself there will be great differences between the various Tzaddikim, and even more so between the just and the wicked. The perceptions granted to each one will depend on the struggles and bitterness he endured in this world for the sake of God. These Tzaddikim will become `burned’ by these perceptions in the sense of being stirred and aroused by them, even though they seem very simple in the eyes of the Tzaddik who attained them in this world. In the World to Come his own perceptions will be unimaginably greater. Similar distinctions will exist on all the different levels. Understand this well and be warned. Make sure that you prepare yourself for the eternal life of the World to Come. `If you bec>> ome wise, the wisdom is yours…’ (Proverbs 9:12) (Ibid.).
13) A person who fills his mind with thoughts of Torah and devotion will always attain higher and higher levels of understanding. He will have nothing to fear from lurking evil and accusers. The forces of evil will flee from him. He will not be afraid of them at all (Ibid.).
14) The month of Elul is especially propitious for attaining new levels of understanding which are still beyond you. When you succeed in bringing these levels within the range of your comprehension you will then see further horizons beyond you. In this way you form new garments for your soul and you will be saved from all evil (Ibid.).
15) When a person performs a mitzvah, this mitzvah has the power to arouse all the worlds and draw them closer to God, and blessing spreads over all the worlds. The essence of the blessing which flows from the upper worlds is wisdom and the vision of Godliness. As the blessing descends to the lower worlds, the effect it has on each individual depends on the strength of his desire for God. One who wishes to develop spiritually should always aim to draw this blessing down upon himself. But he must also be sure that his intellectual vision is infused with faith. It is no good to rely upon wisdom alone. The spiritual blessing of wisdom and understanding which descends through the fulfillment of the mitzvot expands the boundaries of man’s intellect until he is worthy of perceiving the light that is beyond the nefesh, ruach and neshama which make up the soul. This is the light of the Infinite which cannot be perceived through the understanding itself but only through the performance of the mitzvot in joy. It can only be `attained, yet not attained’ (Zohar I, 65a) (24).
16) Each individual must strive to free himself from the power of fantasy and imagination and acquire true wisdom. It is no good to follow one’s animal instincts or the attractive images they evoke in the mind. He should pursue wisdom alone, which is completely opposed to impulse. The power of impulse derives from the faculty of fantasy and imagination. Animals also have this faculty, and therefore they also have these desires. Such desires are nothing more than the stubbornness of the heart, and one who follows them is literally like an animal. A man must free himself from stubbornness and break his heart of stone. He must follow intellect alone (25:1).
17) A person may succeed in breaking the hold of his desires and fantasies and thereby establish his commitment to a life founded on wisdom. But his intellect is still only potential. He must bring it into actuality by using it to think deeply about how to serve God. ‘When he succeeds in attaining the ultimate level of wisdom that man can acheive, he will have won eternal life for himself after his death. Because the only thing that is left to a person after his death is the holy wisdom he aquired through his Torah and devotion (ibid.).’
18) When a person’s words lack understanding, they lack goodness, and then they will neither be heard nor accepted. They do not come into the category of `speech’ at all. For speech that is not heard or accepted is not worthy of the name `speech’ (29:1).
19) The way to develop the faculty of speech is by recounting the greatness of the Tzaddikim, their achievements, their levels and so on. Praising the Tzaddikim enhances our power of understanding, and the faculty of speech then receives from this understanding. Now our words contain goodness, and they will therefore be heard and accepted. This is the comprehensive tikkun for the faculty of speech (Ibid. 2).
20) Each individual must strive to reach the understanding of how the whole earth is full of God’s glory. There is no place devoid of God. He fills all the worlds and transcends all the worlds. Even a person whose business activities involve him in contacts with non-Jews should not try to excuse himself. He cannot claim that it is impossible for him to serve God on account of his being constantly surrounded by gross materialism due to his business involvements. Godliness can be found everywhere: in all material things, and even in the languages of the non-Jews. Without Godliness they would not be able to exist or endure at all. It is only that as the levels become lower Godliness is more `contracted’ and veiled in many garments (32:2).
