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Tales of the Tzaddikim

by Gedaliah Fleer and Alan Afterman

The first section below is the authors' English translation of the Hebrew text of Lekutey Moharan, lesson 234, by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. The italicized passages marked by an asterisk are then commented upon in the second section.

Know that the telling of stories about tzaddikim, the righteous men, telling over things that happened to them is a very great thing. And through this a person can purify his mind. But only he who is comparable to G-d can tell such tales. In other words, the storyteller, like G-d, must be able to differentiate between light and darkness.

Each story of a tzaddik acts in opposition to a ma'aseh(1), a similar story, about a rasha, a wicked man. This proves that, even to the r'shaim (wicked men), similar events, similar stories occur. * We find, for example, that Pinchas the Tzaddik flew through the air, while Billam the sorcerer also was able to fly.(2) Indeed, evil always acts in opposition to good.

All distinction depends on the man who separates light from darkness. He knows, and he can interpret the great disparity between stories. For the stories of tzaddikim come from the Side of Holiness and are the result of prayer. As is taught concerning the verse: "Tell me, please, of all the great things Elisha has done" (Kings II 8:4), the Talmud (Megilla 27) explains that "Elisha accomplished 'great things', miracles, through his power of prayer." But the stories told of r'shaim are rooted in wicked plans, deceptions, magic; those things that come from the Other Side of Holiness.(3)

Hence only one who knows how to separate(4) light from darkness, good from evil, can differentiate between stories. But also one who lacks this knowledge, yet possesses whole and simple faith - faith that there exists this strong distinction - can tell the stories of tzaddikim. Such faith must be perfectly clear, as if it were actually seen though not intellectually comprehended. For faith is both hidden and revealed.(5)

These concepts are implied in the Midrash (Genesis, chapter 3) concerning the words: "'And G-d divided between the light and the darkness.' The Midrash asks, 'What is light? It is the deeds of the tzaddikim. And what is darkness? It is the deeds of the r'shaim.'" In other words, the stories concerning the deeds of the tzaddikim are light; and those of the r'shaim are darkness. And so he who can differentiate between light and darkness can tell the tales of tzaddikim.

And through the telling of these stories, a person can purify his mind. He can save himself from aggravation, from suffering. For the confusion that takes place in a person's mind comes from small-mindedness.(6)* Small-mindedness sets the stage for harsh decrees. But telling the stories of tzaddikim is large-mindedness. As the verse states, "Tell me please of all the great things Elisha has done." The deeds of Elisha, the stories told about him, are called in the verse, "great" or large, large-mindedness (as the "great light") (Genesis 1: 1 6). Through telling and listening to the stories of tzaddikim, a person can purify his mind and raise it from small-mindedness to large-mindedness, from darkness to light. And through this he can sweeten all of his suffering - all of the harsh decrees that are pending over him. All of which come from small-mindedness.

A person has to know how to tell such tales, for in every story there is a quality of limitation. *To purify his mind he tells about a tzaddik - as he tells the story, so the tzaddik's deeds which are told in words become his thought.* And so certainly he should be careful that the tzaddik of whom he is speaking is actually greater than himself, since the happenings, the deeds of that tzaddik become his own thought. Therefore he must know of whom he speaks and how to speak. Then his mind will be purified and he can rise through the worlds to the world of thought.

And because thought is very great and expansive, one who wants to enter into a world of thought must be silent.* Only thus can he perceive thoughts which are hidden. And while he is in the world of thought, even if he says something intelligent and worthwhile, he can still lose his thought. Because thought is very great, very high. And even if he speaks intelligently when he should have been silent, he will lose thought. This concept is implied in the words spoken by G-d to Moshe Rabbeinu (Moses our Teacher): "Be silent, so has it risen up in thought" (Menachot 29). Thus, through silence one raises himself to the level of thought. Yet even if a person can remain physically silent while he is in the world of thought, still there will occur confusions and distractions. In order to succeed, one needs purity of mind. And this purity of mind comes through telling stories of the tzaddikim.

In order to emulate G-d, to distinguish between light and darkness (which is necessary for the telling of stories), one must be able to recognize Providence.* A person must transcend the natural, transcend the laws of nature and become aware of G-dly intention and purpose in every aspect, of Creation. Such a man is aware of holiness. And this recognition can be experienced through the land of Israel.

The land of Israel is the central focal point of all holiness. All (ten) levels of holiness are found there.(7) It is taught: "Perpetually the eyes of the L-rd thy G-d are upon it." (Deuteronomy 11: 1 2)

In other words, G-d's Providence is made manifest in Eretz Yisrael. In Israel there is only Providence.* As the verse proclaims: "look forth (supervise) from the place(8) of Your holiness... and bless the land" (Deuteronomy 26:15). G-d's looking (Providence) which comes from the place of holiness, is what the land of Israel is blessed with. Eretz Yisrael attracts Providence which comes from the place of holiness since it itself is holy.

