Lag Ba’Omer and Authenticity – My Introduction to Studying Lekutei Moharan
For Lag Ba’Omer, I want to look quickly at a piece from Rebbe Naḥman’s Lekutei Moharan which served as my entrance into studying, and actually finding meaning in, Rebbe Naḥman. This piece (LM I:66) is the longest piece in the first half of Lekutei Moharan, and covers a huge variety of topics. However, there are clear threads that emerge throughout, and this actually helped me learn a key skill in studying Rebbe Naḥman, which is the ability to pick up on recurring themes or ideas, and make note of specific lines or paragraphs where the idea is expressed particularly clearly. (Another important step in my introduction to Lekutei Moharan was reading this essay by Shaul Magid.)
Turning to the teaching itself, Rebbe Naḥman begins the teaching as a meditation on the scene of Elijah’s ascent to Heaven in 2 Kings, focusing on one specific aspect of the scene.
As they were crossing, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?” Elisha answered, “Let a double portion of your spirit pass on to me.”
“You have asked a difficult thing,” he said. “If you see me as I am being taken from you, this will be granted to you; if not, it will not.” (2 Kings 2:9-10)
What grabs Rebbe Naḥman here, and what is glossed over but certainly not intuitive in the the biblical text itself, is the possibility of someone giving twice what they have. Thinking perhaps overly literally about Elisha’s request, Rebbe Naḥman sets out to solve how it is that Elijah could have only a certain amount of spirit (ruaḥ), and yet potentially give twice that amount.
In the process of grappling with this issue, Rebbe Naḥman expands the range of his discussion from the scene of Elijah’s death in the bible to include all deaths of all tzaddikim everywhere.
At the time of a tzaddik’s passing, he attains far more than he attained during his lifetime; each one according to his spiritual level. We find this in connection with Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the Idra, Rabbeinu HaKadosh, and other tzaddikim.
While the significance and power of the tzaddik is an important theme in writings form a large variety of Hasidic authors, Rebbe Naḥman emphasizes it to a strong degree. In this piece, it serves to connect disparate characters. Elijah is one of the biblical characters who manages to bridge heaven and earth, and is considered the prophet who will bring the messiah and new messianic revelations. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai is the hero of the Zohar, who brings down and reveals heavenly secrets that were never before revealed, and would never be revealed again until the Messianic Era, with his most intense revelations taking place on the day of his death. Rebbe Naḥman also mentions Rebbe Yehuda Hanasi, who compiled the Mishna, presumably because this could be seen as a form of revelation.
Though left unsaid, the fact that Rebbe Naḥman considered himself a tzaddik (in fact, not just a tzaddik, but the tzaddik of his generation) probably hovers in the background here. That will be important later.
Rebbe Naḥman then returns to the particular issue of the double-spirit that Elisha requests, explaining that the tzaddik has two spirits, a higher spirit and a lower spirit, and that they always fail to bring down the higher spirit and only ever access the lower spirit. The only exception to this, Rebbe Naḥman says, is when the tzaddik dies (“passes on/away” in this translation), when they can access both spirits. As he explains it, this timing is not incidental.
Know, too, that the reason for this is that at the time of [the tzaddik’s] passing, the spirit and vitality from on high descend. The lower and higher spirits then embrace and unite. In truth, they are one, so that as soon as they reveal themselves to each other, they bond in a most exceptional oneness. Yet the spirit from on high cannot stay in this world, since by nature it cannot bear this world at all. It therefore departs for on high, and consequently the tzaddik passes on. For when the aforementioned spirit departs, the spirit from below departs with it, on account of the most exceptional oneness in which they were united.
Rebbe Naḥman essentially argues that when the higher spirit ascends, when the tzaddik achieves this peak state, then he must necessarily die, the lower spirit departing with the higher one. While that is all well and good as an abstract statement, it’s a little hard to evaluate, and certainly hard to translate into the language in which I live my life. What does it mean to have a higher and lower spirit? Why can’t the tzaddik ever attain the upper spirit? And why does attaining it result in the tzaddik’s death?
Rebbe Naḥman himself will do some of the work of answering these question. He takes a first step in this direction by explaining that when he talks about the death of the tzaddik, that doesn’t have to be understood literally.
There are many expressions of ascents and descents, since there are many different aspects of passing away. There is the soul’s passing, and there is the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.
So whatever the higher and lower spirits are, and whatever it means to attain the higher one, it doesn’t have to lead to the tzaddik literally dying.
