In the middle of Reb Nachman of Berslov’s major work, Likkutei Moharan, in between part 1 and part 2, there is a very strange short text. It is labeled simply as “an omission” (השמטה) but under its unassuming title is a text that rocks my world:
"One was Abraham" (says Ezekiel 33) – For Abraham worshipped God only by the fact that he was one, that he thought of himself as the only person in the world, and didn't look at all the other people, who deviated from God's path and were obstacles to Abraham, and not at his father and other such obstacles, but only as if he was the only one person in the world. And this is "One was Abraham".
And in such a manner any person that wants to begin a life of spiritual service (=Avodat HaShem), cannot do so without thinking that there is no one in the world but them, not looking at any person that is an obstacle, such as a father or a mother, in-laws or spouse or children…. Nor at the obstacles that one has from the rest of the world, which ridicule and mock, tempting and preventing from God’s true service. And one must not take heart or look at them at all, and only be in the aspect of "One was Abraham" – as if they are the only person in the world. (click here for the Hebrew text)
For Reb Nachman, Abraham’s biggest feat, the cause of his success in the world, was his ability to be truly “one”. Alone, singular, Abraham is cast in our mythical imagination as the rebel who is forever breaking free from the idols of his society. More radically, Reb Nachman believes Abraham’s model must be emulated by anyone who wants to be “one”, anyone who is serious about a life of spiritual service, avodat haShem. The Zohar (I:77b) interprets the term “Lech Lecha” as “Go to yourself, to establish yourself”. Reb Nachman describes how to do that: by cutting off the rest of the world.
Reb Nachman here is sounding a refreshing vision of individualism which is at odds with Judaism’s stress on tradition, the collective, family and the normative power of community. Take this as a text on leadership and it is a call to be radically innovative despite the obstacles placed by our peers and organizations. It is very Reb Nachman, but it is also very modern and existentialist: strive to discover your own truth, which might only be attained by silencing everyone else out.
Every time I read this text or think about Abraham, an argument gets ignited in my head. My fear is that Reb Nachman is right – that great change really does happen from the revolutionaries that ignore the rest of the world, that a deeply meaningful life means creating significant space, even from those dearest to us. On the other hand, I am deeply troubled by how quick R. Nachman is to encourage us to ignore society, family, even our spouses, and how unbalanced and lonely a calling this is. I try to reduce “being one” to a phase - Abraham’s teenage years, perhaps his mid-life crisis, but not a constant mode of operation. This leaves me with a nice “out” from all of this: radical individualism is a phase, one that might be necessary when you’re breaking away from something or shaking off some idols, but not advisable in the long term. Even Reb Nachman says – “when one is entering a life of spiritual service”… but then maybe I’m limiting this to a “phase” to defend my bourgeoisie comforts, responds ther voice in my head…
I’d like to find a way to be both radically “one” throughout life and still living in true partnership with others. I want to be both Abraham the questioning innovator and Abraham who builds significant partnerships and community.
Reb Nachman famously stranded his wife in order to travel to Israel for a year. Breslov followers – including some of my close friends – traditionally forsake their wives each Rosh haShana, going on a pilgrimage to his burial ground in Uman. I have learned many things from Reb Nachman, and see much power in going on independent pilgrimages, but we draw different lines: In my “emancipated” partnership view of marriage, even in my “one”ness moments of ignoring the rest of the world, I strive to include my spouse in my “one”, not exclude her…
Maybe this difference, of expanding the boundaries of the “one” at hand, is a useful solution. There are moments when “being one” means excluding everyone in order to find ourselves. But then there are a moment when “being one” means partnering with others, who share similar visions, and creating a unit together. Interestingly, half the stories about Abraham are about how lonely he is, and the other half are about his struggle to build partnerships (Malkitzedek, Abimelech and Lot).
I let Reb Nachman’s image of Abraham work in my psyche as a free radical, reminding me to hold on to an aspect of innovative individualism, to strive to “be one” above and beyond the many obstacles. I think Abraham is happy being remembered in his more iconoclastic phase. Luckily, he is only one of many patriarchs and matriarchs in whom I find inspiration. Still, whenever I hear his call, a naughty smile spreads on my face as I am reminded to be more “one” and to overcome a few obstacles, even at the cost of the occasional smashed idol.
Rabbi Mishael Zion
Co-Director, Director of Education
The Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel