Painting by Francisco de Goya
The Mysterious Guest
Chayey Moharan, Sippurim Chadashim (“New Stories”) 85
Translation and Commentary by Dovid Sears
On the first day of Chanukah 5569/1808, in the evening after lighting the first candle. Rabbi Nachman told this story:
A visitor came into a house and asked the head of the house, “From where do you obtain a living?”
"I don’t have a steady livelihood at home,” his host replied. “However, the world provides me with what I need to live.”
The guest asked him, “What do you study?”
The host answered him.
They continued conversing, until soon they were engaged in a true heart to heart discussion.
The host began to feel an intense longing and yearning to reach a certain level of holiness. “I will teach you,” said the guest.
The host was surprised. He began to wonder, “Maybe this isn’t a human being at all!” However, he looked again, and saw that the guest was talking to him like a human being.
Immediately afterward he had a strong sense of faith, and he resolved to believe in him. He started calling him “my teacher,” and said to him, “First of all, I would like to ask you to teach me how to conduct myself with due respect toward you. Not, I scarcely need add, that I could actually detract from your true honor, God forbid; but even so, it is hard for human beings to be as meticulous as they should be in these matters. That is why I would like you to teach me how to behave with due respect.”
“For the moment, I don’t have the time,” he replied. “Another time I will come and teach you this. Right now I must go away from here.”
“I also need to learn from you about this,” said the host. “How far must I go when I accompany you on your way, as a host is obligated to do when his guests depart?”[I]
“Until just beyond the entrance,” he replied.
The host began to think to himself, “How can I go out with him? Right now I am with him among other people. But if I go out with him alone—who knows who he is?” He questioned him and then told him, “I’m afraid to go out with you.”
“If I can learn with you like this,” the visitor retorted, “then now, too, if I wanted to do something to you, who would stop me?”
The host went with him beyond the entrance. All of a sudden, the visitor seized him and began to fly with him!
It was cold for the host, so the other took a garment and gave it to him. “Take this garment,” he said, “and it will be good for you. You will have food and drink and everything will be good, and you will live in your house.” And he flew with him.
In the midst of this, the host gazed, and suddenly he was in his house. He couldn’t believe his own eyes that he was in his house; but he looked, and there he was, speaking with people, and eating and drinking in a normal manner. Then he looked back, and lo and behold, he was flying, as before. Then he looked back and he was in his house. This went on for a long time.
After awhile, he flew down to a valley between two mountains. There, he found a book which contained various combinations of letters: alef, zayin, chet, which is dalet, etc. Vessels were depicted in this book, and inside the vessels were letters. Moreover, inside the vessels were the letters of the vessels, by which one could create such vessels. He felt an intense desire to study this book.
In the midst of this, he gazed, and lo and behold, he was in his house. Then he gazed, and there he was, in the valley.
He made up his mind to climb the mountain; perhaps he would find an inhabited place there. When he came to the mountain, he saw a golden tree with golden branches standing there. Hanging from the branches were vessels like those depicted in the book, and within those vessels were other vessels by which one could create such vessels. He wanted to take some of the vessels away from there, but he was unable to do so, for they were inextricably entangled in the branches.
In the midst of this, he gazed - and lo and behold, he was in his house. This was most amazing to him. How was this possible? How could he be both here and there at the same time? He wanted to discuss this with other human beings, but how could one speak about such an astounding phenomenon to other people, something that they surely would not believe?
In the midst of this, he looked out the window and saw the same guest. He started begging him to come to him. However, the guest replied, “I don’t have time, because I am on my way to you!”
“This itself is a wonder in my eyes!” he cried. “Look, I am right here—what do you mean, that you are on your way to me?”
The guest explained, “The moment you decided to come with me, to accompany me beyond the doorway, I took the neshamah (higher soul) from you and gave you a garment from the Lower Garden of Eden.[II] The nefesh (vital spirit) and ru’ach (lower soul) remain with you. Therefore, whenever you attach your thoughts to that place, you are there, and you draw an illumination from that place to yourself. And when you return here—you are here!”
