Sin and New Beginnings: R. Nachman of Breslov

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September 1, 2008
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Eliezer Shore

The weight of sin has shifted over the last few centuries. There was a time when sin was directed primarily against God, when it meant the throwing off of His yoke, or the betrayal of one’s nation or community. For the mystic, it was the cause of vast, often irreparable, cosmic damage. Sins weighed heavily upon people’s shoulders back then — like the burden of the tradition they had carried for 3,000 years, like the myriad spiritual worlds that rested upon each human deed.

Today, we look at sin somewhat differently, feeling the desecration of our lives more than that of the tradition, the debasement of our homes and families more than that of our nation. And, of course, we have sinned against the earth, the consequence of which now bears down upon us no less ominously than the supernal worlds once did.

Of all the great Hasidic masters, none felt the burden of sin more acutely than Rabbi Nachman of Breslov. Though raised in the traditional, Eastern-European world, he foresaw the rise of the modern era and its problems. His approach to sin is unique and original.

Whereas the entire kabbalistic-Hasidic tradition that preceded him saw sin as a concealment of God’s face, R. Nachman saw it as a moment of revelation — an encounter with the Divine that tells us as much about ourselves and our task in this world as any direct communication. For R. Nachman, the problem of sin is never in the act itself, nor even in the damage it causes, which is always repairable. Rather, it

lies solely in the context within which we frame it. If our failures lead us to despair and hopelessness, then we have doubly sinned; if they motivate us to change, then they are redeemed.

The problem is that there is an inherent blind spot in the human psyche that allows us to see only the negative repercussions of our deeds, especially in areas in which we repeatedly fail, to the point where correction seems unlikely, if not impossible. Then it is easy to fall into what R. Nachman considers the greatest sin — the sin of despair.

Yet, as R. Nachman points out, if a person has fallen a thousand times, it means that he or she has also tried rising a thousand times, thus making the fall an indispensable part of each new beginning. Seen this way, precisely that which pushes a person away from his goal is actually propelling him closer. Starting again is so important — R. Nachman would say, the most important thing — because it partakes of God’s own essence as the fountain of life and renewal.

This leads R. Nachman to make an extraordinary statement: “It is to a person’s great advantage that he has an inclination to evil (yetzer ha-ra), for he can then serve God with that very inclination, overcoming it in the heat of his passion and channeling it to the service of God. Without an evil inclination, his service would not be worth anything. To this end, God allows the evil inclination to completely overwhelm a person — especially one who truly longs to come close to Him — to the point that he commits great sins and spiritual damage. But it is all worthwhile to God — for the sake of that small, noble effort a person makes to escape from it, in the midst of being overwhelmed. This is more precious to God than a thousand years of service without the evil inclination.” (Meshivat Nefesh 37)

It is as though the whole vast edifice of sin and transgression, of failure, guilt, and despair exist only so that, in the face of repeated transgressions, we learn the meaning of hope and renewal. To God, it is all worthwhile for the sake of that brief moment when we say in our hearts: “Tomorrow, I will be better.”

To R. Nachman, sin creates the empty space in our lives that allows for the creation of something new. This is the hidden treasure that sin carries within it — though it cannot be seen in the moment of the fall, lest the impetus for change be lost. Our sins should weigh heavily on us, for they provide the leverage that propels us higher — to live a new life in God’s light. “The main thing is for a person to forget everything that happened, and start again.”

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Eliezer Shore teaches Hasidism and Jewish thought at the Rothberg International School at Hebrew University, the Overseas Program at Bar-Ilan University, and several colleges and institutions in the Jerusalem area. A collection of his writings will soon appear under the title: The Face of the Waters: Hasidic Teachings and Stories for the Twenty-First Century.

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