This is the meaning of the verse: "I set G-d before me perpetually" (Psalms 16:8). The Hebrew word translated "I set" literally means "I set myself comparable to."(9) In other words, I am comparable to G-d Who distinguishes light from darkness, when that which is "perpetual" is before me. "Perpetual" refers to Eretz Yisrael, as stated: "Perpetually the eyes of the L-rd thy G-d are upon it" (Deuteronomy 11: 12). If I am to be compared to G-d, knowing light from darkness, then "perpetual" must be before my eyes. G-d's Providence is "perpetual" and is most manifest in Eretz Yisrael. Hence we are taught: "Nothing is perpetual except the land of Israel..."(10)


*Each ma'aseh of a tzaddik acts in opposition to a similar story about a rasha, a wicked man. This proves that even to the r'shaim (wicked men), similar events, similar stories occur. Thus, it is conceivable that both the tzaddik and the rasha may each accomplish good or charitable deeds of a similar nature. As in the case of Pinches and Billam, they may even perform identical miracles. To be sure, their actions may appear similar in every outer respect. Only he who can truly distinguish between light and darkness can tell them apart.

The tzaddik wants only to serve G-d. He disciplines himself to the point where his thoughts and aspirations merge with the thought and aspiration of the Creator towards His creation. The tzaddik constantly prays for guidance and assistance, abnegating himself, in the hope that each of his deeds might serve as a vehicle through which G-d's goodness is made manifest. Thus, through each of the tzaddik's actions is conveyed the light of Divine Providence; a light that transcends the immediate benefit of the action itself, no matter how beneficial the action is seen to be.

But the rasha is essentially a man of ego, preoccupied with the fulfillment of self. His actions do not carry with them an awareness of G-d's goodness. To the contrary, his deeds serve to preclude any such perception. Those who benefit from the rasha's accomplishments may come to regard him alone as their sole benefactor. And the rasha also begins to perceive himself as self-sufficient, the ultimate arbiter of his or of society's destiny. Still, the deeds of the rasha may resemble the tzaddik's in every outer respect. Indeed, his accomplishments may be rooted in contemporary moral and ethical principles which are seen as beneficial to society. It is G-d's light that is made invisible. Thus only he who can truly distinguish between light and darkness can perceive the difference.

*The confusion that takes place in a person's mind comes from small-mindedness. Small-mindedness means cognizance of only what is immediate. If we are suffering, and we see only this suffering, then we are being small-minded. Our eyes are darkened. We are not aware of a transcending goodness, of an overriding abundance of mercy. Our spirit is easily broken. We are trapped or limited by our subjectivity. As Rebbe Nachman says, "It is the way of Satan to magnify misfortune." Just as a hand can block out the sun, so personal misfortune may block awareness of the greater good, the possibilities of the future, all reasons for hope... the belief in our own potential.

Large-mindedness is the opposite. It represents objectivity; escape from the dark shell of egocentricity. Large-mindedness means transcending the confines of personal suffering or experience towards an identification with G-d's view of the world.

*In every story there is a quality of limitation. Each story is a condensation of what actually occurred. The subtleties are omitted, creating gaps or levels of uncertainty from which confusion may arise. The storyteller must circumvent the possibility for such confusion. His narration must convey, indeed recreate, the purpose and aspiration toward G-d prevalent in the tzaddik's every action.

*The tzaddik's deeds, which are told in words, become his thought. Deed is the lowest, most revealed aspect of each man's world. Thought is its loftiest, hidden rung. Yet acts are the truth or proof of thoughts. They are the vessels of thought. Through stories, deeds of the righteous can be contemplated. The lowest, most revealed aspect in the world of tzaddikim enters the highest, hidden province of lesser men. But only the tzaddik's deeds can be related. The depth of his intention, the longing and struggle remain latent. In the narration of the ma'aseh, the storyteller is in a position similar to the tzaddik before the performance of his deeds. This is the level of prayer which is aspiration. The ma'aseh in the mouth of the narrator is equal to prayer in the mouth of the tzaddik.

The tzaddik prays before each of his deeds and binds himself to the Will of G-d. Thus whatever the tzaddik does is linked to G-d's Will through the power of prayer. As we are taught: "All the great things accomplished by Elisha were done through prayer." The telling of the ma'aseh is aspiration towards G-d. The story becomes a prayer in the mouth of its teller. As the tzaddik's deeds are retold, his aspiration is re-created. G-d's intention flows through the ma'aseh and purifies the mind of the storyteller and that of his listeners. This union or channel is created because both the tzaddik and the storyteller aspire to be one with G-d's Will and to act in harmony with G-d's purpose.

