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What was really the disagreement, between the Vilna Gaon and the early leaders of chassidut?

If we’ve learnt anything at all about the fight between the followers of the Baal Shem Tov and chassidut, and the followers of the Lithuanian path of mitnagdim, as exemplified by the Vilna Gaon and his followers, this is probably what we believe:

The Vilna Gaon and the mitnagdim became ‘anti’ the chassidim and the followers of the Baal Shem Tov, because they were worried about ‘false messiahs’ in the wake of the Shabtai Tzvi affair.

Right?

That’s what we think the whole disagreement was about? That the Baal Shem Tov started this new ‘Tzaddik-centric’ approach to Judaism, and all the Litvak rabbis decided to excommunicate the people practicing chassidut because they were worried that another ‘false religion’ would spring up.

Guess what…that’s not really what happened. Or at least, not at the beginning of this whole story, back in the 1700s. As I started to set out in THIS POST, geula-fever was alive and well in the 18th century, fueled by kabbalistic speculation that the time for ‘the End’ had come, and geula was about to happen.

As I covered in that post, there were a few key dates that the kabbalists had pegged for the final coming of Moshiach, all based on the gematria of the word ‘dawn’, and allusions to that word in the Zohar and in the book of Daniel.

These years were:

1748 – which was proceeded by an ‘elite aliya’ of the Jewish world’s leading kabbalists to Israel, including the Ohr HaChaim from Morocco, the RaMCHaL from Italy, and many kabbalists and mystics from the Ashkenazi world too, including Rabbi Gershon of Kutow, the BESHT’s brother-in-law.

1753 – when three huge kabbalists in Israel including the CHIDA, Rabbi Shalom Sharabi (the Rashash), and Rabbi Chaim de la Roza tried to ‘force’ the end of days via kabbalistic uses of Hashem’s mystical names. Heaven forced them to stop, and the CHIDA had to go into exile for 5 years.

1781 – which was again proceeded by a ‘chassidic’ aliya from the Ashkenazi world, which was led by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk.

(The last official ‘date’ as the last possible date for the ‘in its time’ redemption, was 1840, but we’ll leave that alone for this post.)

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Between 1748 and 1781, so many of our leading rabbis believed that the geula was imminent, and the Vilna Gaon and the Lithuanian rabbis were counted firmly amongst them.

In fact, pretty much the only leading rabbi at that time who was saying that geula was NOT going to happen imminently was the Baal Shem Tov. I know I quoted this in the previous post, but let’s bring his letter written to Rabbi Gershon in 1747 again here, to keep all the pieces together in one place. The BESHT wrote:

“I asked the Messiah when he would be coming. “This is how you will know,” he replied. “When your teachings become public and revealed to the world, and your wellsprings of my teachings, which you will have mastered, overflow to the outside, so that [others], too, will be able to perform mystical unifications and ascents of the soul like you. Then all the klipot will be eradicated and a time of [Divine] desire and salvation will come.”

The Baal Shem Tov continues:

“[This reply] left me puzzled and severely troubled. Such a long time! When can it possibly come to pass?”

The Baal Shem Tov was explaining to Reb Gershon that the Moshiach is going to come, and the end of days is going to happen, only when the Jews start to really connect to God, and experience ‘ascents of the soul’, and to really learn and understand Torah on the deep level of chassidut.

Moshiach wasn’t just going to show up, regardless of the spiritual state of the Jews, and regardless of all their bad middot and lack of emuna. He was only going to come when the Jews got real, learned some humility, and started talking to God sincerely every single day, and including Him in every aspect of their life.

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So now, the question is:

Why did the mitnagdim fall out so badly with the chassidim, if everyone at that time was eagerly anticipating Moshiach and geula, and the Lithuanian rabbis were pressing for aliya and for ‘the end’ to come just as much as the chassidim?

The answer lies in the different approaches the Vilna Gaon and the chassidim were trying to take, to bring the geula.

We can set it out like this:

1747 – The Baal Shem Tov writes a letter explaining that Moshiach is only going to come when the Jews make teshuva, and approach their yiddishkeit in a more ‘chassidic’ way.

The BESHT’s leading student, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, sat on that letter for over 30 years, but then published it in 1780, when it started to become obvious that Moshiach was not coming imminently, after all.

