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
With this essay, Rav Eldar concludes his discussion of simplicity and moves on to contemplate one of Rabbi Nachman’s enigmatic “fables,” published by Reb Noson in “Chayei Moharan (The Life of Our Master, Rabbi Nachman),” sec. 98. Rav Eldar’s interpretation, which speculates as to Rabbi Nachman’s views on art, is original and insightful. However, the reader should bear in mind that there are other ways of interpreting this fable, as well. As with all of his stories, Rabbi Nachman leaves us to contemplate its cryptic meaning.
Simplicity (Part 3)
This shiur completes our discussion of the subject of simplicity in the teachings of R. Nachman. In the previous two shiurim we saw how R. Nachman values wholeheartedness and simplicity, and we noted how these traits allow a person to absorb ideas, experiences and ways of thinking that cannot be attained through logic.
An additional reason for R. Nachman's restriction of logic and rationalism to the furthest recesses of our minds is the dynamic nature of reality, as expressed in one of his stories, which we shall study below:
Once there was a king who built himself a palace. He called upon two men and commanded them to decorate it. The king divided the palace into two sections - each appointee was responsible for decorating one section - and he set a time by which they were to complete their work. The two men set off. One of them began working very hard; he learned all there was to know about painting and sculpture, and then decorated the section of the palace that had been entrusted to him very beautifully, with pictures of animals and birds and all kinds of wonderful images. The second man did not take the king's command seriously, and did nothing.
The deadline for the completion of the project drew closer. The first man had already finished his portion of the work, demonstrating great artistry. The second man began to reflect upon his situation: he had spent all of the allotted time on vanity and emptiness, and had not taken any notice of the royal command. He began to think about what he should do, for in the few days that remained until the deadline it would be impossible to correct his mistake; he could not study art and then decorate his portion of the palace in such a short time, for it was already very close to the date that had been set for the completion of the work.
He finally made a decision as to what to do. He took a black herbal ointment and painted his entire section with its brilliant black. The shine of the ointment acted like a mirror; one could see oneself in it. He also hung a curtain in front of his section, dividing between his section and that of the other man.
When the appointed date finally arrived, the king set off to see what the men had done during this time. First he saw the first section, which was decorated most impressively. The way to the second section was blocked by a curtain, behind which everything looked dark, and the king could see nothing. The second man drew the curtain aside, and the sun shone in and reflected off of all the wondrous artistry in his section, for the shining blackness reflected like a mirror. And so all the birds that were painted in the first section, and all the other masterful illustrations, all appeared in his section too, and what the king had seen in the first section was visible also in the second. Moreover, all the precious vessels and ornaments that the king had installed in the palace were also reflected in the second section, and whatever he would wish to add in the future would also be reflected there. And the king was exceedingly pleased
("The Story of Two Painters, R. Nachman of Breslov: Studies in His Stories, Yehudit Kook p. 204 [Hebrew]).
The "king," as we have previously noted, refers to the Holy One, the King of the universe. The palace symbolizes the world in which He dwells. The king approaches the two men with the demand that they paint and decorate his palace.
What is art? Different definitions for the culture of art have been offered throughout history, and its perception changes from era to era. We shall focus on two principal trends: one perceives art as a reproduction of reality. Here we may ask what purpose there is in reproducing reality, since it already exists. The answer to this question lies in an understanding of man's innate need to eternalize the moment. The trait of eternity is one of the traits of God, and man seeks to acquire this quality. People who travel around armed with an array of cameras, never missing an opportunity to snap a shot of a stone, corner or situation, express a desperate desire to eternalize pleasurable moments. (Sometimes eternalizing the moment also contains a protest against the reality that is being photographed or painted. Thus selecting certain situations as subjects, when human nature would perhaps prefer to forget or ignore them, can be a form of protest.) Painting as reproduction, not seeking in any way to add to reality but rather to present it as it is, seeks first and foremost to eternalize the moment.