Telling the stories of the r'shaim acts in a similar way, but darkens the mind. This is the reason that only those who can distinguish between light and darkness should tell the stories. (The man of faith will intuitively distinguish between similar stories of r'shaim and tzaddikim). The tales of the r'shaim do not reflect unification or a one-ness with G-d's Will. They are at root stories of the self, whereas all tales and parables which endure reflect or manifest a sense of the Eternal and Purposefulness in existence. Therefore G-d's revelation through the Torah is comprised in great part of tales of tzaddikim. The tzaddik most evidences man as the image of G-d; his will is one with the Will of G-d. He most manifests the unity of man with G-d. The tzaddik is a living Torah. His actions or deeds are "transparent" in that they embody or express G-d's intention. By telling over tales of the tzaddikim, the storyteller and those listeners who are able to join him personally experience the intention of the tzaddik aspiring to G-d's Will. This should be distinguished from an intellectual appreciation of the story's moral implications, which although present, does not act to purify the mind in a direct manner. Rather, it is the experience of the tzaddik's aspiration which acts, in the heart of the mind, in an almost physical way. It changes the mind.

The pervasiveness and depth of this experience, however, depends on the level or receptivity of the storyteller and his audience. Strictly speaking, only a tzaddik can properly tell a tale of another tzaddik and only if he of whom he is speaking is greater than himself, lest he create a diminishing experience in his own mind akin, in effect, to a story of a rasha.

A man of simple faith also may tell tales of tzaddikim. Such a person does not understand the difference between Light and Darkness, but nevertheless possesses a whole and simple faith that such a distinction exists. Such faith is "clear"; he, too, is transparent in the sense that the Will of G-d, manifested in the deeds of tzaddikim, may flow into and through him, to others. The difference between a tzaddik and a man of simple faith is that the tzaddik not only possesses this faith but also understands in each situation and within each person what is of the Darkness and what is of the Light. The man of simple faith may only intuit the difference. He need not understate nor embellish, but simply tell what he knows. His wholehearted faith conveys what is hidden.

*One who wants to enter into the world of thought must be silent. Only thus can he perceive thoughts which are hidden. This is the meaning of the words spoken by G-d to Moshe Rabbeinu: "Be silent, so has it risen up in thought before me." These words appear in context as part of a rabbinical narrative presented in the Talmud, which reads as follows:

    Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rab, "When Moshe ascended on high he found the Holy One, blessed be He, engaged in affixing crowns to the letters (of the Torah). Said Moshe, 'L-rd of the Universe, who stays Thy hand?' (Is there anything wanting in the Torah that these additions are necessary?)

    He answered, 'There will arise a man, at the end of many generations, Akiva ben Yosef by name, who will expound upon each point (in every crown) heaps and heaps of laws.'

    'L-rd of the Universe,' said Moshe, permit me to see him.'

    He replied, 'Turn thee around.' Moshe went and sat down behind eight rows (of Rabbi Akiva's disciples and listened to the discourses upon the law.) Not being able to follow their arguments he was ill at ease, but when they came to a certain subject and the disciples said to the master, 'Whence do you know it?' and the latter replied, 'it is a law given by Moshe at Sinai,' he was comforted.

    Thereupon he returned to the Holy One, blessed be He, and said, 'L-rd of the universe, Thou hast such a man and Thou givest the Torah by me!'

    He replied, 'Be silent, so has it risen up in thought before Me.' Then said Moshe, 'L-rd of the universe, Thou hast shown me his Torah. Show me his reward.'

    He replied, 'Be silent, so has it risen up in thought before Me.'

    Then said Moshe, 'L-rd of the universe, Thou hast shown me his Torah. Show me his reward.'

    'Turn thee around, 'said He; and Moshe turned around and saw Akiva's flesh being weighed in the market stalls. [Rabbi Akiva died a martyr's death at the hands of the Romans.]

    'L-rd of the Universe,' cried Moshe, such Torah, and such a reward!

    He replied, "Be silent, so it has risen up in thought before Me!" (Talmud, Menachot 29 B).

Thus, Moshe asked G-d: why was the Torah not given by Rabbi Akiva? And why was Rabbi Akiva to die a martyr's death (such Torah and such a reward!). And to each question Moshe was told, "Be silent, so has it risen up in thought before Me."

Indeed, Moshe foresaw the great light of Rabbi Akiva's scholarship and the terrible darkness of his gruesome death; he questioned, once and again, the paradoxical nature of what he had seen.

But the events witnessed by Moshe were singular in dimension. They did not portray the full reality of Rabbi Akiva's experiences, his thoughts, the essence of his intentions, and the quality of his relationship to G-d, as well as the impact of those realities on people and history.

Therefore, Moshe Rabbeinu questioned why the Torah had not been given through Rabbi Akiva. He could not understand that Rabbi Akiva's relationship with G-d was less profound than his own, especially since Rabbi Akiva was better versed than he in certain aspects of the Law. Furthermore, Moshe was troubled by the sight of Rabbi Akiva's flesh being weighed out in the market stalls. For Moshe had not actually witnessed the death itself. He had no way of knowing the profound unity with G-d's Will achieved by Rabbi Akiva at the time of his passing. Nor could Moshe perceive the effects of Rabbi Akiva's martyrdom on generations to come.

