The world is a rotating wheel. It is like a Dreidle, where everything goes in cycles. Man becomes angel, and angel becomes man. Head becomes foot, and foot becomes head. Everything goes in cycles, revolving and alternating. All things interchange, one from another and one to another, elevating the low and lowering the high. All things have one root. . . . All creation is like a rotating wheel, revolving and oscillating. . . . Our sages teach us that angels were cast down from heaven. They entered physical bodies and were subject to all worldly lusts. Other angels were sent on missions to our world and had to clothe themselves in physical bodies. We also find cases where human beings literally became angels. For the world is like a rotating wheel. It spins like a Dreidle, with all things emanating from one root.


By the time the Ba'al Shem Toy – Master of the Good Name – died in 1760, he had bequeathed to Eastern European Jewry a rejuvenated faith rooted in tightly knit and highly individualized Hasidic communities. Within the area roughly bounded by the Dniester and Dnieper rivers and by the Black Sea, a territory neglected save for periodic border disputes between Poland, Russia and the Ottoman Empire became the centre of a revivified Jewish spirituality. This was centered around rabbis who were often learned, usually ascetic and utterly united in their rejection of orthodox scholarly elitism and their deep concern to translate the inner meaning of the faith into a practical way of life. A number of the Ba'al Shem Toy's relatives and descendants became leading rabbis in this movement, and some of them established Hasidic traditions which have survived into the present day and spread to Israel and the Americas. The spiritual force of the Ba'al Shem Toy's life gave a sanctity to his family line, as if it had been singled out in history to do special work, and a number of his descendants lived up to that charge. The most remarkable amongst them was his great-grandson Nachman, born twelve years after his death.

Nachman (sometimes Nahman) was born on April 4, 1772, to Feige, the grand-daughter of the Ba'al Shem Toy, and to Simcha, the son of Nachman of Horodenka, the Ba'al Shem Toy's close friend, in Medzeboz, the town of his illustrious forbear. While still young he lived in different places with relatives, always keeping his religious and spiritual inclinations secret. By the time he was thirteen, he was quietly attracting followers, and when he moved to Medvedevka, he was a figure known to many Hasidim. From the beginning he taught a doctrine of Hisbodidus, which means 'seclusion', and which he expanded to include the milieu necessary to establish intimacy with the Divine. He encouraged his followers to meditate in total privacy but to speak openly and to think aloud in that setting, inviting their inner consciousness to give voice to spiritual realities, thus combining deep meditative devotion with honest self-scrutiny. In addition to a careful and continuous study of the Torah and the Talmud, he immersed himself in the Lurianic Kabbala to such an extent that Kabbala became for him a mode of living and means of expression. He often spoke of the innumerable times he had fallen short of his ideals and of the importance of always starting anew. Even when successful, he remained unsatisfied with any level attained, using each achievement as the platform for a fresh effort to draw nearer in consciousness to Deity.

Almost all of the events in Nachman's life are mysterious in that the external record veils inner processes seldom explained. Just before he journeyed to the Holy Land, for example, he travelled to Kamenetz, a city about three hundred miles west of Medvedevka. The city allowed Jews within its precincts during the day but forced them to leave each night. Without saying why he wanted to go there, he travelled anonymously with a friend and secretly spent a night in Kamenetz. The next day he visited many homes in the city under the pretext of needing a glass of water, and then he left and returned to his own city. Though he refused to explain his strange actions and flatly rejected the rumour that he had gone to find some writings allegedly secreted there by the Ba'al Shem Toy, it was noticed that shortly after his visit Jews were permitted to dwell within the city.

On May 4, 1798, Nachman set out for the Holy Land with an inexplicable urgency, despite the fact that Napoleon was about to launch his Egyptian campaign. He warned that his journey – difficult in any circumstances – would not be fruitless, for it was to achieve invisible ends. He went to Odessa and sailed through a frightening storm to Istanbul, where he lodged near Palestinian Jewish emissaries in the men's quarter of the city. He refused to divulge his name or origin, and when questioned he assented to different appellations. One day he admitted that he was a cohen – a member of the Aaronic priesthood – and on the next that he was a simple Israelite without descent from the priestly or Levitical tribes, because both are attributes of Chesed, the sephira of mercy. Though he was friendly with his chance companions, his elusive answers convinced them that he was an agent sent to make trouble in Palestine. They abused him and insulted him until he left, and he thanked them for it. "Without this degradation", he explained to his attendant, "it would be utterly impossible for me to set foot in the Holy Land." He suggested that their unwitting actions removed unseen demonic barriers to his journey, and even though the divine retribution for such undeserved treatment was death, only those already marked by their previous deeds for mortal destruction had been involved in the incident.