I do not know which world he is from, but this much is certain: it is a world of good.
So far, it is not over, it is not finished.
Before we start skating on thin ice, it must be said that there are no classical commentaries on this story in the Breslov literature. Therefore, all of our remarks are speculative. No doubt, the story lends itself to many other lines of interpretation, as well.
Guest and Host/Ohr Makif and Ohr Pnimi
The “mysterious guest” has at least two levels of meaning: most obviously, he represents the tzaddik. He also represents the ohr makif, or “encompassing light,” which in general alludes to the sefirah of Binah.[III] This is the level of perception or being that is perpetually beyond one’s grasp - for as soon as it is internalized, another ohr makif takes its place.[IV] Thus, Binah is in a constant state of flux.
The Baal Shem Tov relates Binah to orei’ach, the Hebrew word for guest.[V} Orei’ach (spelled alef-vav-resh-chet) can be divided into ohr-chet, meaning “light of eight.” This alludes to the eighth sefirah in ascending order, which is Binah. Whenever one shows hospitality, this creates a channel for internalizing the light of Binah:
The Baal Shem Tov, taught: When a guest arrives, he brings his host Torah insights - for the Torah insights the host receives from Above correspond to the nature of his guests.[VI]
The guest is a vehicle for the ohr makif. However, every level of perception is an ohr makif in relation to the level below it, which is called ohr pnimi, the “inner” or “manifest light.” The ohr pnimi corresponds to the host.
Sixteenth century kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Vital explains that the light of the Chanukah lamp represents Binah, the transcendent level, as it illuminates Z’er Anpin, or “Small Face,” the structure comprising the six lower sefirot that animate the natural order.[VII] In less technical language, a ray of the limitless “shines” into the finite. Rebbe Nachman’s allegory of the guest and the head of the house alludes to this kabbalistic model, as well.
“From where do you obtain a living?”
The guest inquires as to the host’s source of livelihood. This is because the tzaddik is the parnes, provider of sustenance. Thus the guest, who represents the tzaddik, is entitled to ask his host this question.
Only two biblical figures are explicitly called “tzaddik”: Noah and Joseph. The Midrash explains that both deserved this title because they provided others with food.[VIII] In Noah’s case, he fed the entire world in his ark until the floodwaters subsided; in Joseph’s case, he provided grain to all Egypt and surrounding lands. Similarly, the Talmudic tzaddik Rabbi Chanina confered his great spiritual merit upon the world so that all creatures might receive sustenance, even those deemed completely unworthy.[IX]
Rebbe Nachman deals with this concept of the tzaddik as provider in many teachings, especially Likutey Moharan II, 7 (“For a Compassionate One Shall Lead Them”). There he states that the world receives livelihood by virtue of the tzaddik, albeit through the fusion of two levels inherent within him. The higher is represented by the tzaddik’s “son”; the lower is represented by the tzaddik’s “disciple.” However, these terms are mean to be taken more symbolically than literally. The perception of the son is expressed by the Ministering Angels who ask: “Where is the place of His glory?”—indicating the transcendent level, the aspect of “not knowing,” the ohr makif/encompassing light. The perception of the disciple is related to the antithetical declaration, “His glory fills the world” - indicating the immanent level, “knowledge of God,” the ohr pnimi/inner light.
In truth, these two perceptions are one, and each completes the other. Those in the category of the “son,” who have attained the higher level (“Where is the place of His glory?”), must be protected from total self-nullification in God’s transcendent aspect. They are like holy moths that would readily self-destruct in their desire to reach the light. The knowledge that “His glory fills the world” grounds them, creating the possibility of a perception of God. Thus, they may experience the mystic’s awe before the infinite mystery of the Divine.
Those in the category of the “disciple,” who occupy the lower level (“His glory fills the world”), are protected from total self-nullification in God’s immanence. They are like people who immerse in the mikveh (ritual bath) and stay under the water too long. These “disciples,” too, must experience awe of God, because the trace of wonderment they are granted—the admixture of “Where is the place of His glory?”—creates the existential distance needed for their perception. Otherwise, everything becomes “white on white,” lacking all contrast.