Indeed, what Moshe had witnessed were merely expressions of outer form. Rabbi Akiva's innermost thoughts and devotion to G-d remained hidden from him. Simply stated, Moshe lacked the ability to understand from G-d's perspective. He could not distinguish between the darkness implied by the deed and the transcending light of its inner intention. Thus, he was told, "Be silent," for only through silence can you bind yourself to the world of thought. And only then will you understand that "so it has risen up," that is to say, the deeds and events which you have witnessed have been raised up beyond their outer form; "in thought," in terms of their innermost thought and mention, before Me. For silence, an attitude of faithful acceptance, opens man to perceptions of hidden purpose and opportunity. It can be equated with large-mindedness. Silence is the bridge of understanding between deeds and their inner intention and ultimate effect.

*In order to emulate G-d, to distinguish between light and darkness (which is necessary for the telling of stories), one must be able to recognize Providence. Man's ability to pray depends on his recognition of Providence. The more one perceives G-d's involvement with the universe the easier it is to relate to G-d in terms of prayer. On the other hand, prayer itself elevates a person to an awareness of G-d. As we have seen, tales of tzaddikim are on the level of prayer. The acts of tzaddikim are equated with prayers. The tzaddik's deeds become prayer in the mouth of the storyteller. Therefore one who wants to tell the stories of tzaddikim must be aware of Providence.

But, like prayer, the stories of tzaddikim themselves inspire a perception of Providence. Indeed, the telling of the ma'aseh, in its highest form, parallels the structure of Jewish prayer.

Near the beginning of the morning prayers is the section called the Korbanot (the sacrificial offerings). Here a person repeats descriptive details concerning the sacrificial practices carried out in the Temple, most particularly those animal sacrifices performed for the forgiveness of sin. The Korbanot are said in the hope that these prayers will be accepted by G-d as a substitute for the animal offerings. Thus, it is the animal instinct, the animal aspect of soul which is offered as a "sacrifice" in prayer.

In order to approach G-d, in order that one may participate in what is spiritual, the animal aspect of soul must be controlled. More positively, the animal instinct must be turned to the service of G-d, that is, redirected with all of its power in the service of G-d. In saying the Korbanot, the process of de-animalization is begun. The movement from subjectivity (small-mindedness) towards objectivity (large-mindedness), from egocentricity toward objectivity is expressed. A person who comes to pray desires to sacrifice. There already exists in him the aspiration to transcend the self. There already exists an idea of an intuition of G-d.

In respect to the telling over of the ma'aseh itself, the Korbanot prayer may be likened to the creation of the proper atmosphere" or aura - the space - in which the ma'aseh may unfold. The creation of this space involves subjugation of the "animal" self and its physical and ego needs in favor of the story (the spiritual). The storyteller and his audience become restrained and receptive. They begin to draw forth the ma'aseh.

The next part of the morning service, P'sukei d'Zimra, consists of songs and psalms in praise of G-d. This represents the next level towards objectivity. A person caught in the world of the Korbanot, of animal desire, cannot rest content. He is preoccupied with what he feels he needs or lacks. The animal is insatiable. But once a person becomes objective enough to understand the difference between himself as a person and his desires, he may come from the Korbanot to the P'sukei d'Zimra, to the level of joy. The P'sukei d'Zimra represents the level of objectivity reached when one is able to praise G-d's creation. It represents an understanding of man's place in the universe. He looks around and up.

The P'sukei d'Zimra are verses or songs of praise to G-d. Songs require a personal relationship, whereas it is possible that praise be an intellectual or even a theoretical statement without emotional involvement. Thus the "songs" draw a person towards a sense of joyous participation in the Creation.

"Let all the earth sing in jubilation to the L-rd. Serve the L-rd with joy; come before Him with exultation. Know that the L-rd is G-d; He has made us and we are His..." This is not simply projection of the ego onto the Creation but rather the negation of self yet further in favor of the Higher Form.

We know that a person's life expands as his perception of what is personally meaningful expands. A man projects his experience (his form) onto the world. Thus with egocentricity there always exists an element of sadness and insecurity because a person becomes acutely aware (even unconsciously) of the limitations of self. And the more successful a person is, because he may have fewer illusions, the more clearly he is aware of his limitation: he comes to feel trapped, his life repeats itself again and yet again in predictable patterns.

The "message" of the P'sukei d'Zimra is that the world is filled with wondrous potential: avail yourself! And as a person lets the Creation in, his "form" expands, the Creation works on him... he feels his consciousness expand.

"I will praise the L-rd as long as I live; I will sing to my G-d as long as I exist. Put no trust in princes, in mortal man who can give no help. When his breath goes, he returns to the dust, and on that very day his designs perish. Happy is he who has the G-d of Jacob as his help, whose hope rests upon the L-rd his G-d, Maker of heaven and earth and sea and all that is therein... Sing thanks to the L-rd; make melody upon the harp to our G-d, Who covers the sky with clouds, provides rain for the earth and causes grass to grow upon the hills." The world is made for man with all the opportunities for life. He comes to praise G-d, Who grants potentiality; his head is lifted up, the Creation opens before him.

These are steps from small-mindedness toward large-mindedness. One must first control the animal instinct which, because it is steeped in needing, desires only immediate gratification. Having restrained this needing man can acknowledge past blessings, and begin to hope in terms of the future. Such is the prerequisite for true prayer. For only the person who is able to be thankful for what went before or for What he has escaped can hope and pray. Otherwise, he has no "standing", no foundation or context, and as well, he is not entitled, Because he is not able to praise he does not know to whom his "prayers" are addressed.

In the telling of the ma'aseh, the P'sukei d'Zimra may be seen to correspond to the setting of the story; the descriptive details of the actual scene or background - the frame - in which the story takes place. The personalities are identified.

Once the "space" (from the Korbanot) has been established in which the ma'aseh may unfold, the storyteller begins to express the higher form represented by the ma'aseh. He infuses details with an expectation of holiness. Every step the tzaddik takes, each thing he comes in contact with, is filled with unlimited potentiality. And this is the most important element in conveying the story's form - the attitude, the zest in the telling. This zest (joy) is praise.

Together with the Korbanot (the space), the P'sukei d'Zimra completes the necessary preparation or context in which the ma'aseh can most powerfully be told and experienced. And in the telling, the storyteller and his audience reach a deeper level of self-abnegation. The inner or essential ma'aseh may now begin.

The third stage of the morning prayer is called the Birchot Kriyat Sh'ma. We recite the Sh'ma, that portion of the Torah which begins with the words, "Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is One." Certain brachot, blessings, telling of G-d's intimate, on-going involvement with His Creation and His special relationship with Israel, both precede and follow the recitation of the Sh'ma.

Moving from the praise of the Creation in the P'sukei d'Zimra, a person comes yet further from subjectivity to objectivity through the realization that he is a part of the total unity of G-d's universe (the L-rd is One), and that this universe of which he is a part is meaningful, there is judgment, G-d is King. Such understanding of his relationship to the universe and to G-d is the beginning of true prayer.

We have seen that in the P'sukei d'Zimra a person comes to affirm G-d in terms of His Creation, a creation which offers unlimited potentiality for life. In the Birchot Kriyat Sh'ma this relationship is understood in a deeper sense. The Ma'aseh Bereshith, story of Creation, is seen in terms of its perpetual relevance. G-d is actively involved, and He is in complete union with His Creation.

"In compassion He gives light to the earth and to those who dwell thereon, and in His goodness He renews each day, continually, the work of Creation. How manifold are Your works, O L-rd! In wisdom You made them all; the earth is filled with Your possessions."

Not only does G-d control the laws of nature but He exercises His control in response to man's actions. As is stated at length in the recitation of the Sh'ma: "And if you will obey my Commandments which I give you this day... then I will give rain for your land at the right season... that you may gather in your grain... And I will produce grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Beware lest your heart be deceived, and you turn and serve other gods and worship them; for then the L-rd's anger will blaze against you, and He will shut the skies so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no produce..." The unity of Creation is both physical and spiritual. The physical universe is related to the morality and spirituality of man, and in turn, physical events have an inner spiritual purpose.

But in order to understand this, in order to truly appreciate the on going relevance of the "story" of Creation, man must first distinguish between cause and effect. He must acknowledge the disparity between light and darkness. Therefore the Birchot Kriyat Sh'ma is introduced with the words "Blessed are You, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, Who forms light and creates darkness... "(11)

The opening words of the Sh'ma, "Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d..." express the integral link between the individual Jew, Israel and G-d. A Jew does not say "my G-d" but "our G-d". Another step is taken towards objectivity: from prayer as an individual to prayer as a member of the House of Israel. He joins in collective prayer. A person comes to recognize that his life is tied to the destiny (and history) of Israel; he does not live "existentially" but rather his life is bound to a Higher Purpose, and that Purpose is related to Israel.

The primary affirmation of the Sh'ma, "Hear O Israel..." is surrounded by two affirmations of love: the blessing immediately preceding the Sh'ma ends, "Blessed are You, G-d, Who chooses His people Israel with love;" and the first statement after "Hear O Israel" is, "You shall love the L-rd your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might."(12) The first expression is that of G-d's love for Israel, the second expresses Israel's love for G-d. This relation of love between G-d and Israel is realized through the Torah.

The Sh'ma was adapted to the morning prayer so that we might remember the basic principles of Torah.(13) But the Sh'ma is not a composed prayer. It is a portion of the Torah which tells of G-d's interaction with creation and stresses the importance of the Commandments. Having been elevated and objectified in perception as a result of the Korbanot and the P'sukei d'Zimra, we are now opened to the teaching of the Sh'ma, that is the relationship of the Jew to the Creation, to Israel and to G-d through Torah.

The Torah is an expression of G-d's Will and love for Israel. A member of the House of Israel relates to G-d through the Commandments, mitzvot, revealed for all time at Sinai. He is no longer alone, trying to find his way without guidance: "And these words which I command you today shall be upon your heart. You shall teach them to your children..." This is called the halacha, the way. The Torah teaching of the Sh'ma reveals G-d's love for Israel. In turn, Israel's love for G-d is expressed in its remembrance and fulfillment of Holy Commandments.

In respect to the telling of the ma'aseh, we reach the point where the actions of the tzaddik are related - his apparent incongruous or paradoxical actions, his mysterious flights. The tzaddik plays for spiritual "stakes"; he sees the spiritual reality controlling the physical world. This is the premise of the Torah. This is the fundamental "lesson" of the ma'aseh: that all physical acts are in fact spiritual acts, that spiritual acts control or influence the physical world. (In fact, all mitzvot are based upon a physical act or component.) Thus we say that the tzaddik is a living Torah, his deeds convey G-d's Will, his acts are Torah.

The climactic stage in the morning prayers is the Amida (18 Benedictions; or Sh'moneh Esreh) in which speaking gives way to silent prayer. The Amida is that portion of the prayer which is actually called "prayer". Everything that precedes it is, by comparison, only preparation for prayer. The most important aspect of the Amida is that it is "spoken" silently, standing, feet together, ideally, with eyes closed, with no distraction of concentration. A person physically bows several times during the course of this long prayer. He is in the presence of the Holy Blessed One, his Sovereign. Like the Sh'ma, the prayer is in the collective form, to our G-d, the G-d of Israel - silently, directly, on behalf of Israel of which he, the Jew, is a part. In the Amida G-d is addressed directly, with more familiarity than in other prayers.

Now the intimacy which is sought in the Amida takes place in the context of mutual love: a Jew's love of G-d, and G-d's love of His people, Israel. And in this relationship of love takes place the ultimate self-negation, in which words become limitations. In silent prayer, beyond the intellectual and beyond the merely personal-Jew stands before his G-d, the G-d of Israel.

The benedictions in the Amida are in the following form: "You bestow knowledge upon men and teach mortals understanding. Bestow upon us from You, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are You, G-d, Who bestows knowledge. "Likewise, "Return in mercy to Jerusalem Your city and dwell there as You have promised... Blessed are You, L-rd, Who rebuilds Jerusalem..." There is a direct plea for G-d to act in His universe, and in a specific way.

A person wants to feel G-d's presence immediately, or at least, in his immediate world. He wants to move from an intellectual awareness and appreciation which is achieved in the Sh'ma to a merging with G-d. And in his physical motions, a person prays as if he were indeed in the Presence of G-d, before the King, in his chamber. And yet, even though he seeks this personal closeness, on whatever level he is able to achieve it, nevertheless his prayer is collective; he says, "Bless us, Our Father, All of us as one..." He asks G-d to act, to make His Presence even more manifest in the immediate world-and he himself will receive with all of Israel (and even regardless of his individual worthiness).

The form of the Amida prayer is at first strange; a person asks that there be redemption, healing, a return to Jerusalem, then immediately acknowledges that what he is actually praying for is already in existence or is constantly occurring. As for example: "Heal us, O L-rd and we shall be healed... Blessed are You, G-d, Who heals the sick among Thy people Israel." In other words, the person acknowledges G-d's active Presence in the world, but he asks that he (Israel, all mankind) experience His Presence even more; that G-d's dominion over His world be even more manifest. He pleads with G-d to reveal Himself, for example, in times when evil seems completely victorious; but at the same time, if it is G-d's Will not to do so, he affirms His existence and Providence despite what seems just or reasonable to human understanding.

The Amida is prayed in the presence of the Light itself. And, in a sense, the prayer is immediately answered. There is reconciliation; the question or plea disappears. More precisely, the pleas merge into one prayer: to experience G-d more fully, more directly, more immediately. The Jew negates himself before G-d, and to that extent, he comes to experience more deeply G-d's Presence in the world (he "sees" with the tzaddik's eyes). This is the moment of bitul (self-negation, impression of the experience of G-d's Presence); his mind purified, no-mind is achieved. The prayer is "answered" even greater self-negation before the Light with the very experience of G-d's Presence. The prayer is answered with yet a deeper "understanding" of the great compassion and love with which G-d manifests Himself in the world.

The experience of this union, to the extent of its intensity and level, opens "space" within the person; the self-negation achieved becomes permanent, never again to be filled by ego to the same degree. The next time a person prays, and in all of his actions in the everyday world, there is less intense self, and consequently, more potential for grace and holiness. That much of the self which is, so to speak, burned away in the presence of the Light - no matter how far a person may fall away - will always remain sensitive to G-d. The sages warn that the greater the spirituality of an individual, the more dangerous becomes his yetzer ha'ra, the force of evil or ego within himself. Yet the spirituality of a person determines the potential greatness of his prayer. The more he is able to negate self, the greater his union with G-d. Ultimately he may reach the form of the tzaddik whose will is one with G-d's Will, who in this sense, becomes a vehicle through which prayer is answered for all of Israel. That is, through whom G-d reveals Himself.

In the ma'aseh, the Amida represents that point when the storyteller falls silent, the point when the story (the Absolute) reverberates. There is a submission to the Light beyond intellectual understanding. The tzaddik's intention (G-d's Will, the Absolute) is directly experienced.