Rebbe Naḥman then clarifies what he means when he refers to higher and lower spirits, shifting from mystical to philosophical/existential terminology.
This also corresponds to the two spirits mentioned above: the spirit from on high and the spirit from below, which are the aspects of potential and actual.
This is a significant moment in Rebbe Naḥman’s teaching, when he translates the abstract language into more concrete ideas. This is something he actually does fairly often, usually tying his complex theory and exegesis into concrete rituals. In this teaching, Rebbe Naḥman translations “higher and lower spirits” into the still somewhat abstract “potential and actual,” but he also ties this directly into issues of intention (kavvanah) in prayer, as we will touch on below.
To flesh this out a bit, Rebbe Naḥman is saying that a person always has two aspects, potential and actual, and they can never really attain the potential. As he explains at length through various Kabbalistic interpretations (such as the shape of the aleph and the interweaving of the divine names “Adonai” and “YHWH”), a person can never realize her vision perfectly. The “potential,” the idea she hold in her head, never survives the process of bringing it into the real world. There’s an unbridgeable gap between “potential” and “actual.” It is this gap that the tzaddik overcomes at the time of her death, a process that, in fact, causes her death (literal or otherwise). The question that Rebbe Naḥman therefore needs to tackle is how you overcome this gap.
He does this when he shifts to a more concrete topic, prayer. He wants to talk about how you pray with “truth,” essentially meaning with proper intent (kavvanah). In terms of the discussion of “potential” and “actual,” it is a question of how you actually pray the ideal prayer that you would like to pray. Rebbe Naḥman first and foremost sets up the problem.
Now, truth is greatest when a person is not dependent on other human beings since “When someone is dependent on other human beings, his face changes color like a kroom to many different shades.” This is the reason someone who is dependent on other people finds it very difficult to pray with the community. It would be more beneficial and easier for him to pray in private, since in public he is plagued by powerful ulterior motives and appearances. On account of his being dependent on other people, he prays with affectation and pretense in order to impress them. Even someone who earns his own living, and so does not have to rely on others for livelihood, may nevertheless be dependent on others for respect or some other thing. In other words, if he craves respect, prominence and the like, he is dependent on other people since he needs their respect and esteem. When he is dependent on other human beings for any of the above he is in jeopardy of perpetrating a grave lie while praying i.e., of gesticulating unnecessarily in order to impress people.
This is the passage that most struck me when I first read this teaching. Rebbe Naḥman here essentially recreates the problem of authenticity. How can we act truly, actually express ourselves, when we are dependent on other people? And are we not always dependent on other people, for recognition at the very least? Since we are always dependent on other people, we can never truly pray around them. In contrast, Rebbe Naḥman says,
someone not dependent on other humans, who is not reliant on them for anything, can stand in the midst of thousands of people and pray honestly, to God alone. This is because he does not depend on any human being for livelihood, honor or anything else. Rather, “his hope is in God his Lord.”
People who are independent, are capable of being true, and of actualizing their potential. How is this connected to death? As Rebbe Naḥman said, “death” here includes “the loss of one’s name, which is also an aspect of passing away.” The willingness to lose your name, your reputation, is very logically connected to social independence (Rebbe Naḥman makes this explicit in Lekutei Moharan I:260, but it’s clear enough from the piece we’re looking at). Someone willing to break free of the need for recognition, someone who can recognize that their own self-approval is enough, can realize their potential and attain the double-spirit that Elisha requested from Elijah on the day of his death.
In these few excerpts, RebbeNaḥman has reframed the death of tsaddik as the capacity to escape the social bonds holding you back and actualize your potential. This also shifts the way we should understand the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai. Rebbe Naḥman is explaining that Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai managed to reveal such important teachings on the day of his death because he was finally free of his social constraints and able to make his vision a reality. (For people interested in differences between the rest of the Zohar and the Idrot attributed to the day of Rabbi Shimon’s death, and the corresponding differences between the teachings of the Ramak and Arizal, this is a fascinating analytical lens).
There’s a lot more in this piece that I didn’t even get to touch on, such as a connection between words, meaning and desire that practically cries out to be read through a Lacanian lens (such as Yishai Mevorach provides in chapter 3 of Yehudi Shel Haketse, though he focuses on the parallel in Lekutei Moharan I:31). However, as I hope I’ve demonstrated here, part of reading long teachings from Lekutei Moharan is the ability to break them down into smaller passages and connect different ideas. The understanding of death and authenticity that I have drawn out here is a valuable idea in and of itself, even without the larger train of thought to which it contributes.