Rav Nachman and the Rebbe of Piacezna offer different ways for coping with the World’s Suffering. From the book ‘A Wedding of the Lost Ones’ shiurim on Rav Nachman’s tale of the seven beggars.
…Even as the tzaddik weeps with the world, he always keeps one eye open: he positions himself at the Archimedean point, the perspective that can alter the situation.
Improbably, such a position allows the viewer to inhabit two spaces at once: inside and outside. We might use Rav Nachman’s own words from a Torah teaching where he discusses the idea that a deficiency or drawback in man is a deficiency in the Shekhina itself, a problem of God’s. But such language might lead us astray, for the “Shekhina” is not a separate entity that is external to human suffering. Such terminology is misleading, bound by the world of separation, incapable of accessing the complicated vantage point that Rav Nachman is describing here.
Indeed, the wail of a human being is the distress of the Shekhina ringing out in the human being’s pain. The tzaddik does not exchange one for the other. Rather, his unique approach reveals the profound aspects of the human cry itself: letting out a human cry that is sourced from another place, exposing the depths of the original voice. The tzaddik is aware of the fundamental source of the cry, and this sensitivity allows him to turn the cry into a gesture that elevates the ‘break’: finding redemption in the wails of longing. Only such a cry – one that breathes life into a broken reality – can bring about a renewed tikkun and unity.
Rabbi Nachman’s notion of a wail that is turned into redemption can be seen in a speech given by the Rebbe of Piacezna in the Warsaw Ghetto. Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira was active in Poland between the two World Wars, and composed books with innovative ideas for Hassidic education, such as Chovat Hatalmidim, Hachsharat Ha’avrechim, Bnei Mishpacha Tovah and others. Esh Kodesh, a collection of talks delivered to his followers in the Warsaw Ghetto, was buried in the ghetto and uncovered after the war. These sermons express his brave, complex attempt to cope with the horrors of that period as a spiritual leader.
In a sermon given in 1942, the Rebbe of Piacezna discusses the rake, a tool used to both collect the burnt ashes of sacrifices in the Temple but also – according to the Gemara – a tool that could emit lovely, wondrous musical sounds.
The Rebbe proceeds to describe an awful condition: when people live together – though they may be close and loving – they never pay enough attention to each other. At the end of the day, we do not know how to value those who surround us. Even the closest relationships – indeed, perhaps it is specifically the closest ones – always contain an element of missed potential. It is only when these people disappear that we experience the magnitude of their absence: we truly encounter the presence through its loss. This is the sharp feeling of missed opportunity that cannot be relieved. The Rebbe experienced it in the most direct way – his son and wife were killed in a bombing early after the war began, then his daughter was snatched and murdered…Meanwhile he was left alone, the only survivor in his family.
The Rebbe is able to connect his own horrific situation and the Gemara’s description – and this is the key to a wondrous awakening, to a belief that within loss there is contained a strength to persevere to redemption. This is a striking, tangible example of the dynamic that Rabbi Nachman describes: redemption in the depth of the cry.
Comparing Rav Nachman’s teaching with the words of the Piacezner Rebbe shows how profound and piercing these descriptions may be. As Rav Nachman has written in his story of the wedding within his tale”: “The Seven Beggars ” , his story has a layer of covering, of concealment. ,. During the story the crooked beggar gifts the young couple his splendid, miraculous ability at the start of their shared life together.
As I’ve written before, weddings represent an attempt to duplicate the existing social structure: to turn the young couple into a copy of their parents. Rav Nachman suggests another possibility: the husband and bride in the story are lost children, refugees of a terrible storm that has left them in complete isolation. Their wedding is a fresh start, laying new foundations for existence by appearing as beggarly figures. Such a beginning forces an encounter with what Rav Nachman conceives of as the most fundamental points of existence. This encounter calls for a coping of the deepest kind.
Rav Nachman experienced the world as fundamentally shaken, flooded by storms and rocked by winds that tossed and laid waste to old structures. In such a condition, it is impossible to continue reciting old slogans, living on the surface of things. The wedding described here is an occasion of world-building from the ground up. It is an opportunity for Rav Nachman to touch upon the main questions of existence. Hence the hardship and the suffering, hence the redemption and the consolation.