Thus, process and spiritual growth are made possible through this fusion of the perceptions of God’s transcendence and immanence; and livelihood is drawn forth to the world from the tzaddik who has grasped the secret of this dualism, and as such, serves as the channel for God’s will to continually create and sustain the world. This is the concept of “tzaddik yesod olam . . . the tzaddik is the foundation of the universe” (Proverbs 10:25).
“The world provides me with what I need to live”
Because the ohr pnimi derives its life force from the ohr makif, the host actually receives his livelihood from the guest. However, the host remains unaware of this. All he knows is that somehow his needs are fulfilled. Thus, he replies, “I don’t have a steady livelihood at home, but the world provides me with what I need to live.”
This answer suggests that either the host lacks initiative, or he fails to appreciate the true source of his sustenance, or both. In Likutey Moharan II, 7, the lesson cited above, Rebbe Nachman says that to be a provider, one must have a certain malkhut, a certain authority (although he seems to use the term in more than one sense), adding “one can’t be a shlimazal”—an incompetant person, or a “loser.” If so, what is our host? What is he telling us about himself with his vague reply? At this point in his life, at least, he seems to be a passive sort of fellow.
This alludes to the paradigm of how the world was sustained prior to the Giving of the Torah. Rebbe Nachman states in Likutey Moharan II, 78, that before the Torah was given, humanity was involved only in derech eretz, mundane pursuits. From this, the Midrash infers, “Derekh eretz (which can also mean simple human decency) preceded the Torah.”[X] Since the Torah is the source of life—as it is written, “For they [i.e., the commandments] are your life and the length of your days” (Deuteronomy 30:20)— from whence did the world derive its sustenance? The answer: from God’s gratuitous kindness.
The Talmud states that the twenty-six generations prior to the Giving of the Torah correspond to the twenty-six repetitions of the refrain “for His kindness is everlasting” in Psalm 136.[XI] However, the Torah certainly existed prior to its revelation; indeed, the Midrash tells us that all things came into being through the Torah, which preceded creation.[XII] The Torah was merely hidden. And where was it hidden? In the Ten Creative Statements recounted in the first chapter of Genesis, with which God continually animates the universe.[XIII] Thus, our host says that he is sustained “by the world,” that is, by the Torah that is hidden in the world, although he does not yet perceive it.
In this lesson, Rebbe Nachman also identifies the tzaddik as the channel for sustenance. He is the holy “prustok” (peasant or simpleton) who at times must desist from studying or fulfilling the commandments of the Torah in order to engage in worldly activities. At such times he receives vitality from what the Midrash calls the “Treasury of Unearned Gifts,” the gratuitous kindness with which God sustained the world prior to the Giving of the Torah.[xiv] Then he, in turn, can confer this gratuitous kindness upon the true simpletons—the rest of us in our present unenlightened state, enabling us to survive until we, too, become worthy of receiving life directly from the holiness of the Torah.
Perhaps the guest in our Chanukah story is the holy prustok, and the host represents the spiritually benighted masses that unwittingly receive life and sustenance through him. This is what gives the guest the “right” to inquire as to his host’s means of livelihood. The guest wants him to realize that he is being sustained by the tzaddik who is privy to God’s Treasury of Unearned Gifts.
“What do you study?”
Torah study, too, is the guest’s business, inasmuch as it reflects the influence of Binah/Understanding. The first letter of the Written Torah is the bet of Bereshit (“In the Beginning”); the last letter is the lamed of Yisrael (“Israel”). Together, they spell lev (heart), which the Zohar designates as the seat of Binah/Understanding.[xv]
A heart-to-heart discussion
It is said: “Words that come from the heart, enter the heart.”[xvi] Because the guest/tzaddik personifies the heart, he can reach the heart of the other. He channels the ohr makif into the heart of the host, who reciprocates by expressing his longing for greater levels of illumination. This is one of the main benefits of our attachment to tzaddikim.