While in Istanbul he avoided renowned rabbis and preferred to play war-games with children. Knowing that France was about to launch an expedition in Egypt and Palestine, he apparently acted out the war to reduce its devastation. Years later he taught:

All strife is identical. The friction within a family is a counterpart of the wars between nations. Each person in a household is the counterpart of a world power, and their quarrels are the wars between these powers. . . . Man is a miniature world.

Though the Jewish community forbade travel to the Holy Land because the French were seizing ships at sea, Nachman managed to sail with an old sage who received special permission to return there to die. Caught in a furious storm, the passengers began to wail and pray, but Nachman remained silent. His calm behaviour annoyed some of them, who cursed him for it, but he replied that the storm would die away if their own distraught wailing ceased. They grew quiet and the storm quickly passed. Eventually, the ship came to port in Haifa, and Nachman set foot in the Holy Land. He spent the day in joyous prayer and later said, "The moment I walked four steps in the Holy Land, I achieved my goal."

He had arrived the day before Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and as soon as the two-day holy celebration was over, he declared that he was ready to return home. However, neither his attendant nor the spiritual leaders of the Jewish community were willing to allow him to depart so suddenly. He was recognized as a remarkable tzadik, a righteous mystic and leader, and tzadikim and sages from across the land sought him out and solicited visits and advice. Though he was able to celebrate Succoth, the nine-day harvest festival, in the Cave of Elijah near Haifa, he was prevailed upon to visit Tiberias, where he made peace between conflicting factions and visited the grave of his grandfather, Nachman Horodenker. He journeyed to Safed, the home of Lurianic Kabbala, where he learnt of an imminent French invasion of Acre. Rushing to Acre, Nachman found a city of panic and pandemonium. He and his attendant were just able to find passage on a ship as the French fleet approached, only to discover that it was a Turkish man-of-war under attack with orders to sail to Adal (perhaps Antalya in Turkey), a town reputed to seize Jews for human sacrifice.

Just as the ship neared its infamous goal, a storm broke out and drove it back towards Acre. After almost sinking and being lost in the Mediterranean, they were held virtual hostages by the captain. Finally, the hapless pair found themselves in Rhodes, where the Jewish community gladly ransomed the great-grandson of the Ba'al Shem Toy. After being honoured in the city and allowed time to rest from his dramatic pilgrimage, he was given passage to Istanbul and, eventually, home to Medvedevka. Within a year he had moved southwest to Zlatipolia, and two years later to Breslov. On his way, he tarried in Uman, the gravesite of many Jewish martyrs, and expressed the wish to die there.

Rabbi Nathan Sternhartz, as a young man, lived in Nemirov, nine miles north of Breslov. Once he had a vivid dream. As he attempted to climb a radiant ladder between earth and heaven, he repeatedly fell. Each time he tried, however, he ascended closer to his celestial goal. Just as he neared the last step, a luminous figure appeared at the top and encouraged him to continue trying. But he fell again – and awoke. A year later he was in Breslov and was attracted to Nachman's synagogue. During the service Nachman turned to distribute some of the ceremonial wine, and his eyes met Nathan's. "Welcome", he said after a moment. "We have already known each other for a long time, but it has been a while since we last saw each other." Nathan realized that Nachman had been the man in his dream. Despite family opposition, Nathan became the disciple who recorded Nachman's thoughts, edited his writings and wrote the early history of the Breslover Hasidim.

Nachman taught in traditional Hasidic ways for several years, weaving Kabbalistic symbology and doctrines from the Zohar into his homilies. He did not consider himself simply a tzadik teaching the mystically-minded; he saw himself as tzadik hador, the tzadik of a generation, the Messianic pole of his time, whose actions directly aided the process of tikkun, mystical restoration of the fragmented unity of creation, broken by the Fall of man. As such, his teachings were not aimed primarily at exhorting people to live more righteous lives or even to draw nearer to Deity. He wished to transform permanently individuals who could restore the community to a pristine unity which would adequately mirror the Divine. For him, this required a strict unity of word and act in which consciousness became Torah and action became Torah in motion. By 1805 he had launched two radical lines of activity. Though he was the tzadik of the Breslover Hasidim, he did not meet with his followers except on certain high holy days each year. He thus became 'heavy of tongue', a man of silence. Only in this way could he enter into the realm of silence, the fractures which appeared when cosmic unity was shattered, the blank chasms where fallen souls were trapped. There he could redeem them through nigun and zemer, melody and song, drawing them back into the spiritual light and weaving shut the ancient fissures.

His view of the possible service of the tzadik hador in the realm of silence derived from his understanding of the Zohar and of the Kabbala of Isaac Luria, the main themes of which he outlined in his homily "Bo El Pharaoh":

When Deity desired to create the universe, there was no place to create it, since everything was all Infinite Essence (Am Soph). Therefore He constricted His Light to the sides, and through this constriction (tzimtzum) a Void was made. Into this Vacated Space all the days and attributes of Creation came into being. . . . This Void resulted from the constriction, as it were, because the Divine withdrew His essence from it and left it devoid of this essence. Were this not the case, the space would not be empty, and there would only be the Infinite Essence (Am Soph), with no place for creation. But the actual truth is that the essence of Deity must exist even within the Void, since nothing can exist without His life force. Therefore, it is absolutely impossible to comprehend the concept of the void; that is, until the Time of the Messiah.

Through the mastery of silence, the tzadik can enter the silence of the Void and redeem souls. Such restoration, an act of supreme rahamanut, compassion, allows all those who are truly willing to come to the threshold of that unknowable Silence in which all creation is a garment of song.

These fissures include the whole of unredeemed creation. The tzadik hador descends into a lesser realm – the world as most individuals know it – and engages in fundamental spiritual therapy, an activity which requires his pure song to be garbed in notes recognizable to tellurian ears. Mystically, the relation between Deity and manifest existence is mirrored in Man's relation to Nature and that of the tzadik to his Hasidim. Nachman abandoned the practices generally used in teaching and broke with strict Jewish tradition. He began to tell stories. His tales borrowed themes from the folklore of many peoples, but in his Yiddish and Hebrew formulations he wove the entire Lurianic understanding of the nature of existence and goal of life. The ideas hidden in his stories are the verbal correlates of the soul-sparks which fell into the world at the time of creation. In taking a bit of folklore and restoring it through a spiritually precise retelling, he repaired it, and its theurgic power was released in the receptive consciousness, where it could work to elevate the soul to its unity with Deity. Thus the tzadik arouses the soul from its lethargic spiritual sleep so that it awakens in the upper sephiroth, where it naturally belongs. The tzadik utters truths in the form of theurgic redemption veiled as a tale, and in his telling unites teller, truth and speech in a pristine whole which is both the archetype and the act of unification.

It is impossible to translate these strangely wrought stories without a severe loss of implicit meaning. Nonetheless, even a paraphrase can give a sense of the use for which they were intended. "The Loss of the Princess", told in 1806, is the simplest tale, dealing with the problem of true faith in the redemption of the soul in man and of Shekinah in the cosmos. A king had six sons, and a daughter whom he cherished. Once, however, he grew angry with her and said, "May the Not-Good take you away." That evening she retired to her room and in the morning had disappeared. The viceroy, seeing that the grieving king could find her nowhere, offered to search for her. He journeyed in deserts and forests for a long time before coming upon a well-guarded castle. Though he feared the soldiers, he decided to try to enter it, and when he did, he encountered no resistance at all.

As he wandered from room to room, the lost princess came upon him. "Do you recognize me?" she asked.

"Yes", he replied. "You are the lost princess. How did you get here?"

"Because that sentence slipped from my father's mouth. And this place is the Not-Good."