R. Nachman rejects this trend, and maintains that man was granted the faculty of forgetting for a reason:
"The world generally considers forgetting as a liability. But I believe that it has great value. For if there was no ability to forget, then a person could not even begin to serve God, for he would always remember all his failures in the past, how he was completely unable to raise himself to Divine service, and all the things that happen to a person would also confuse him greatly. But since we are able to forget, all that has happened may be forgotten; what was in the past has finished and need not return to his thoughts. And so he need not confuse himself with that which was and is no more.
This matter is very sound advice in the sphere of Divine service, for in general a person experiences much confusion and preoccupation with things that have taken place in the past. This is particularly true during prayer, when all the confusion comes upon him and distracts and mixes up his thoughts with what has already been. Sometimes he is distracted, for example, with thoughts pertaining to matters of business or his family, thinking that perhaps he had not acted wisely in a certain instance and that he should have acted otherwise, etc. And sometimes he is distracted during his Torah study or his prayer with past misdeeds, that in such-and-such a matter he did not act according to God's wish. This happens very often, as every person can testify from his own experience. Therefore the way of forgetting is highly recommended in this regard, for as soon as such thoughts pass through his mind he should remove them immediately and draw his thoughts away from such matters. And he should not entertain such thoughts again. Understand this well, for it is a very great thing" (Sichot HaRan 26).
These words may be understood on two different levels.
The first is psychological, pertaining to forgetting as a defense mechanism. During the course of his life a person experiences certain traumas and situations that are difficult to bear. The ability to forget allows him to get on with his life without constantly and continuously at every second having to deal with the difficult reality with which he was once faced.
R. Nachman, having experienced spiritual "downs," is also aware that past experience introduces skepticism and even cynicism into a person's heart. Adults often cool the enthusiasm expressed by younger people with the words, "Yes, we also thought that way when we were your age." And a person likewise may give up on his own chances of success when he is reminded of past failure. R. Natan recounts the following concerning R. Nachman himself:
He used to start each time anew. When he would fall in his spiritual level he would not despair over it; he would simply decide to start anew as though he had never tried before to intensify his Divine service; as though he was just beginning right now. And in this way he would start anew time after time; at times he would experience several new beginnings in a single day, for sometimes within the same day he would fall in his service and would start anew, even several times in a single day (Shivhei HaRan 6).
R. Nachman's ability to start anew repeatedly, and eventually to succeed, flowed from his ability to ignore and forget all the failed experiences that preceded each new beginning.
The second level that we may detect in R. Nachman's words in praise of forgetting is the existential level. Here his message seems to refer not only to failures of the past but also to successes, or just to neutral phenomena that are unrelated to failure or success.
When a person is faced with a certain situation, then so long as the past plays an active role in his consciousness, he is incapable of devoting himself completely to the situation in which he now finds himself. This is true whether the situation involves a conversation with another person, a moment of prayer, or anything else. Obviously, people who are nostalgic to an extreme degree have a tendency to avoid dealing with reality. Eternalization of the moment - even if it is a moment of spiritual elevation - impairs one's ability to face the future with all one's energy.
Therefore, a painting that eternalizes reality does not reflect the path of R. Nachman of Breslov.
Another perception of art is to see a picture as a sort of dialogue that the artist maintains with reality. This dialogue may be an attempt to understand reality in a scientific manner (e.g. Michaelangelo's Renaissance drawings of the human body), or an attempt to achieve a broader and deeper impression of reality (Impressionism), or even to express the emotion of the artist arising as a result of his encounter with the reality that he has chosen to represent (Expressionism).
Attention should be paid to the fact that in the story, neither of the two artistic creations answers to the king's command. The king does not ask the artists to paint anything at all - neither on the level of reproduction nor on the level of dialogue. He wants them to decorate his palace. Decoration itself would seem at first to provide man with the greatest possible extent of choice: he is not limited to any specific reality; not even on the expressionist level, which itself leaves the artist with a great deal of room for maneuvering. The king does not limit the artists in any way at all, and all that each of them has to do is to fill the half of the palace that he has been assigned.
Painting, according to R. Nachman's story, does not reflect man's dialogue with reality on any level. The task of the painter in the story is to reflect a person's monologue. If the palace of the king is God's world - i.e., our world - then painting represents man leaving his mark on the world. Man is seen as a creator, an inventor, and the source of bounty. If this is the case, then God makes a very great demand of man in the world. He commands him to fill the world with the work of his hands; "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the world and conquer it."
The first artist in the story wastes no time. He rolls up his sleeves and gets to work with great conscientiousness. He learns his trade well; he reads books on the subject, attends university courses, and enriches his knowledge in other related areas. Through his study he acquires many tools, both technical and thematic. He looks at reality and tries not to miss a single moment in which he could learn something about it. In his art work, this man tries to leave nothing out. He aspires to review all of reality, to understand everything, to contain everything. And indeed, his work is breathtaking in its beauty.
During a survey of cultural history, we encounter works that leave us breathless at the scope of knowledge necessary in order to create them. We are full of wonder at the proficiency in different spheres, at the scope and depth of knowledge. Such is the work of the first artist.
The second artist, in contrast, fails to apply himself to the king's command. We do not know the reason for this failure. Is he perhaps lazy, procrastinating from one day to the next? One thing is clear: as the day of judgment nears, the painter - together with the reader of the story - senses that something terrible is about to happen. On the familiar scale for evaluating a painting - that of leaving one's mark - he has failed spectacularly. The only way, thinks the second artist, to achieve anything in this sphere is to learn the trade and everything that it involves. This requires time, first and foremost, and at this stage "time is short and the work is great and the owner is pressing."
Here the first part of the story ends. In this section R. Nachman presents us with a worldview that is clear and easily understood. The only way in which a person can leave his mark on the world, to create a work that will fill his void, to reach the pinnacle of self-expression, is through intensive and multi-disciplinary study; through acquisition of tools and amassing of knowledge. A person who does this, fulfills the king's command, and will obviously be rewarded. A person who fails to do this, violates the king's command, and will certainly be punished accordingly.
But here we find the turning point in the story. Suddenly the second man comes to a decision, and at this moment of decision he paints his entire section of the palace with a brilliant black ointment, effectively making the walls into mirrors.
What is the significance of this act on the part of the artist? Should we regard this as a cheap, desperate trick? An attempt to escape the terrible fate that awaits him? It seems not, as the significance of shiny blackness and mirrors in R. Nachman's other writings suggest otherwise.
The color black and mirrors are R. Nachman's expressions of a psychological condition. Another example of this imagery is found in R. Nachman's description of the psychological state required of a disciple who stands before his teacher:
The matter of receiving a great sage: The moon has no light of its own at all; it merely receives light from the sun. I.e., because the moon is like a polished mirror, it receives light from the sun, and light then emanates from it to shine upon the earth. But if the texture of the moon was thick and dark and unpolished, it would be unable to receive any light from the sun. And so it is with a disciple and his teacher: they are like the sun and the moon, as is explained elsewhere. And this is true specifically if the student has the appropriate expression, i.e., an "illuminated face," which is like the polished mirror described above. But if he lacks the proper expression, i.e. if he is like a "dark face," then he is unable to receive the illumination (of the teacher), like the sun and moon discussed above, and the teacher's illumination is certainly not reflected within him, just like one who stands before anything that is thick and dark (Likutei Moharan Kama 153).
The moon's ability to receive and to reflect the light of the sun is derived from its principal characteristic of having no light of its own at all. This is the characteristic of the 'sefira' of 'malkhut' (kingdom) and therefore it has the ability to encompass or contain everything.
So it is with a disciple who stands before his teacher: he must nullify himself and regard himself as being completely insignificant in order to receive the illumination of the tzaddik, his teacher.
We learn from this that R. Nachman attributes significant depth to the actions of the second artist. He demonstrates a certain psychological state with profound self-expression, representing far more than a cheap trick.
All of this pales completely in the last scene of the story. This is the climax, where we wait to discover whether the plan was successful or not.
With regard to the conclusion of the narrative it should be noted that this story is not a creation of R. Nachman's imagination. It was a popular contemporary fable from the East. But a comparison between the legend in its usual form and R. Nachman's story demonstrates that the latter fashioned the fable into a work of art, bearing R. Nachman's personal mark.
The majority of the plot is similar in both versions, with differing nuances and emphases, but in the last scene - which is the climax of the story - the two versions part ways.
The fable recounts how, when the king looked at the two creations and understood the lazy artist's trick, he took two sacks of gold and placed them on the floor next to the work of the conscientious artist. The lazy artist's mirror reflected the two sacks of gold, just as it reflected all of the work that his colleague had invested. Then the king turned to the first artist and told him that the sacks of gold would be his reward. Pointing to the reflection of the gold in the lazy man's section, the king added: "And that will be yours."
This conclusion is something of a "happy ending," for each artist receives the recompense he deserves, and the lazy artist falls, through the wisdom of the king, into the trap that he himself laid.
R. Nachman takes this fable and destroys its moral completely. For him, the lazy artist is not punished. The king does not prefer or reward the artist who invested so much time and effort in his work; rather, both of them please him equally. Upon reading R. Nachman's conclusion, we are left with a sense of injustice. But a more exacting study increases our puzzlement, and the injustice becomes an absurdity - a central theme in many of R. Nachman's stories. (Usually the situation of absurdity contains the whole point and moral of the story, as we shall see in this instance as well).
Moreover, all the precious vessels and ornaments that the king had installed in the palace were also reflected in the second section, and whatever he would wish to add in the future would also be reflected there. And the king was exceedingly pleased.
This excerpt suggests that not only did the king accept the second artist's "work"; he even preferred it to the artistry of the first section of the palace. Its advantage lay in the fact that, as a mirror, it could contain even those images that would be placed before it only in the future.
Here R. Nachman undermines not only our sense of justice, but also our perception of art. He reveals to us the nakedness of art for its own sake. No matter how great the artist, he can only reflect in his work a given moment as it is reflected in his subjective consciousness. He may enlist in terms of both his work tools and the themes that he chooses to reflect, everything that has been achieved throughout the history of human culture, and yet, all of this will not stand up to the test of the next moment, which has not yet arrived.
Not so the mirror. An elderly person who stands before a portrait of himself as a young, strapping man looks with pain - or perhaps cynicism - at the attempt to present that image in real colors. It is an image that exists now only in memory; it contains nothing of the present reality.
But when he stands before his old mirror - the mirror that never pretended to express any message of its own, that never attempted to define or eternalize the person standing before it - he discovers its eternal loyalty to him.
The painting that hangs framed on the wall may remain there forever, whether the man is alive or dead, but its relevance ceased the moment that it was completed. The image in the mirror, in contrast, is completely dependent on him, the subject. If he is not there, neither is the image. And so long as he is there, it will show him as he is at that moment.
The value of all the cultural creations described previously - those creations that contain within them such a great wealth of knowledge and talent - becomes their liability. This is because their very significance is that they project the tools for their evaluation in the direction of the artist's knowledge and talent. Knowledge and talent, as great as they may be, are limited to the historical time and place in which they are located.
The dynamic nature of reality lends an impermanence to all of human knowledge and crowns any scientific or artistic statement that will ever be made with skepticism. A complete internalization of this fact makes all scientific endeavor insignificant. But this lack of significance, the vacuum that is created, is immediately filled. A person does not cease, as a result of this fact, to address reality. The interaction exists, but in a totally different sense. A person seeks to absorb and receive. Without tools, without boundaries, without conventions. Simply to absorb reality. To absorb the revelation of God in the world, the perfect, infinite wisdom of reality.
The attempt to define and eternalize our understanding, to nullify our complete dependence on His bounty by turning it into one's personal acquisition and property, chains man to limited tools. Thus he of necessity limits his own acheivements.
We previously described the King's appeal to man as a request that he leave his mark on the world. Now the appeal appears in a different light altogether. It is in fact the second artist, having decided on his course of action, who has truly understood the king's request. Man's basic desire to leave his mark on the world, to understand it and to eternalize this understanding, is a "one-size-fits-all" container into which all of reality is dumped.
The mirror represents reception of reality, just like the picture, but a reception in which man succeeds in nullifying himself. It is not achieved by means of man's limited tools, but rather a transparent glass in which man forgets about himself, his ability, his tools, and makes himself a perfect vessel for reception.
This is the understanding achieved by the second artist after having experienced despair. When he understands that in the reality in which he finds himself the regular tools will not help him, he is at first gripped with skepticism and despair. But thereafter he makes his decision. Having put his mind at ease he adopts a different stance and a new perception of the world, and this brings him to the psychological state that gives rise to the illuminating mirror - the most astounding creation in the world.
In the following teaching, R. Nachman appears to refer (perhaps even consciously) to the story we have studied above:
"This is the meaning of the Gemara (Bava Batra 16b), 'Avraham had a daughter and her name was "bakol."' "Daughter" (bat) refers to the "daughter of the eye" (bat ayin), i.e., the black pupil of the eye, which is the blackness discussed above, limiting and bounding and including within itself all the great things that stand before it. For instance, if a great mountain stands before the pupil of an eye - the black part of the eye - then the whole mountain is encompassed within that pupil that sees it. For the blackness that is in the eye limits all the great things that are encompassed and seen by it, and in this way one sees and perceives the thing that one is looking at. Likewise, the lower intelligence limits and bounds the great Superior Intelligence and includes it within itself, and by means of this one sees and understands and grasps the great Superior Intelligence. And this is the meaning of the pasuk (Shemot 3), "And Hashem appeared to him in a flame of fire." Hashem wanted to endow him with Divine perception, and so He endowed him through the pupil of his eye, as explained above. This is also the significance of the teaching in the Gemara (Bava Batra 141):
"(Giving birth to) a daughter first is a good omen for (giving birth to) sons." 'A daughter first' refers to the lower intellect, which comes first (in our experience), prior to the upper intellect. And 'a good omen for sons' - 'sons' alludes to the upper intellect. As our Sages, of blessed memory, taught (Menachot 110): "'Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth': 'bring my sons' refers to the exiles of Babylon, whose mind was at ease, like sons. 'Daughters' refers to the exiles in the other countries, whose mind is not at ease, like daughters." Thus we find that 'sons' alludes to a mind that is at ease; it alludes to the upper and great intellect discussed above, which is grasped through its predecessor - the lower intellect. And therefore 'A daughter first,' referring to the lower intellect, 'is a good omen for sons' - for through it one may grasp the upper intellect. And this is the meaning of 'a good omen' - that the upper intellect is marked and enclosed therein, as in "The measure of the letters of the Torah" and "I am black but - pleasant...," as we have explained." (Likutei Moharan Kama 30, 3)
The blackness of the eye is a wonder. Although it is so tiny, it can reflect within itself even a great mountain. It has a unique property that gives it the ability to absorb things that are much greater than itself. This wondrous phenomenon of much light entering into a small vessel can take place only in the blackness of the eye - the black, which reflects self-nullification, humility and limitation. ("For the eyes are like a polished mirror; everything that stands before them is seen within them" (Likutei Moharan Kama 13, 4).
This grasp - the fact that the lower intelligence can suddenly contain within itself the Superior Intelligence that is much greater than itself - can come only after the mind is at ease, as R. Nachman teaches here, and as we have seen in the case of the second artist.
As mentioned, self-nullification - the trait of 'malkhut' (kingship), which possesses nothing of itself - bestows the ability not only to absorb things that are greater than oneself and one's grasp, as we have seen in the previous shiurim. Above and beyond that, it brings man to a level that is beyond space and time, a level that has the power to contain all of reality from beginning to end: "And whatever he would wish to add in the future would also be reflected there. And the king was exceedingly pleased."