This three-part shiur was first published online by Yeshivat Har Etzion: Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash (VBM). It is posted here with their kind permission.
Introduction to the Thought of Rav Nachman of Breslov
By Rav Itamar Eldar
Simplicity (Part 2)
In the previous shiur, based on the first part of the story of "The Clever Man and the Simpleton," we focused on R. Nachman's view of intelligence and simplicity. We related these concepts to a person's status vis-a-vis the world and his daily life. The continuation of the story introduces another aspect, which is interwoven between these two. The story continues as follows:
It once happened that the king came upon the royal chronicles and discovered that two sons were recorded, one named "clever" and the other named "simple." It was astonishing in his eyes that these two individuals were known as "clever" and "simple," and the king desired to see them.
The King thought to himself, "If I suddenly send for them and ask them to come before me, they will be very afraid. The clever man will not be able to think properly, and the simpleton may lose his mind altogether for fright." So the king decided to send for the clever man by the agency of another clever man, and to send for the simpleton by the agency of another simpleton. But how could he find a simpleton in the royal capital, since the inhabitants of a royal capital are for the most part intelligent? As it so happened, the keeper of the treasury was a simple man. No-one wanted someone too clever to be the keeper of the treasury lest, through his cleverness and intelligence, he spend the kingdom's assets; thus, this simple man had specifically been selected.
The king called for a clever man and for the simple keeper of the treasury, and sent them off to the two sons, respectively, giving each of them a letter of appointment. He also gave them a letter for the governor of the region, explaining that these two sons were under his rulership and asking that the governor send them each a letter in the king's name, so that they would not be frightened. The king asked the governor also to write that this was not an official summons; rather, it was up to them to decide whether or not they wished to come. If they so wished, then they should come, since the king desired to see them.
The two messengers - the clever one and the simple one - set off; they reached the governor and gave him the letter. The governor asked about the two sons, and they told him that the clever one was an exceptionally intelligent and very wealthy man, while the simpleton was extremely simple and owned just one cloak, (as we mentioned). The governor decided that it would certainly not be appropriate for the simpleton to be brought before the king dressed in his shabby cloak, so he had suitable clothes made for him, and he placed them in the simpleton's wagon. Then he gave the letters to messengers, and the messengers traveled and reached their destinations. They handed over their respective letters - the clever messenger to the clever man and the simple messenger to the simpleton. The simpleton, upon receiving his letter, immediately said to the simple messenger who had brought it "I do not know what is written here; please read it for me."
The messenger replied, "I will tell you what the letter is about: the king wants you to come before him."
The simpleton begged, "Please, no foolishness!"
He replied, "This is really the truth, with no foolishness."
The simpleton was filled with joy, and ran to tell his wife.
Wife, the king has sent for me!"
She asked him, "For what reason?"
He had not even the time to answer her; in his great joy he hurried to set off immediately with the messenger. He got into the wagon and sat down, and found the clothes that had been placed there. His joy increased even more.
Meanwhile, rumors were circulating that the governor was corrupt, and the king decided to replace him. The king felt it would be better if the governor was a simple man, since such a person would govern in truth and uprightness, and lack guile and trickery. And so the king commanded that the simpleton for whom he had sent be made the governor, and he sent orders to this effect. The simpleton would travel via the governor's city: the guards would await his arrival and as soon as he reached the city he was to be detained and told that he had been appointed governor. And so it was. They waited at the city gates and as soon as he arrived, they stopped him and told him that he had been appointed governor.
He pleaded, "Please - no foolishness!"
They answered, "Certainly - no foolishness."
And so the simpleton was made governor on the spot, with all the appropriate pomp and circumstance. Now, his luck had begun to increase, and since luck makes one wise, he began gaining some understanding. Nevertheless, he made no use of his cleverness. He simply governed in all his customary innocence and administered the area with wholehearted truth and uprightness; no corruption was found in him. After all, the administration of a county does not require any great intelligence or cleverness; it requires uprightness and wholeheartedness. When two people came before him for judgment, he would say, "You are innocent, and you are guilty," in accordance with his wholeheartedness, with no guile or deceit, and so he conducted everything in truth. And the citizens of the county loved him greatly.