When he asked how he might free her, she told him that he had to stay in one place for a whole year and never waver from yearning to free her. On the last day of the year, he had to fast from sunset to sunset without sleeping. The viceroy went away and did as she had instructed. After a year, he set out to free her, but on the way he came across a tree burgeoning with beautiful apples. He started to eat one and immediately fell asleep for several years. When he finally came to the castle, the lost princess rebuked him, told him to go through the same trial, and to avoid sleep at all costs on the last day.

Another year passed, and the viceroy set out for the castle. As he crossed a stream, he noticed that its waters were reddish and that it smelled like wine. Intrigued by this strange phenomenon, he tasted it to see if it was wine – and at once fell asleep for seventy years. The princess found him asleep and could not rouse him, so she took her handkerchief and wrote on it with her tears, leaving it by his side. When he eventually awoke, he held the handkerchief to the sun and read her words. He discovered that she had been taken to a pearly castle on a golden mountain and that he would have to find her there.

Knowing that such a place could not exist in any inhabited region, he began to scour the barren deserts. After many years of fruitless searching, he came upon a giant carrying an enormous tree. The giant reckoned he had never seen a human being before, and so he stopped to chat, but, upon hearing of the viceroy's mission, he expressed grave doubts about the existence of a golden mountain. Nonetheless, since the viceroy persisted, the giant summoned all the animals – whose master he was – and asked them about such a place. None had seen it. When the viceroy still insisted on its reality, the giant told him to go on and look for his brother, who was in charge of all fowl, since perhaps the birds may have flown past it.

After years of wandering, the viceroy chanced upon a second giant who, after ridiculing him and rejecting his story, summoned the fowl. No bird, however, had ever seen the golden mountain or the pearly castle. When, after much persuasion and abuse, the giant saw that the viceroy was not to be turned from his quest, he sent him on to look for a third brother, who controlled the winds. Again the viceroy endured years of indescribable misery until he found the third giant. Again he told his story, was rebuffed, and persisted. Finally the third giant agreed to call the winds, but when they came, none could tell of a golden mountain or pearly castle.

"Don't you see that they have told you nonsense?" the giant said.

The viceroy began to weep, and retorted, "I know that it surely must exist."

Just then another wind arrived. The giant bawled it out for its tardy response to his summons, but it answered, "I was detained because I had to transport a princess to a golden mountain and a pearly castle."

The viceroy was overjoyed and the giant bade the wind to take him to his goal. The giant felt compassion for the faithful servant and gave him a purse filled with gold in the event he would need it. The wind carried him quickly to his destination, and when he found that the soldiers barred his entry, he used the gold to bribe them. Then he arranged for board with a rich man, for he knew he would need all his wit and intelligence to free the princess. Finally he freed her.

The abrupt ending to this seemingly unfinished tale was deliberate, for at one level the story refers to the reunion of Shekinah – the creative power of Deity – with its source, and that cannot happen until the end of time as it is known to ordinary consciousness. The individual who becomes the viceroy with respect to his own soul, however, will join those who write the end of the story with and in their own lives.

Nachman told thirteen carefully crafted tales between 1806 and 1810. Nathan wrote them out, some from his teacher's lips and others from the memory of disciples to whom they had been disclosed. During this period Nachman watched his son, daughter and wife die of illness, and he himself contracted tuberculosis. On May 9, 1810, he left Breslov for Uman, and he remained there waiting for his end. Nathan was at his side during the last days:

Even in the last hour his thoughts were flying through awesome worlds. . . . Bright and clear, he passed away without any confusion whatsoever, without a single untoward gesture, in a state of awesome calmness.

He died on October 16, at the age of thirty-eight, and was buried the next day. Nathan took charge of his followers, but he never claimed to be a tzadik or spiritual successor, for no one could follow the tzadik of a generation, whose tales are treated by his Hasidim as unalterable scripture and whose grave remains a shrine for Breslover Hasidim, scattered around the world, to this day.

We may speak of the Divine but we know absolutely nothing. It is said that the goal of all knowledge of the Divine is to realize that one is truly ignorant. But even this cannot be attained. . . . For there is always a level of ignorance lying on a step beyond his perception. . . . The most important thing is never to give up.