Thus the sense of merger with G-d experienced through the ma'aseh may be more powerful than in the Amida. The Hebrew word "to tell" (l'sapper) also means "to shine" because if a person is able to tell he may reveal or express Light. In this sense, the Light is brought to a person directly, perhaps more accessibly; in the Amida he must reach it himself through the stages of prayer. The storyteller is himself praying the ma'aseh like a chazan or messenger of the congregation. The depth of the listener's experience in turn depends on the spiritual level of receptivity. The listener says "amen" to the ma'aseh... the depth of this amen is the level of his experience of G-d's Presence.

After one comes out from the Amida he is left with the impression made by the experience of bitul, self negation, the "memory" of the experience of G-d's Presence: the impression of the Light. This maybe likened to the memory or impression, for example, of a father's warmth. And all through life, a person may be fed from that impression. From the peak of the Amida, the morning prayers lead a person back down through the stages of ascent, but within himself is the powerful experience of bitul.

Thus, the Amida is followed by the prayer known as Tachanun. Here a person sits, face on his arm, in order to symbolize that he has left the Light which again becomes hidden. From Tachanun, and the prayers associated with it, he again begins to recite Psalms in praise of G-d and His Creation as he did in the corresponding stage of P'sukei d'Zimra. From the Psalms, he is led down to the prayer Ein K'Elokeinu which again involves the Korbanot, the world of the animal instincts. But now, he is no longer involved with animal sacrifice. Instead, he reviews the details of the K'toret, the incense offering. The K'toret is comprised of 11 spices, one of which, the galbanum, has a repugnant odor. The spices are blended and the odor of the galbanum is subdued - just enough remains to intensify the fragrance of the entire offering. For at this point, a person no longer needs to sacrifice, to obliterate, his animal instincts. Rather, he attempts to subdue and harness them, to blend them - like the galbanum with his higher aspirations, to direct all of himself, animal and spiritual, to the service of G-d. Thus, through the process of prayer, the person has changed; he has experienced the negation of self in the presence of G-d. His descent into the ordinary world through the various stages of his prayer also represents a transformation or transcendence in respect to these stages, and of the ordinary world as well. He is not the same man who began the prayers. He carries within himself the impression of G-d.

Involved in the telling of the ma'aseh and in the structure of the morning prayers, are four parallel ascendant stages or levels. These levels correspond to the four Worlds through which G-d's Presence is revealed in the Creation. The Kabbala tells us that these Worlds are, in ascendant order: Asiya, the World of Action; Yetzira, the World of Form; Briya, the world of Creation; and Atzilut, the World of Emanation or Royalty, nearest to G-d.

We have seen in the morning prayers that the Korbanot, the lowest preliminary level, corresponds to the world of the everyday in which the instincts and desires dominate. The purpose of the Korbanot is to sacrifice the animal aspect of soul to G-d in order to rise closer to Him. In the telling of the ma'aseh, the stage corresponds to the creating of the proper space-the deed of "making a beginning" in which the unfolding of the story may take place.

Ma'aseh means a tale but also a deed. Contained in the Hebrew word is the root meaning to do, to act. Thus the ma'aseh is understood to be a form of action; it is the physical "telling" about actions, but also the words become deeds themselves. For in Judaism, words are acts; the words of the Korbanot become the sacrificial animals themselves. There is the attempt to emulate G-d Who created the world through words: "And G-d said, Let there be light; and there was light." The deed inherent in the telling of the ma'aseh and in the Korbanot prayer is one of creation, the act of creating "internal space," that is, self-abnegation.

An analogy may be seen to the kabbalists' understanding of the Primal Creative Act, the act of tzimtzum (self-contraction). G-d withdrew or contracted into Himself in the order to create a "vacuum" in which the universe could come into existence. But in this case, it is the reverse. Ego or self must be withdrawn or contracted in order that the space be created within the psyche or the heart in which G-d's Presence may (again) be manifest. All of this belongs to the World of Action, of Asiya, the world in which G-d's Presence is most hidden.

The World above Asiya is the World of Form, Yetzira. In the Z'mirot, the songs of praise, is revealed a higher level of consciousness, of objectivity, manifested in the recognition of the splendor of the universe and of man's place in that universe. With respect to the telling of the ma'aseh, we have seen that this stage corresponds to the setting of the story - the placing of the ma'aseh in space and time, but most importantly the attitude of the teller, his praise and zest toward the world.

The third World is that of Creation, Briya. This is the World in which the Sh'ma is spoken; the recognition of the unity of all of the Creation with G-d, and the sovereignty of G-d over the universe. This is the World of the Torah through which G-d created the Universe and relates to Israel and the individual Jew. In the ma'aseh, this is the point in the story when the insight of the tzaddik is revealed, the intellectual recognition of truth embodied in the ma'aseh.

The highest World, Atzilut, is Royalty, This is the World closest to G-d, the World in which His Presence is most purely manifested. It is to this World that the Amida belongs, the point of pure prayer, the level of silence and experience, of pure thought. In the Amida a person approaches face to face with G-d. In the ma'aseh, it is the point when all fall silent, where the impact - the Absolute dimension - is personally experienced.

