Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Converts in the Breslov Community

(c) Rabbi Yakov Horowitz

Oral Traditions of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender
As found in his collected talks,"Siach Sarfei Kodesh" (eight volumes)
Excerpts translated for this website by Dovid Sears

During World War I, the inhabitants of an entire Ukrainian village near Uman (where Rebbe Nachman is buried) converted to Judaism, with the assistance of the Breslover Chassidim. The villagers previously had approached several rabbinic leaders who were reluctant to get involved, fearing reprisals from the ruling authorities. However, the Breslover Chassidim came to their aid and instructed them until they were sufficiently knowledgeable to convert.

Rabbi Leib, the Rav of Uman, of blessed memory, presided over the halachic procedures. He visited the new converts prior to Passover, and spent the entire holiday with them. Since many of the villagers were wealthy, they amply provided the Rav with his holiday needs. He asked the other Breslover Chassidim to share responsibility for their religious instruction, but cautioned them not to publicize the matter.

The villagers were educated, affluent, and physically robust people. They told the Chassidim that they were inspired to convert because of the contradictions they found in their own religious books, a phenomenon that Rebbe Nachman discusses in Likutei Moharan I, 17.

Another village similarly converted and became Breslover Chassidim, as did many other individuals, young and old. Their wives, too, became proper Jewish women. Because they did not know how to read the Hebrew prayers, they worshipped God simply in their own language, with fervor and profuse tears.

Rabbi Nachum Schuster, of blessed memory, encouraged them greatly, often visiting them, and eventually settling among them in their village. He taught them Torah. Emulating their Rav and mentor, they broke their sleep every night in order to recite the Tikkun Chatzos (Midnight Lament), and practiced hisbodedus (secluded meditation and prayer).

When Rabbi Nachum finally passed away, they buried him in the local cemetery. Upon hearing of their father's death, Rabbi Nachum's sons came to the village and expressed their desire to rebury him in Kharkov, where they lived. However, the righteous converts refused their request, saying: "How can we let you take this tzaddik away from us? Absolutely not!" (SSK IV, 314)


During World War I, at the time of the great famine, an elderly non-Jew came to Uman, a 65-year-old man from the neighboring village of Ladizin, wishing to convert. He brought with him a wagonload of assorted foodstuffs, for he was a man of means. The bris (ritual circumcision) was performed in the home of Rabbi Daniel the Ger, of blessed memory.

Prior to the act of removing the foreskin, the mohel (ritual circumciser) requested the presence of a medical doctor; however, the convert would not allow it. Therefore, themohel performed the bris without anesthesia, and was amazed that his subject endured both the removal of the outer skin (periah) and the incision (milah) without complaint. Afterward, the Chassidim formed a circle and began to dance, and the new covert arose from his bed to join them in great joy. Given the widespread poverty and famine at the time, many townspeople came to partake of the festive meal, and all were served a fine repast. (SSK IV, 315)


At the Breslov Rosh Hashana gathering in Uman during the 1920s until the Stalinist persecutions of the following decade, there was an entire table of converts who shared the festive meals together in the communal dining area. (SSK IV, 318)


During World War I in Uman, bloodthirsty mobs wantonly killed many Jews. Among their victims was the Jewish wife of the famous Breslover convert, Rabbi Daniel the Ger, whom they killed before her husband's eyes.

"Why don't you kill me, too?" he begged them.

However, the murderers refused, saying, "No! You're not a Jew, and we won't kill you!"

Reb Daniel eventually immigrated to Israel, where he was a respected elder in Jerusalem's Breslov community. (SSK IV, 316)


The authorities once ordered one of the converts who had become a Breslover Chassid to perform some clerical work for the government, however the convert would not accept the position because it entailed desecration of the Sabbath. Instead, they gave him the extremely difficult job cutting water-soaked lumber. As a result, the man became so sick that his appearance was almost unrecognizable.

"Do you have to risk your life for this?" he wife asked.

"Did I become a Jew in order to desecrate the Sabbath?" the man retorted. Within a short time, he died from cruel treatment, in sanctification of the Divine Name. (SSK V, 362)


During World War II, the Nazis destroyed the Old Cemetery in Uman, including the original Ohel (enclosed structure) over Rebbe Nachman's grave. After the war, the Soviet authorities decided to build a housing development on the site, but only a resident of Uman could acquire property. Therefore, Reb Zavel Lubarsky approached a righteous convert named Reb Michel, of blessed memory, who covertly purchased the tract of land. However, the exact location of the grave was uncertain, due to the debris. Reb Zavel prayed fervently that somehow he would be able to discover the grave. That night, he had a dream in which the Rebbe appeared to him and encouraged him to continue searching. The following morning, Reb Zavel went to the site and began to remove the earth and stones, until he uncovered the foundations of two wooden posts that had stood on either side of the grave. This removed all doubt as to the holy site's location. Reb Michel built his house so that Rebbe Nachman's grave was directly adjacent to the exterior wall facing the garden and, in the distance, the old Breslover Kloiz (synagogue). Thus, the Breslover Chassidim would visit Reb Michel and recite Tehillim and pray beside the Rebbe's grave indoors, where no one could observe them.

This house stood until 1999, when it was torn down and replaced by the present Beis HaMidrash (synagogue) and enclosed area surrounding the Tziun (grave site). This enclosed area is presently undergoing extensive reconstruction in order to accommodate the many thousands of visitors who come to Uman for "the Rebbe's Rosh Hashana." (based on "Uman: Ir HaGagu'im")

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On Ratzon

HaRav Elazar Mordechai Kenig, shlita
Leader of the Breslov Community in Tsfat, Israel
Translated and adapted from a talk given in Tsfat, 5760/2000
Based on Likutei Halachot, Hil. Arev, Halachah 3

The Baal Shem Tov greatly praised the spiritual level of his daughter, Udel, since all day long, her heart was directed Above -her only yearning and desire was to please G-d. Every Jew should seek to attain this high level, that his or her heart be constantly directed toward G-d in order to please Him.

The foundation of our Divine service is ratzon - will or desire. Our ratzon to come close to G-d and to please Him always should be strong. Although in general we may desire to do what G-d asks of us in this world, not all desires are equal. In a matter of a few minutes, we may experience tremendous differences and distinctions in our ratzon. Nonetheless, the guiding principle is constantly to desire and yearn for G-d.

Reb Noson says that it is impossible to describe in writing the greatness of our ratzon and yearning to do the Will of G-d. He explains that the entire reason the soul is compelled to descend from the upper worlds into this physical world is only for the sake ofratzon. Only here can we merit to attain complete and perfect desire.

G-d wants the Jewish people to be receive the true complete good. Since the ultimate good is to attain the level of perfect ratzon, the soul must be coerced to come here in order to attain a strong desire for G-d. The farther away from the object of love, the greater one's desire. For example, while a son is with his father, even though his love is very strong, we cannot say that he desires and yearns for his father, since he is right next to him. But when the son travels away from his father, then he begins to miss him. The farther away the son is from his father, the stronger his yearning and desire. This is why the soul must leave her elevated place to enter this material world. It is only here, in a world of free choice, that the soul may achieve completion and perfection of ratzon. When we overcome the spiritual distance and arouse our inner desire for serving G-d, then precisely through this, we perfect our souls.

The soul, the neshama, is "hewn from beneath the Heavenly Throne." She constantly yearns for her root, and longs to be connected to her source. Reb Noson discusses at length the concept of a "soul root." He explains that the souls of the Jewish people have a uniquely exalted origin. This is the place of the Upper Will and Desire that the Zohar calls "Desire of Desires." Every Jewish soul comes from there, and ultimately every soul returns there. It all depends upon ratzon.

Material Desires

There are, however, many other desires that a person confronts while living in the world. Reb Noson writes that this is all for the best, since a spark of G-dliness may be found within all profane desires, as well. When we find those Divine sparks, we elevate the profane desires in which they were hidden to the realm of the holy.

Moreover, without material desires, we would be overwhelmed by our innate desire for G-d - we wouldn't want to be here at all. The desire of the soul to return to her source is so all-consuming that existence within a body would be impossible even for a short time. Therefore, G-d created us with a need to sustain ourselves through eating and drinking. This allows the soul to exist in the body, despite its innate and intense desire for G-d. Food attracts a person: the taste, sight, and smell of food stimulate the desire to eat. If there were no pleasing smell, taste, and appearance, we would be disgusted by our food. Therefore, G-d created these characteristics.