He had advisors who loved him, and it was out of love that one of them counseled him as follows: "It is inevitable that you will be summoned before the king - after all, he has already sent for you once, and in any case it is normal for a governor to come before the king. Therefore, despite the fact that you are entirely proper and there is no corruption whatsoever in your handling of the county, nevertheless, it is the manner of the king that when he speaks, his words are inclined in a certain way: he speaks of all kinds of wisdoms and in other languages. Therefore, it is proper and polite that you be able to answer him. Therefore, allow me to teach you wisdoms and languages."
This advice was acceptable to the simpleton, who replied: "What do I care if I learn wisdoms and languages?!"
Immediately after acquiring such knowledge, it occurred to him that his clever friend had once told him that he would never be able, under any circumstances, to exceed his clever friend's intelligence. Now he had already achieved such cleverness (although, despite the fact that he had learned wisdoms, he made no use of them at all, but rather continued to run everything with his customary innocence.)
Some time later the king sent for the simpleton, now the governor, and he went to him. At first, the king spoke to him about his administration of the county, and the king was very pleased with what he heard, for it was clear that he governed with uprightness and great truth, with no corruption and deceit. Thereafter, the king spoke of wisdoms and in other tongues. The simpleton answered him appropriately, and the king was pleased with this, too, saying: "I see that he is so clever, but nevertheless he governs with such uprightness!" And so the king was exceedingly satisfied, and he appointed the simpleton over all his ministers. He selected a special palace for him, where he would live, and commanded that beautiful and grand walls be built around the palace. The king then gave him his appointment as minister in writing. And so it was: they built him quarters where the king had commanded and he received great honor.
When the clever man received the king's letter, he said to the clever messenger who had delivered it: "Stay over here tonight, and we shall talk and decide." That evening he prepared a great feast for him. During the feast, the clever man thought with great intelligence and philosophy, and said:
What is this, that such a king should send for such a lowly person as myself - who am I, that the king should send for me?! The king has his kingdom and his greatness, while I am a lowly, despised being in comparison with such a great and awesome king - how can it be logical that such a king would send for such a lowly one as me? If he did so because of my wisdom - what am I in relation to the king? Has the king any lack of wise men? And the king himself must also be very clever, so how can it be that he would send for me?
It puzzled him very greatly. And then the clever man said (i.e., the first clever man; the friend of the simpleton, for all of this is what that first clever man, the friend of the simpleton, said). After being greatly puzzled and baffled, he answered his own question, and then said to the clever messenger:
"Listen to what I have to say. I think it is obvious and clear that there is no king at all, and everyone is mistaken in this regard, for believing that there is a king. Look and understand: how can it be that everyone subjects himself and dedicates himself to one person - the king? There is surely no king in the world at all.
The clever messenger replied, "But did I not bring you a letter from the king?"
The first clever man answered him with a question: "Did you personally receive the letter from the hand of the king himself?"
The messenger replied, "No. Another person gave me the letter in the name of the king."
He answered, "So you can see for yourself that what I am saying is true: there is no king."
Then he questioned further: "Tell me - are you not from the capital city? Did you not grow up there? Tell me - have you ever seen the king?"
The messenger answered, "No." (For this was true; not everyone managed to see the king, for the king showed himself in public only on very rare occasions.)
The first clever man said, "Now it is clear that what I say is true, that there is no king - you yourself even admit that you have never seen him."
The messenger asked, "Then who runs the country?"
The clever man answered, "I will tell you. It is good that you have asked me, for I am an expert in this since I have visited many countries. I was once in Italy, and the practice there is to have seventy advisory ministers. They ascend and rule the country for a certain period, and all the citizens of the country have a chance to hold this position, one after the other."
His words began to make an impression on the wise messenger, and eventually they were in complete agreement that there was no king in the world at all.
The clever man spoke once again: "Stay until morning; I will continue to demonstrate proof after proof that there is no king at all."
The clever man arose early in the morning (we refer here to the clever man who was the friend of the simpleton; we always refer to him as the clever man) and woke up his friend, the clever messenger.
He said to him, "Come with me outside; I will demonstrate to you how the whole world is mistaken, and that there is truly no king at all, and everyone is making a big mistake."
They went to the marketplace and saw a soldier. They stopped him and asked, "Whom do you serve?"
He answered, "The king."