Rebbe Nachman once observed, “I have three types of followers: those who come for my shirayim (leftovers);[xvii] those who come to hear my Torah teachings; and those who are ‘baked’ in my heart.”[xviii] Of course, every aspiring follower wants to be in the last category. But how can this be accomplished? Say the Breslover Chasidim, “When the Rebbe is ‘baked’ in our hearts!” This is implied by the “heart-to-heart discussion” in our story.
The host began to feel an intense longing and yearning to reach a certain level of holiness
This arousal is due to influence of the guest, who has put the host in touch with the deepest will of the heart: longing and yearning for the holy.
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[i] Sota 46b. Tanna D’vei Eliyahu Zuta states that a disciple who escorts his Torah teacher receives divine blessing. The same text adds () that when one escorts a traveler embarking on a journey, the traveler will be protected from harm.
[ii] The Zohar (I, 138a) describes the Garden of Eden as having a higher level for the neshamah, which is the seat of thought, and a lower level for the ru’ach, the seat of the emotions.
[iii] See Rabbi Avraham ben Nachman, Kokhvei Ohr, Chokhmah u-Binah, who associates Rebbe Nachman’s teachings with the sefirah of Binah.
[iv] Likutey Moharan II, 7:6.
[v] Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Vayeira, 4, citing Toldot Yitzchak, Likutey ha-Shas.
[vi] Rabbi Moshe Chaim Ephraim of Sudylkov, Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Vayeira.
[vii] Pri Eitz Chaim, Sha’ar Chanukah, 4. The three “upper” sefirot are Chokhmah / Wisdom, Binah / Understanding, and Da’at / Knowledge, corresponding to three aspects of the mind. The six “lower” sefirot are: Chesed/Kindness; Gevurah/Strength; Tiferet/Beauty or Harmony; Netzach/Eternity or Victory; Hod/Splendor; and Yesod/Foundation; corresponding to the two arms, torso, genitals, and two legs. The seventh and last sefirah is Malkhut / Kingship, which is a partzuf unto itself, corresponding to the feminine archetype.
[viii] Tanchuma, Noach, 5.
[ix] Ta’anit 24b; cf. Rabbi Yisrael of Koznitz, Avodat Yisrael, Likkutim, Ta’anit.
[x] Leviticus Rabbah, 9:3.
[xi] Pesachim 118a.
[xii] Genesis Rabbah 1:2, 8:2; Zohar I, 134a, II, 161a‑b.
[xiii] This idea echoes a fundamental Chasidic teaching. On the verse, “Forever, O God, Your word stands in the heavens” (Psalms 119:89), the Baal Shem Tov explains that “Your word” alludes to the Ten Creative Statements that bring the universe and all it contains into existence. If the “letters” of these divine statements were to depart for even a moment, everything would revert to nothingness; see Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Sefer ha-Tanya, Sha’ar ha-Yichud vi-ha-Emunah, chap. 1; Rabbi Chaim of Chernowitz, Be’er Mayim Chaim, Bereshit, s.v. bereshit bara, 7.
[xiv] Deuteronomy Rabbah 2:1; Tanchuma, Va’eschanan, 3; cf. Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, Ohr Yakar, Vayelekh, 1:15 (p. 27), who relates the “Treasury of Unearned Gifts” to the sefirah of Keter.
[xv] Tikkuney Zohar, Hakdamah, “Patach Eliyahu.”
[xvi] A rabbinic maxim quoted by Rabbi Moshe Ibn Ezra, Shirat Yisrael, p. 156.
[xvii] Based on earlier rabbinic precedents, it is customary for a Chasidic Rebbe to distribute to his followers portions of the foods from which he has partaken. These leftovers are known as “shirayim.” This communal eating creates a spiritual bond among the participants, causing the holiness of the tzaddik to extend to all, bringing healing and blessing; see Rabbis Mordechai Scharf and Yisrael Menachem Mendel Brecher, Yesod Olam, 11:5-7, citing various sources.
[xviii] Oral tradition cited by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Bender, Si’ach Sarfey Kodesh, vol. II, 1-102.