The fallen "holy sparks" that the world contains originated in the Ratzon HaElyon, the Supernal Will of the Creator. If a person wants to use everything according to the Divine Will, then he or she will eat and drink according to the requirements of the Torah. This means eating only permitted food and making the proper blessings before and after eating. The "fallen" desire is then elevated to its holy root. Therefore, the fact that we have a desire or craving for material things is ultimately for the best, since it enables the world to exist and provides us with an opportunity to engage in acts of Divine service. This is all the Will of G-d, and a wondrous thing.

The Mitzvot and Desire

These are deep concepts that form the basis of Judaism. G-d created everything according to His Will and Desire, and there is nothing that obligates Him. The Arizal states that preceding Creation, there was only G-d's Infinite Light, called the Ohr Ein Sof. It then arose in the Divine "thought" to create the world. It is known that the souls of the Jewish people preceded the world: G-d first created their souls, and afterwards He created all the worlds for their sake (Likkutei Moharan I: 17 and I:52). The Ein Sof is the source of ratzon, G-d's Will and Desire, and this ratzon is clothed within all of the details of Creation.

Reb Noson explains that it was out of G-d's chesed, loving-kindness, that He gave us the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. Themitzvot purposefully involve material things. The essence of everymitzvah is that it is an articulation of the Creator's Will. For example, He desired that the seventh day be the Sabbath, and that we observe the Sabbath according to the laws written in the Torah. Since the 613 mitzvot are an expression of G-d's chesed, loving-kindness, through their observance we can experience G-d's love and desire for us, His people. In this light, we can understand that the Torah and mitzvot were not given in order to make our lives burdensome. Rather, the opposite is true. We should rejoice in them, since G-d gave them to the Jewish people in order to benefit us. When we believe in G-d and fulfill His mitzvot, we can experience G-d's ratzon, as it were; then our desire to come closer to G-d will be awakened. Thus, all physical desires can be repaired and elevated to their Source.

However, because desire is clothed in physical things as well, the Other Side, the realm of unholiness, has a hold upon them. Therefore, a person needs to be very careful not to fall into selfishness and physical desire. If he does, he creates a blemish in the Ratzon D'Kedushah, Holy Desire. This is why it is important to make do with a minimum of material things in this world, in order to prevent blemishing Holy Desire. Through simplicity and wholeheartedness, a person can fulfill G-d's Will even through physical things, by using them according to the laws of the Torah. If one acts against the Will of the Creator, G-d forbid, by utilizing the material world outside of a Torah framework, then the forces of unholiness can have a hold on the physical things. A person then can be distanced tremendously from G-d. One needs to be very careful about falling into physical desires and blemishing Holy Desire, Ratzon D'Kedushah, the spiritual place of origin for which the soul yearns.

Anger, too, flows from one's blemished desires. When we are worthy to elevate all our desires to G-d's ratzon, then we live in tranquility, without anger or jealousy. We know that if G-d wants to give us something, He will give it; if He gives it to someone else, this, too, is His Desire. With this awareness, we can experience all of the other person's pleasure and happiness without jealousy. Hate, anger, and jealousy all come from blemished desire.

Teshuvah and Desire

Even when one stumbles by not acting according to G-d's Desire, there is a spiritual remedy: teshuvah - repentance, or return. The first step of teshuvah is regret. One realizes that he would have been better off if he had not acted a certain way. He acknowledges that he really has no desire for what he did. Through teshuvah, a person can repair anything.

Ratzon is always the underlying factor. Our will and desire always should be for G-d, that we should act within the framework of Torah. Through this, we have the power to elevate all material desires to the Creator. We must greatly strengthen our fear and awe of G-d, and stay far away from anything forbidden. Every stumbling blemishes the soul tremendously and creates distance from G-d. We then may be drawn to unholy desires entirely, G-d forbid. However, again, with ratzon, everything can be restored to holiness - to such an extent, our sages tell us, that our sins actually become transformed to merits. Therefore, our master, Rebbe Nachman, tells us that it is forbidden to despair. Because the problem of our misdeeds originated with blemished desire, we now can come to an even stronger desire for G-d. The farther someone is from G-d, the more he needs to awaken his desire for Him.

This is why sometimes a person has no desire for G-d, Torah, or prayer. Since he blemished the quality of ratzon, he now must reawaken his ratzon for the right thing, and express it with a settled mind through what is permitted. When a person realizes that this world amounts to nothing, he will not be drawn after worldly materialism and cravings. Then within the distance itself, a person again begins to long and yearn for G-d. Through regret and teshuvah, a person has the power to repair all blemish by transforming his sins into merits, since the fundamental blemish was in his desire. Through the stumbling itself, he can arouse himself to an even greater level of yearning.