"Have you ever seen the king?"
The clever man exclaimed, "See, have you ever heard anything so ridiculous?!"
They went on to another soldier and began talking to him, until eventually they asked, "Whom do you serve?"
"Have you ever seen the king?"
The clever man remarked, "See for yourself, it is clear that everyone is mistaken, and there is no king in the world at all."
They all agreed that there was truly no king at all. The clever man spoke again: "Let us go and travel about the world, and I will demonstrate further how the whole world is greatly mistaken."
They traveled around the world, and wherever they went they found everyone mistaken. And this saying, that there was no king, became a parable between them, and wherever they went they mentioned the king as a parable: "Just as it is true that there is a king, so this is true." They traveled on and on until their means ran out, and they began to sell their horses one after the other until they were all sold and they were forced to travel by foot. And still they would study the world and find that everyone was mistaken. They became wandering paupers, and their importance was gone, and they were not held in esteem for no-one paid them any attention, for they were regular paupers....
In the above section of the story, R. Nachman has introduced a new character - the king. As in most - if not all - of R. Nachman's stories, the "king" here represents the King of the Universe. With the king's appearance, the focus of the story changes. From here onwards, the principal relationship is not between man and the world, man and society or even man and life, but rather between man and God.
The section opens with the king paging through the royal chronicles, where mention is made of each individual citizen. In the wake of his review, the king decides to call upon the clever man and the simpleton.
In these two sentences alone, R. Nachman opens a front which, as the story develops, will become more and more openly an attack on philosophy.
God addresses man and calls on him to come to Him. Moreover, God "desires to see him" - but He does not force him; He gives man free choice: "[T]his was not an official summons; rather, it was up to them to decide whether or not they wished to come."
The idea of God's interest in man and His desire for man's closeness stands in direct contrast to the "God of Aristotle" as expressed by many different philosophers. We shall quote here the philosopher in Sefer HaKuzari:
And truly, God is elevated - according to the philosophers - beyond knowledge of details (individuals), for details change from one moment to the next, while there can be no change in the knowledge of God. Thus God cannot know you, and He certainly cannot know your intentions and deeds, and obviously cannot hear your prayers nor see your movements. (Kuzari, Section I:1).
For R. Nachman, however, the foundation of the world, its basis and its point of departure are God's desire to reveal Himself to man and to rule over him. In the words of the prophet Yishayahu:
For so says the high and lofty One who dwells in eternity and whose name is Holy: I dwell on high and in a holy place, but with him that is of downtrodden and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the downtrodden. (57:15)
This is the starting position of a religious person, and without this view it one cannot take even a step into the infinite abyss between him and God. It is the basic assumption without which man immediately plunges into the depths of this abyss - as happens to the clever man in the story.
R. Nachman does not deny a certain degree of absurdity in God's appeal to man, and even more so in His "need" for him. Recognition that the situation is illogical finds expression in the simpleton's response to the messenger: "Please, no foolishness." He has learned from bitter experience, time after time when people have fooled him and misled him. His innocence has been exploited over and over, and therefore he asks of the messenger, as is his custom, that he not engage him in foolishness. As we saw in the first part of the story, the simpleton is aware of the fact that people deliberately mislead him, but in his innocence he cannot remain critical once he requests to not be mislead. When the person before him insists that his words are true, the simpleton accepts them - and falls into the trap, time after time.
This fault, which until now was a liability, now works to his advantage. For this time, too, the simpleton suffices with his standard request, and when the messenger continues to press his message, he accepts it without question.
And so, quite absurdly, the innocence that normally would prevent the simpleton from understanding, and from absorbing and processing reality; cutting him off from what is going on around him, actually allows him to accept something completely unintelligible, the greatest absurdity that can be imagined - the great king's appeal to a lowly individual. This idea is expressed elsewhere in R. Nachman's writings:
It is preferable to be a simple fool, believing every thing - i.e., believing even nonsense and lies - in order to believe also the truth, than to be clever and to deny everything, heaven forbid - i.e., to deny nonsense and lies. For by means of this latter trait everything becomes foolishness in one's eyes, and he denies even the truth, heaven forbid. 'I would rather be called a fool all my life and not be considered wicked even for one hour before God' (Eduyot 5:6). (Sichot HaRan 103)
R. Nachman's recommendation that a person be "a simple fool, believing everything" in order that he also believe in the truth, is not coincidental. Faith in the truth, as we have seen above, is difficult, even absurd, and a great degree of innocence - even simplicity - is the only way to attain it.
The price of the lack of innocence - cleverness - is, in R. Nachman's eyes, unbearable. The significance of this price is expressed in relation to the clever man.
The clever man, too, upon hearing the messenger's words, points out the absurdity of the mighty and elevated king's appeal to a small and lowly individual. But before he even begins to grapple with this question, which draws him into a sea of doubts, R. Nachman presents the clever man's first problem, procrastination: "Stay over here tonight, and we shall talk and decide."
The clever man does not give an immediate answer. Decisions such as these require due consideration. He invites the messenger to a great feast, during the course of which he will be able to decide.
Procrastination as a significant obstacle to Divine service is found almost universally in chassidic works. We shall quote a famous excerpt by R. Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin in this regard:
The beginning of a person's entry into service of God must be in haste, as we find in the Pesach sacrifice celebrated in Egypt, which was consumed in haste, as opposed to the Pesach established for all future generations. Because in the beginning, in order to cut oneself off from all the desires of this world to which he is bound, he must preserve the moment when God's will arises in him, and to grab that moment and hurry to escape their clutches (his earthly desires), for perhaps he will succeed. And thereafter he can once again conduct himself temperately and at ease, as is the way of Pesach for all future generations. (Tzidkat HaTzaddik, 1)
R. Tzadok maintains that haste is required at the beginning of a person's path in serving God. For awakening the desire to serve Him is rare and fleeting, while one is immersed in the material world and its temptations, and in the routine of daily life. If one passes up the moment to shake off the dust that clings to him, the desire for spirituality will most likely slip away, leaving him immersed in his materialistic swamp. The force pulling a person downwards is constant, so that in order to overcome this force a sudden spiritual energy is needed. Therefore temperance and gradual progress will not help.
R. Nachman elucidates the danger of procrastination on a deeper level. Grabbing in haste involves "unthinkingness," concerning which we learn: "Three things come through unthinkingness, and these are they: mashiach, finding what is lost, and the scorpion" (Sanhedrin 97a). Unthinkingness is a moment when the mind is "switched off." It is clear why the scorpion's sting comes at such a moment, for the scorpion waits for a moment when a person's defenses are down. The phenomenon of finding a lost article in a moment of inattention likewise cannot be denied: children often complain that no matter how many times they have looked for something it is inevitably found by someone who wasn't looking for it at all. But why is mashiach, the coming of redemption, also dependent on unthinkingness?
R. Nachman would perhaps explain this teaching according to his own interpretation. Unthinkingness is a moment in which the channels leading to a person's consciousness are burst open for that moment. The sword of the tree of knowledge stops guarding the entrance to his mind, weighing and examining every piece of information, impression and revelation that reaches him on a scale of logic. This is the moment when a person can digest even things that are not logical. Even recognition of things that would not pass the test of his knowledge at that moment. The skepticism that accompanies those who have consumed the fruit of the tree of knowledge is asleep and off guard. At that moment everything is burst open and accessible.
Unthinkingness, clouding of the senses and blurring of definitions are a nightmare for the thinker. These are moments of loss of control, and an educated person runs from such situations with all his strength.
This is also the fear of the clever man in the story. Haste is appropriate to a fool, since time for consideration in any case will not give him the advantage of better judgment. But the clever man wishes to wait, and with his delay come doubts.
The most basic doubt that gnaws at a person is, as we have said, both the root of faith and the root of heresy: the assumption that God is interested in and desires an encounter with man. When the clever man refuses to accept this assumption - and, as we have said, logic indeed rejects such an idea - the way is paved to skepticism, ultimately leading to denial of the very existence of the king. And here, again, attention should be paid to the details of the story.
The clever man's justified question should place the onus of proof on the messenger: "It is not logical that the king would wish to see me specifically, and therefore you, the messenger who claims so, are lying." But the clever man does not stop there - in fact, he skips this stage altogether. The first doubt leads directly to the final and ultimate doubt - denial of the very existence of the king.
R. Nachman may be teaching us here that one doubt leads to another, but based on some of his other writings a deeper idea may be hidden here.
Denial of God's revelation to man, in R. Nachman's view, is tantamount to denial of His existence altogether. A God who has no connection with the world, whose whole existence is "for the record" only, as the primal cause of the chain of existence, has no relevance for man. And if He has no relevance for man then He does not exist for him. Why should a person believe in something that has no relevance for him? And so the conclusion is that the world has no King at all. This is the philosopher's claim, and from this point of view religion is perceived as the "opium of the masses." The masses need a banner, a figurehead, an image that they themselves have formed in order that they will have something to serve, something to live for and something for which to sacrifice. But in truth He does not exist.
But, as we learn in the story, such skepticism also requires certain supports. The clever man reaches his conclusion while still sitting at the table with the messenger, but from that moment onwards he is compelled to prove his conclusion at any price - not just his revelation concerning the king, but all the errors to which human beings are subject. This absurd wish, which leads him eventually to penury, is described by R. Nachman in one of his teachings:
"Know that there are some wicked people who toil and endeavor all their lives to remove themselves completely from God and His Torah, for the holy spark of the holiness of Israel that is still within them, although they are completely wicked, confuses them and arouses within them thoughts of teshuva and fear of the great judgment. Because of this they have no pleasure from their sins and their desires. And so they aspire and toil to achieve complete heresy in their minds, heaven forbid, such that they will have no more doubts to incline them towards the truth. But this requires a very great amount of work, and several years, for the Divine spark within them gives them no rest and confuses them constantly." (Likutei Moharan Kama 274).
In these words R. Nachman turns the cards and reveals an astounding truth. The clever man's absurd search, his stubborn wish to prove to himself and to his friend that the whole world is laboring under a misconception, and the brazenness that appears to us as intentional wickedness and stubbornness, arise specifically from the Godly, believing internal spark that gives no rest to the heretic. The studious philosopher who wishes to anchor and strengthen his heresy is actually conducting a war against his internal Godly spark, which constantly disturbs him.
In our previous shiur we described the restlessness of the clever man in his desire to learn more and more; a tragic unease that turns him into a wanderer with no home and no permanence. Here R. Nachman presents the philosophizing clever man's restlessness in relation to his theological views. The philosopher, to R. Nachman's view, is engaged throughout his life in contradiction rather than in positive construction. This is not a question of motivation. As we have mentioned, R. Nachman himself admits that the whole world is full of absurdity, contradiction and doubts, from the tiniest particle to God Himself. A person who chooses the path of rationalism, and who seeks thereby to encounter and solve the great questions of the world, will find himself mired in these doubts all his life:
Sometimes a person falls into such doubts and contradictions that it is completely impossible for him to know how in truth he should act, and the more he tries to find proper guidance the more confused he becomes. For no sooner does he decide that it is clear that he should act in such and such a way, then a different reasoning arises in his mind, such that his first decision is totally negated, and proofs arise in his mind that he should act in precisely the opposite way to what he thought originally, and this is what is referred to by the "contradictions" mentioned above. And sometimes such contradictions become so strong that he has no idea at all how to decide one way or the other. When a person sees in himself that he has foundered in the dark for a long time and has no idea how to get out of what he needs to get out of, and his thoughts are greatly divided, heaven forbid, then this itself is his correction - that he should cry out over this very situation to God, that he has fallen so low that he no longer has any clear guidance as to how to leave the darkness for the light. (Etzot Yesharot, Etzah 4).
A person who chooses to address the questions of the world, clarify the truth, and find the errors of all the world and of all people, will sink in these doubts with no ability to raise himself up - just as the clever man is mired in mud at the end of the story.
How is one to extricate himself from this mud? There is no logical solution or rational explanation. A person must cry out to God. He must break the cycle of the intellect, strike it with a stick as one strikes a madman (Likutei Moharan Kama 1), and seek a totally different channel. Knowledge of God, teaches R. Nachman, is not given to man through logical and intellectual proofs, for no end of doubts can challenge these. Knowledge of the Creator is achieved by throwing logic aside, through innocence - even simplemindedness - which may appear to lower man's human potential, but it is in this lowly place God addresses man, and man, in this lowly place, is capable of listening: "I dwell on high and in a holy place, but with him that is of downtrodden and humble spirit."