And as a person descends from the World of Atzilut, Royalty, expressed in the Amida, through Tachanun, Psalms of Praise, and finally, to the Korbanot, he descends through these four Worlds until he finds himself again in the World of Asiya, action - his familiar everyday world. And in this process or journey, the person himself is changed; he is purified, at the same time, he is charged or intensified through the experience of bitul, the impression left upon him of being in G-d's Presence. This person in turn may purify and change his world insofar as his actions are able to express G-d's Will, the absolute. The higher his level, the more G-d's Will flows though his actions. To that extent, varying with each individual and with each circumstance, he is in the category of the tzaddik. He may redeem the world through his purest actions, in his most selfless moments.

The telling over of the ma'aseh multiplies the tzaddik's acts through generations. Each time a ma'aseh is properly told, the intention of the tzaddik which embodies G-d's Will is repeated and becomes again effective; G-dliness is continually drawn into the world.

The telling of the ma'aseh, as with prayer, is the aspiration to unite the world with G-d. And this is G-d's wish, that the world acknowledge His Providence and benefit from His Presence, that the world be united through His laws, the Torah, with His love.

*In Israel there is only Providence. Eretz Yisrael is equated with the concept of faith. As is written, "Dwell in the Land and cherish faithfulness."(14) When G-d promised Abraham that his children would inherit the land, Abraham questioned G-d's word saying, "Whereby will I know that I shall inherit it?"(15) Whereupon Abraham was told that one day his children would be exiled from their land.(16)

Hence Eretz Yisrael and Jewish faith are one and the same.(17) Abraham displayed a lack of faith, questioning G-d's word, and the Egyptian exile was immediately foretold. For the Jewish people were meant to inherit the Land because of their faith. Faith is the deepest level of bitul, the most profound openness.

Eretz Yisrael is the place of deepest bitul for the Jewish people, where the forces of Light and Darkness are most fundamental; where Providence is most revealed.

Thus, it is in Eretz Yisrael that the ma'aseh of the Jewish people will unfold in its ultimate and most complete form.


(1) The Hebrew word ma'aseh, meaning act or deed, is also the word for story. This is because the acts or deeds of individuals are recounted through stories.

(2) Targum J. Numbers 31:8, Yalkut Shimoney 785, Zohar II 194 A.

(3) Evil is nourished from the Possibility of corruption in all creation. This possibility is termed the Other Side of Holiness.

(4) Jerusalem Talmud, Brachot, perak 5, halacha 2.

(5) See Lesson 62 in Lekutey Moharan, end of paragraph 5. The logic of faith is hidden. Its intuitive sense, its spirit, though hidden from the immediate process of reason, is revealed daily to those who aspire to its perception.

(6) Small-mindedness and large-mindedness are kabbalistic terms used to describe the degree to which one is aware of G-d and His kindness.

(7) Kelim, chapter 1:6.

(8) G-d's place or dwelling is called ma'on, a Hebrew word also meaning time (Exodus 21:10 and Rashbam there). Providence often shows itself in the course of time since it comes from G-d Who circumscribes (and is not bound by) the immediate.

(9) See Yosef T'hillos (Chida) psalm 16:8.

(10) Midrash T'hillim 105.

(11) Originally, the text from which this is drawn reads, "Who forms light and creates evil... " but it was changed by the rabbis. See Brachot 11 B. The blessing ends, "...Who makes peace and creates all things." This is interpreted as referring to the fact that all things in the universe (chemically) merge, that separate elements bind together instead of repelling each other so as to maintain the world. See Achres Le Shalom.

(12) The intervening line which begins "Blessed be the Name..." is not considered an integral part of the Kriyat Sh'ma and is said in an undertone of the doubt which exists as to whether it actually belongs to the prayer from ancient times. See Pesachim 562.

(13) Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 60:2 and commentaries.

(14) Psalms 37:3. See lbn Ezra's commentary there.

(15) Genesis 15:8.

(16) Genesis 15:13. See Rashi's commentary there.

(17) See Lekutey Moharan, Lesson 7.

Tales of the Tzaddikim was originally published in the journal B'or Ha'Torah in 1986. Reprinted by permission.

Gedaliah Fleer was born in 1940 in New York. He is a teacher and writer who has lectured widely on the philosophy of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. His published works include Rabbi Nachman's Fire and Rabbi Nachman's Foundation (New York: Sepher-Herman Press, 1976). Gedaliah lives in the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City very close to the Western Wall.

Allen Afterman was born in 1941 in Los Angeles. He was a poet and farmer who lived in Kfar Clil in the Upper Western Galilee with his wife Susan, who is a poet and architect, and their three sons. His published books of poetry include The Maze Rose (Melbourne: Macmillan-Sun Books, 1974), and Purple Adam (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1980). He is also the author of Kabbalah and Consciousness, published by Sheep Meadow Press in 1991.



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