Desire Has No Limits

We spoke in the beginning about how the Baal Shem Tov praised the spiritual level of his daughter Udel because her only desire was to please G-d. Likewise, it is vital to continually awaken and strengthen our own desire to do the will of the Creator. The truth is that everyone wants this, but in reality, one person cannot do everything. Sometimes one is prevented from doing a mitzvah or good deed because of various circumstances, even if he is actually capable of doing it. However, there is no limit to how much one's desire can be awakened. For example, with tzedakah, how much can one person give? We can only give according to our ability. However, even if we don't have what to give, we can use our strong desire to arouse others to give. Our Sages say, "Greater is the person who helps others to give than the one who gives," since this shows the strength of his desire to give. Who can prevent someone from desiring or thinking that if all the world's silver and gold were his, he would give it to the Creator? A person can desire without limitation. Of course, since we live in a world of boundaries, we need to be very careful about how intense desire is channeled. Nonetheless, it is crucial that every single person knows that desire for G-d is the ultimate perfection and completion of a human being.

There are people who waste their lives for the sake of physical desires, but the Jewish people know that there is a Creator. We need to ensure that our entire ratzon is only for G-d. King David says in the book of Psalms, "My soul yearns, indeed it pines, for the courtyards of G-d" (Psalms 84:3). He wants G-d without limit – he yearns to give up his soul to G-d. He also says, "My soul thirsts for You, my flesh longs for You" (Psalms 63:2). A person's soul can yearn for G-d without limit. Coming to this level of desire for G-d is the completion of Man.

Practically, there are a number of ways a person can work to attain proper desire. Foremost is the observance of the Torah, since desire is articulated through the mitzvot we perform. There is also the idea of expressing desire through song, which is the essence of the Book of Psalms. Then there is prayer and hitbodedut as a vehicle to express one's desire and yearning to do G-d's Will. Hitbodedut is speaking to G-d in simple terms in our own native language, pouring out our hearts to Him.

May G-d grant us understanding to see the richness of life in this world. We can be genuinely happy, without pressure or anger. If anger surfaces with all its accompanying difficulties, again, the advice is to put ourselves aside and strengthen our faith in the fact that everything in the world comes from the Creator, Who governs every detail according to His will and desire. The root of this desire is contained in the 613 mitzvot. Our main task in the world is to perform the mitzvot that G-d gave in His desire for us.

Tzaddik Magazine © 2001 Nachal Novea Mekor Chochma
Revised for the Breslov Center website

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Which Is Worse, Drunk Driving or Cell Phoning?

If you own a cell phone, please watch this important video. It could save your life.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Rabbi Lazer Brody Speaking in Baltimore and Silver Spring

The entire community is invited to hear Rabbi Lazer Brody at the following shiurim. Admission free.

Planting a Garden of Riches in the City of Charm
Sunday, January 16, 2011 8:00 pm
Congregation Shomrei Emunah
6221 Greenspring Avenue, Baltimore, Maryland 21209
For more information, contact Rivka Malka Perlman (410) 358-3550

The Silver Spring of Emuna and the Golden Well of Bitachon
Monday, January 17, 2011 8:00 pm
Young Israel Shomrai Emunah
1132 Arcola Ave, Silver Spring, MD 20902
For more information and/or sponsorship, contact Zev Zalman Ludwick (301) 412-3758

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

New York Gets a Lucky Break!

Brooklyn expatriate Jerry Wicentowski of Milwaukee and his stellar bluegrass band Lucky Break will be performing in greater NY next month. The band will consist of Marc Eidelstein on bass, Marty Cutler on banjo, Ken Kosek on fiddle and Barry Mitterhof on mandolin. All are virtuoso roots musicians.


Thurs. 1/20: 7:00 PM

MoFiddles (violin shop), Livingston, NJ

Motza'ei Shabbat / Sat. night 1/22: 8:45 PM
Jewish Music Cafe, Park Slope, Brooklyn

Sun. night 1/23: 7:00 PM
Davar (synagogue), Teaneck, NJ

In the meantime, here are some interesting links:

Interview with Jerry:

Lucky Break's website: