Likutei Moharan, Torah 8: Spirit, Inspiration and Halacha – Part 1

Rav Shagar • 2005

One of Rabbi Nachman’s special traits – as this Torah and others show – is his belief that spiritual problems can be rectified through physical means. About Breath, Yoga, Ruach and ‘krekhtz’

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Rabbi Nachman shared this Torah on the Shabbat of Channukah 5764. This Torah is focused on the breath and the sigh, and the Torah and the tzaddik’s mission to imbue ruach chayim - the spirit of life - in the world. Rav Shagar expands the scope of the physical breath’s role in the work of tikkun (rectification). He describes the tension between learning halacha (analogous with a physical tikkun) and the work of spiritual prayer. Rav Shagar explains that this tension maintains the tzaddik’s ability to rectify the kelipot (external trappings) and to awaken a ruach chayim (spirit of life) among his students.

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1. The Power of Breath

See how precious is the sigh and groan {the krekhtz} of a Jewish person. It provides wholeness [in place] of the lack. For through the breath, which is the ruach-of-life, the world was created. As is written (Psalms 33:6), “… and by the ruach of His mouth, their entire hosts [were created].” The renewal of the world will also come about by means of the ruach, as in (Psalms 104:30), “You will send Your ruach —they will be created; You renew the face of the earth.”

This [ruach] is also the vital force of human life. This is because man’s breath is his life-force…. Whenever a lack exists, it is essentially in the life-force, which corresponds to the ruach-of-life of that thing. This is because it is the ruach which gives that thing its existence. And sighing is the extension of the breath. It corresponds to erekh apayim (ארך אפיים, patience)—i.e., extended ruach. Therefore, when a person sighs over the lack and extends his ruach, he draws ruach-of-life to that which he is lacking.


            (Likkutei Moharan, 8:1, translation from Sefaria by Moshe Mykoff)

Rabbi Nachman opens this Torah with the topic of man’s spirit and breath. He begins with this basic principle: every thing has a spirit which manifests that thing’s living being in the present, an energy that sustains and guarantees the thing’s existence. Indeed, in our lives there are times when a spirit fills us and we experience a ‘lifting of the spirit’; other times, we feel ‘out of spirits’, our strength depleted. The spirit and the body are bound together in an intriguing way: those sensations - of the presence or absence of spirit - are connected to a dimension of consciousness, yet they are felt, physically, in the heartbeat, which supplies blood, which powers our organs. A change in the heart’s activity, on the other hand, is a physical happening that also expresses spiritual and psychological changes. When a person is in flow, engaged in intense work that brings him joy, he does not feel tired but rather incredibly ‘alive’ - and the opposite is also true.

One of Rabbi Nachman’s special traits - as this Torah and others show - is his belief that spiritual problems can be rectified through physical means. Such ideas are uncommon in Judaism, and indeed they may sometimes be compared to approaches we recognize from the East. The West deals with the external body - cultivation of physical strength - but the East concerns itself more deeply with the body’s energies, facilitating a work on high levels of consciousness.  

Among the topics taught in the wisdom of the East - and especially in yoga - is the ability to control the breath, the flow of energy to the body. One approach, the Pranayama, is concerned wholly with the process of breath - its length, depth and other qualities - and is informed by a recognition of the breath’s importance and its connection to the awareness and thoughts of man. For example, when a person is focused on something and observes it in a concentrated, direct way, his breath may stop - the breath, and man’s state of awareness, are connected. Whether the breath is shallow or deep, in the throat or the nose - all of these qualities are important and revealing. In the East, the breath and its components are seen as an experiential discipline that requires exercise, for it allows a person to open up to new, deeper dimensions of existence. Similarly, Rav Nachman starts this Torah by connecting the breath and the spirit, and suggests a kind of exercise for following the breath with a sigh - in a physical sense. Usually, the activity of tikkun happens in a mind-space of awareness and internal work. Yet in this Torah, Rav Nachman suggests a path for tikkun that begins from the outside rather than the inside, a kind of re-routing which creates a conscious change through the physical exercise of a breath’s intake and release.

The following example can help explain the power of physical work in the process of breathing. When a person is irritated, he can - through the knowledge of his anger’s negative effects - mentally control and dispel this anger. Yet there exists another possibility which, though it leads to similar results, is achieved through release and relaxation via physical work on the breath, freeing up the physical tightness brought on by anger. This is an external action which works first on the body and then becomes deeper, affecting the soul and the spirit. The physical sigh is a method for dealing with spiritual problems through physical changes, due to the mutuality between the body and soul (though this technique may not work for every single problem).

There is another instance that serves to illuminate Rabbi Nachman’s understanding of the power of the breath. Rabbi Nachman suggests a physical method for spiritual-psychological work, specifically: how to overcome the difficulty of giving charity by sighing and groaning, which ease the process of separating a man from his money:

The beginning of tzedaka (giving charity) is at first hard and weighs heavily, because with all the forms of avodah (service of God) and teshuva (repentance) - all that one wishes to manifest as service, as avodat Hashem - how many voices of “oy veys,” how many groans, and repetitions, and back-and-forths [the various physical behaviors of the G-d fearing in their avodah] are needed before any work is done, and the main issue is at the beginning - for at that point it is most difficult, because ‘all beginnings are hard,’ and you need some voices, some groans and so on, before a beginning. And so too after the beginning, even then avodat Hashem is not easy, and you need some shifting, some movement (as explained above), before you can be worthy of having done some work and done it well. But the beginning is very difficult.


            (Likkutei Mohara”n, Tinyana, 4)

The work of physical tikkun can be just as effective and good as internal, spiritual tikkun. Thus, if a person eats a heavy lunch, his thinking will not be clear and open for the learning ahead. He may try to learn despite his tiredness, compelling himself to learn through traditional motivating methods that have an element of self-congratulation. On the other hand, he can act differently and better - to listen to the body and eat less - thus coming to a state where he’s fit to learn. If a person labors - a physical matter - he will feel that this activity fuels him throughout the day, bringing with it more optimistic thoughts and consequently an openness to faith. It should be noted that people can be lacking in physical fitness while possessing great vitality, because their spiritual side is dominant and supplies a physical energy as well. It should also be noted that the work of physical tikkun is not the end of the story - it can only go so far. In spiritual work, one ought to do tikkun through the body and keep progressing using other methods as well. In Hassidut it is possible to find guidance for avodah through physical means, but they are relatively rare. Though Judaism has not engaged much with physical avodah, I see great importance in it and see no reason for discrediting it.

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