21) This means that even if you are sunk in the very lair of the `husks’ on the lowest of all levels, even if you believe you are so far from God that it is impossible for you to draw closer, you can still find Godliness even in the place you have sunk to. Even there you can attach yourself to Him and return to Him in perfect repentance. God is not far away even there. It is only that in the place where you are, the veils are thicker (Ibid.).
22) A person who masters his evil inclination and subdues it is really like an angel of the Lord of Hosts, and he can find letters of Torah even where materialism is rampant. Even when he is in contact with non-Jews and sees their behavior, he is aware of the Godly vitality — the letters of Torah — which are clothed in it. The secrets of Torah, the hidden Torah of the Ancient of Days, will be revealed to him. He will taste the light of the love which is beyond time and beyond finitude, and he will attain a perception of the light and goodness which are hidden away — the hidden Torah and the hidden Tzaddikim (Ibid. 3).
23) As one goes from level to level and draws closer and closer to God, his knowledge and understanding of God will become greater and greater, and his ability to love God will grow more and more (Ibid. 4).
24) Each individual must bind his heart to his understanding. Every Jew knows in general terms that God exists. By rights the mere fact that he knows this should be enough to make him subdue all his animal impulses and bad character traits. But `the evil are under the sway of their hearts’ (Bereishith Rabbah, 34) and the heart is the seat of all the passions and character traits of the individual. This is why it is so important to bind one’s heart to one’s understanding. When a person is in control of his heart, all his passions and impulses and character traits will be under the sway of his understanding, the part within him that knows God and is aware of how the whole earth is full of His glory. As he develops this awareness he should be able to break and eliminate all his impulses and then he will be worthy of the light of love which is within Da’at, understanding. This is the hidden light, which is the hidden Torah and the hidden Tzaddikim (Ibid. 7).
25) Wisdom is the root of all things. This is why one must guard his mind from all extraneous ideologies. True wisdom has as its goal the pursuit of perfection. The wisdom that is necessary for this is the holy wisdom of the Torah, which is concerned with Godliness. All other idea-systems are futile — they cannot really be called wisdom at all (35:1).
26) From the time a person is born his understanding is in a state of contraction. It only starts to grow when he begins to use it to think about how to serve God. But when a person admits alien thoughts and ideologies into his mind, the holiness of his mind and soul is diminished in direct proportion to the space occupied by the alien ideas. All kinds of negative character traits develop from this alien mentality and cluster around it (Ibid.).
27) This is why one must be so careful to protect one’s mind and not allow alien thoughts and ideologies to enter. The way to achieve true repentance and make amends for all one’s sins is to make a determined effort to expel all alien thoughts from one’s mind. The mind is the manifestation of the soul. When a person sanctifies his mind — and therefore his soul — everything becomes elevated and restored to its source. This is the essence of repentance (Ibid.).
28) It is not sufficient merely to guard yourself from alien ideas. You must always try to bring new vitality into your mind, and in this way your soul will be revived and refreshed. For the mind is the manifestation of the soul (Ibid. 2).
29) None are more prone to the attacks of the evil inclination, the `primordial serpent,’ than those who study the Torah. Because of their deeper understanding and the higher level of their souls, the evil inclination makes redoubled efforts to insinuate itself within them and make them sin. It is therefore essential for them to guard their minds from evil thoughts, because these are the basis on which the evil inclination builds (Ibid. 1).
30) The mind — and therefore the soul — is renewed through sleep. When the mind is tired from exertion, sleep refreshes it. While one is asleep, the mind — that is, the soul — enters into the category of faith. This is expressed in the words of Lamentations (3:22,23): `His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness’ (Ibid. 3).
31) There are different kinds of sleep. There is physical sleep, which gives rest to the mind. Learning Torah may also be considered as `sleeping’ in relation to intense devotion to God through prayer, meditation and contemplation. `Learning’ here refers to the study of the simple meaning of Torah. There are people who involve themselves in very intense devotions. When their minds become tired from the high level of their devotions, they should turn to the study of Torah on the level of the literal interpretation, and for them this is a kind of `sleep.’ Another kind of `sleep’ is business activity when conducted in faithfulness and with integrity. When a man conducts his business affairs with the requisite faithfulness and integrity, his mind and soul are thereby refreshed, acquiring fresh illumination from the Inner Light of God. In all these different kinds of `sleep’ the essential thing is always faith, and it is necessary to guard one’s faith very carefully. Then, when his mind becomes tired, he can infuse it with fresh life through his faith by turning to one of these kinds of `sleep.’ In the case of material sleep in the literal sense one can actually feel how the mind has been renewed. And because, as we have said, the main thing is faith, before going to sleep we have to bind ourselves with our faith. This is the reason we recite the Shema before retiring to sleep at night. When we do so, we should say the words with intense concentration in order to bind the soul with faith during the hours of sleep. The soul will then be refreshed, as it is written, `New every morning; Great is Your faithfulness’ (Lamentations 3:23). Our sleep will bring us a new mind and a new soul from the Inner Light of God. This binding of the soul with faith also applies to those who turn to the study of Torah in its simple interpretation as a form of relaxation from the intensity of their devotions. When their minds begin to become distracted and they can no longer remain attached to God through intense devotion, they should lay aside their efforts and bind themselves to faith in simplicity. They should study the simple sense of the Torah without a him closer every moment. This holds true of every single person, no matter who he may be andf what situation he is in (54:2).
37) But caution is necessary when thinking about these matters. It is necessary to keep within certain limits, and one should not delve too deeply. Otherwise there is a danger of passing beyond the bounds of holiness. It is dangerous to fly off into speculation. A person should keep within the bounds of human understanding and expand his horizons steadily. He should not try to go beyond his own level, because `that which is too wonderful for you, you must not search out’ (Chagiga 13a) (Ibid.).
38) Tall people are usually foolish (55:6).
39) Don’t be over-sophisticated. Being clever, or even wise, is no good unless you act correctly in your practical life. In order to draw closer to God the most important thing is a steadfast heart. The main source of the heart’s strength lies in good deeds. A person whose mental attainments outweigh his practical actions lacks the strength of heart needed to keep his intellect within the bounds of holiness. His intellect can easily lead him astray and cause him to sin. Worldly wisdom, as opposed to the wisdom of the Torah, is futile. The worst thing of all is philosophy. One should simply abandon all one’s pretensions to wisdom and defer to the men of truth who follow the path of truth as we know it by tradition from our Rabbis of blessed memory (Ibid.).
40) There is nothing in the world that does not contain Godliness, however hidden it may be. There are two degrees of concealment. The first is simple concealment; the second is `the concealment within the concealment.’ When God is hidden with one concealment it is hard indeed to find Him, but still, with great effort and searching it is possible, because at least one knows that God is hidden from one. But at the time of the `concealment within the concealment,’ even the fact that God is hidden is itself concealed. The individual has no idea that God is concealed from him, and then it is hard indeed to find Him. The concealment of Godliness comes about through sin. When a person sins once and then repeats his sin a second time, the sin becomes permissible in his eyes. This is what causes the first concealment. But if one sins more and more, God forbid, one falls to the level of `the concealment within the concealment.’ Nevertheless, even within `the concealment within the concealment’ Godliness is present, because without His life-force nothing in the world could exist at all. Through devotion to Torah it is possible to strip away all the veils and reveal that God is present even when `the concealment within the concealment’ is most intense. Then the unremitting cry of the Torah is heard at last: `How long, ye thoughtless, will ye love thoughtlessness?’ (Proverbs 1:22). In the end one will be able to return to God no matter where one may have fallen to (56:3).
41) The greater one’s Da’at, understanding, the easier it is for one to make a living. The more one lacks understanding, the more one must struggle and labour for one’s income (Ibid. 6).
42) The more understanding, the more peace. For strife, anger and unkindness are rooted in lack of understanding. The more understanding the more love, kindness and peace. Through this comes healing (Ibid.).
43) When a person is angry his understanding is withdrawn and the image of God disappears from his face. He no longer has the face of a man (57:6).
44) In order for a man’s understanding to develop, he must pay attention to three things; he should teach what he knows to others and draw them under the wings of the Shechinah. He must cultivate the fear of sin over and above his learning. And he must be careful about the way he communicates what he knows to others in order that his words will be words of grace. For `The words of a wise man’s mouth are gracious’ (Ecclesiastes 10:12). Then his words will not be despised. His understanding will bring him the three blessings of food, drink and clothing (58:5).
45) One whose understanding is developed to perfection has the power to draw even the weakest among Israel to the service of God and to crush the enemies who chase after them and oppress them. He has the power to expound original Torah ideas on Shabbat — `two for every one’ (Ibid.).
46) The bliss of the World to Come lies in the praise and thanks we will give to the great and blessed name of God. It is through knowing and acknowledging God that we come as close to Him as it is possible to come. The more we know and acknowledge God, the closer to Him we become. In the future everything else will be of no account whatsoever. The only thing left will be to give thanks and praise to God and to know Him (Ibid. II, 2).
47) The essential part of man is his Da’at, understanding. A person without understanding is not a person at all. He is not worthy of the name `man.’ He is nothing more than a wild animal which resembles a man. The most important aspect of understanding itself is the understanding one has of the Holy Torah: to know that God exists and has power and control over all the world, and to carry out His will and fulfill His commandments. A person who is worthy of attaining this understanding will be saved from all sin and transgression. For `one only transgresses if the spirit of folly enters one’ (Sotah 3a). A person who is aware of God at all times will certainly be saved from sin (7:2,3).
48) The main reason why people are far from God is that they are not clear-headed. It is essential to think about the purpose of this world, with all its desires, distractions, etc. There are the desires which are bound up with the body, and then there are the other desires — for prestige and honor etc. — which are not directly concerned with the satisfaction of bodily functions. Think what is the purpose of everything, what is the ultimate goal. Then you will surely return to God (10).
49) If you are always happy you will be able to achieve a clear, settled mind. Joy settles the mind and then you can control it as you wish. You can reflect on the ultimate purpose of life. But when a person is depressed, his intellect and understanding go into `exile’ and it is very hard for him to concentrate. Depression is a terrible obstacle to serving God (Ibid.).
50) A person with complete understanding knows that time in this world is really nothing. The sensation of time stems from deficient understanding. The greater one’s understanding, the more one sees and understands that in reality time does not exist. We can actually feel how time flies like a passing shadow and a cloud that will soon disappear. If you take this to heart you will be free of worries about mundane matters and you will have the strength and determination to snatch what you can — a good deed here, a lesson there — in order to gain something that is truly enduring out of this life. You will gain the life of the eternal world, which is completely beyond time (61).
51) True humility is when a person uses his intelligence to keep well away from any kind of sophistication. It takes both wisdom and great effort to make oneself like an animal (83; Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom 15).
52) You must be very worthy to be able to meditate for a given time each day and regret what you must. Not everybody has such clarity of mind. You must make sure you set aside a time each day when you can reflect calmly on everything you are doing and the way you are behaving and ask if this is the right way to spend your days (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom 47).
ADVICE from RABBI NACHMAN
Online English translation of Likutey Etzot
A compendium of Rabbi Nachman’s practical teachings on spiritual growth and devotion.
© AZAMRA INSTITUTE 5766 / 2006