November 18, 2009


From Ozer Bergman’s “Where Earth and Heaven Kiss: A Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Path of Meditation” (Breslov Research Institute), pp. 119-121. The subject this excerpt addresses is actually part of a larger and more complex discussion, one of the Breslov sources for which is Likkutei Moharan I, 49. There, Rebbe Nachman discusses the paradox of the necessity to fall into dualistic thinking for the sake of the world and the spiritual advantages that can only come about through our working through conflicting thoughts and emotions.

The Heart of the Struggle

Rabbi Ozer Bergman

Struggling is, well, a struggle. It’s hard—it may even hurt— to keep your mind free of wrong-thinking and keep it focused on right-thinking, but it’s part of the medicine the soul needs to take. The brit (covenant) which we Jews made with God includes the attitude, state of mind and dedication that is necessary for and characterized by tzaddik-like self-control in the face of temptation and distraction. The struggle takes serious effort and often drains us of happiness, a counterproductive by-product if ever there was one. So be smart enough, while you’re struggling, to take joy and smile: Despite my setbacks and failures, I’m fortunate to be allied with a teacher such as Rebbe Nachman.

Many an individual finds it disconcerting and discouraging that he has to battle his thoughts so long and so hard. Wouldn’t it be better, he thinks, if he could spend his time and energy discovering the cure for cancer? Wouldn’t it be better to spend his time on the obviously holy, like Torah study and prayer? Not necessarily. This kind of conclusion betrays our limited perspective. Do you think that while we’re busy doing our tikkun haolam, God is just sitting back, watching us and letting us make all the decisions about what to do next? Not at all. He intervenes, pointing each of us towards his next job. Often that “next job” is the “Battle of the Thoughts,” the score of which is not tallied by how many unwanted thoughts you cast out, but by your beads of sweat.

The fact that you invest so much time and effort in struggling against wrong-thinking and are prevented from coming up with a cure for cancer is not your concern. That’s Heaven’s affair. What you are thinking (i.e., your need to struggle) may be wrong for the goals you had hoped to achieve, but they are right for what God hopes from His creation. Just follow your teacher’s instructions.

Kola b’machashavah itberiru (“Everything is purified through thought” [Zohar 2:254b]). All tikkun haolam has its genesis in your thinking. All tikkun haolam begins in your mind. As thoughts come into your head, you have to select which ones to keep and which ones to reject.

The Midrash tells us that when Pharaoh set out to capture the Israelites by the Red Sea, he and his army came on horses of different colors—red, black, white and spotted. Each horse in Pharaoh’s cavalry had its own gait. Red horses ran to anger and to violence, and to passion for food, sex, money and power. Black horses galloped to the quicksand of depression and despair. White horses had the zealous gait of mistaken religious fervor for seeming mitzvot which are sanctioned by Rabbi Pharaoh, but which are not really mitzvot at all. Spotted horses had a drunken gait-thinking that is inconsistent at best and unstable at worst.

When the Egyptian army appeared on the horizon, the Israelites were rightfully terrified. They were so many of them! Moshe told the Jewish people to remain silent; God would fight their battle. We shouldn’t be frightened when encountering the unruly thoughts represented by Pharaoh’s horses. Moshe, the clear thinker, taught us to not respond directly to the wrong thought.

Surprising, counter-intuitive, but true: Direct combat with such thoughts only makes them stronger. Much too strong for us. The silent response (a la “don’t look over your shoulder”) is your strongest response. If one of Pharaoh’s horses canters into your mind, wait with patient silence. God will send one of His horses to take its place, and you’ll be back on track.

Pharaoh’s horses, the products of fantasy and imagination, are there only because God put them there. He put them there to get you to see through the illusion and choose God rather than the illusion.

Put your hand in His. Cry out for His help. If you cannot actually cry out, at least raise your eyes to seek His help.