In the meantime, the Vilna Gaon had spent years trying to resolve all the kooshiot, or difficulties in the Torah, using just his superb logical abilities and ‘cleverness’. According to documents found by researcher Arie Morgenstern which quotes the Vilna Gaon’s students and sons, as brought in his book The Gaon of Vilna and his Messianic Vision, the Vilna Gaon believed he could bring the Moshiach:

“[B]y force of his supreme halachic authority. [T]he Gaon proposed to move to Eretz Yisrael and write the final halacha there, in order to hasten the redemption. As Joseph Karo[1] had done, so would the Gaon of Vilna do. He wished to be the final arbiter, not in order to write the halacha for its own sake, but rather to hasten the redemption and conclude the ‘sorting’ (birur) process that would usher in the Messiah.”

Here’s what the Vilna Gaon himself wrote, about his aspirations[2]:

“Every unresolved issue is a klipah, and emanates from the Erev Rav that intermingled with the Israelites…This is how unresolved issues insinuated themselves into the halacha. The answer to the unresolved issues is the repair of the klipah.

Elsewhere, he wrote[3]:

“At the end of the galut, in the footsteps of the Moshiach, the tree of life, the Law of Moses will be revealed.”

One of the Vilna Gaon’s senior students, Rabbi Israel of Shklov, explained[4] that his mentor had managed to resolve all the issues in the whole Torah (!) except for in two passages in the Zohar. The Rabbi of Shklov says:

“Had the Gaon resolved these issues, he would have brought the birur (‘sorting process’) to its end, and the path to the Messiah’s arrival would have been readied for use.”

As it was – he didn’t, and it wasn’t.

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The Vilna Gaon set out for Israel in 1778.

But first travelled to Amsterdam, where he hoped to track down copies of the books and manuscripts that would help him resolve his two last remaining ‘issues’, before he made aliya, wrote a new ‘perfect’ Shulchan Aruch in Israel, and ushered in the redemption.

But God didn’t let him do that, his mission to Amsterdam was a failure, and the Gaon returned home to Vilna, without attempting the trip to Israel.

Once home, he decided to take a different tack, and for the first time in his scholarly career, he decided to teach an elite group of students his approach to learning Torah, with a particular emphasis on these students moving to Israel, and helping to lay the practical foundations for the Jews to return to their land.

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In the meantime, nearly all the Chassidic rebbes dealt with the ‘moshiach let-down’ of 1781 by starting to put the emphasis on personal redemption, as opposed to national redemption, and taking the emphasis off of moving to Israel.

Everyone, that is, except Rabbenu and Breslov chassidut.

Rebbe Nachman continued to stress the importance of living in Eretz Yisrael, as well as the importance of working on the ‘inner dimension’ and developing the good middot that would enable each person to achieve their ‘personal redemption’, too.

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1781 approaches, the make-or-break date for ‘geula in its time’, and the Vilna Gaon realizes that his approach of trying to ‘perfect’ Torah, and engage in ‘perfect’ mitzvah observance is out of reach, and that he can’t bring Moshiach this way. Instead, he looks to kick-start redemption by placing ‘boots on the ground’ in Eretz Yisrael, and directs a group of his elite students to make aliya after his death.

Meanwhile, after 1781, the different Chassidic leaders put much more focus on the idea that redemption is internal, not necessarily land-based.

Israel is out of reach, so turn inwards and work on your personal and communal redemption instead, wherever you live!

Only Breslov chassidut actually combined these two, very different approaches, continuing to stress the practical aspects of aliya to the real Eretz Yisrael, together with emphasizing the inner work and importance of being connected to the True Tzaddik and praying for redemption.

But there was so much opposition to Rebbe Nachman, and then to Breslov, that this message was muted back then, and really has only begun to flourish in our days.

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So now, what happened with the excommunication of the chassidim by the Lithuanian rabbis, headed by the Vilna Gaon?

As usual, it’s a sordid tale of petty politics and ego-mania.

In the years leading up to the first ‘excommunication’ of the chassidim, in 1772, The Vilna ‘kahal’, or community leaders had been locked in a vicious struggle with the town’s chief rabbi and rabbinical judge, a fellow by the name of Shmuel ben Avigdor.

Shmuel ben Avigdor had been ‘bought’ his position – as was the custom of the time then, and in many ways still is today – by his wealthy father-in-law. The kahal leaders felt that Shmuel ben Avigdor was throwing his weight around, was out of his depth when it came to making halachically-binding decisions, and – most crucially of all – was impinging on their income by trying to butt into communal affairs that they felt he should play no part in.

So, the kahal went to war against their very wealthy, very connected chief rabbi, to try to get him ousted. His father-in-law had bought him the rabbinate ‘for life’, so the kahal leaders could only get him out of the way if they could prove his was guilty of gross, ‘anti-Torah’ misconduct. So that’s what they set about trying to show.

According to Arie Morgenstern[5]:

“The methods used were illegitimate:…false testimonies, silencing of witnesses, preventing the presentation of exculpatory evidence about the defendants under threat of excommunication, forbidding the lodging of complaints with the rabbinical court by the same means, and even forbidding the rabbinical judges to listen to cries of protest against the abuse being committed.”

Plus ca change.

And having waged war against their town rabbi by dirty means, the kahal then just applied their ‘abilities’ against the chassidim in their midst, too.

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Why did the Vilna kahal turn against the chassidim?

Some researchers claim they were egged on by the Vilna Gaon (more on that in a moment), while others claim that the kahal leadership were worried that people flocking to chassidut would diminish their clout in the Jewish community, and their own legal status vis-à-vis their non-Jewish rulers. (Which in turn, would diminish their ability to levy taxes on the Jewish community….)

In the meantime, the horrible, dirty machloket between the Vilna kahal leaders and their chief rabbi Shmuel ben Avigdor raged almost without let up for approximately 30 years (!) It was so poisonous, Vilna’s Jewish residents were frequently arguing on street corners, and fights would regularly break out in public, even between the women.

That only stopped when the community was hit by a terrible tragedy.

In 1771, an outbreak of plague killed hundreds of small children in Vilna’s Jewish community. It was clear to the kahal leaders that this was some ‘punishment from Heaven’, but rather than accept that their own machloket against the Chief Rabbi could be the cause, they searched around for a scapegoat – and found one, in the nascent movement of chassidim.

According to the mitnaged Maggid of Makow, the reclusive Vilna Gaon was totally unaware of any problem with the chassidim, until the kahal leaders – who were giving the Vilna Gaon a salary of 1400 guilders a year and a rent-free home, even though the Vilna Gaon fulfilled no public duties as rabbi – brought a bunch of false witnesses to slander the chassidim as a ‘deviant cult’.

Rabbi David the Maggid writes:

“Due to his devotion to the Torah and his perseverance, the holy Pious One [the Vilna Gaon] was oblivious to all these matters, until the righteous and honest learners cried out… Then he became their enemy, fighting them and pronouncing the great excommunication of all their rabbis and students… The excommunication went into effect in 1772, after Pesach.”

But none of the other four major Jewish communities in Lithuania, including Horodno, Brisk, Slutsk and Pinsk, joined in with the excommunication of 1772, because they understood that the Vilna kahal was trying to deflect the spiritual heat off its own bad behavior, by using the chassidim as scapegoats. Very quickly, the excommunication died away, and the Lithuanian communities happily sent money to support the Chassidic aliya that began in 1777 – ahead of the ‘end of times’ date of 1781.

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THE SECOND EXCOMMUNICATION

But then, there was a second excommunication of the chassidim that happened in 1781 – and that one stuck, and widened out into a veritable war against chassidut.

What triggered this second attack against chassidut? A few different things:

  • More and more people were flocking to the ranks of chassidut.
  • Chassidut became increasingly organized as a communal force within the Jewish community, and so appeared to be more of a threat to the existing leaders’ status, influence, and ability to use their communal position to make money.
  • The Baal Shem Tov’s students started to print and disseminate some of their ideas and teachings – notably Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polnoye, who published Toledot Yaakov Yosef in 1780.
  • May 1781 came and went without Moshiach showing up, and a wave of frustration overtook the Jewish community and led to a whole bunch of internecine fighting.

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The chassidim were not totally blameless, for the war erupting.

By this point, many of them were openly mocking the Lithuanian rabbis for being out of touch with their communities and overly hung-up on pietism and asceticism, instead of serving God joyfully, with their hearts. There were also some Chassidic leaders who were publically complaining about the behavior of other Chassidic leaders, and that might also have fueled external criticism of the movement.

Meanwhile, the mitnagdim communities and their rabbis were having to deal with all these ‘miracle stories’ that started circulating about the Baal Shem Tov – including his infamous ‘conversation’ with Moshiach, in 1747 – after Rabbi Yaakov Yosef’s books came out. To put it bluntly, it was hard for the Lithuanian rabbis to compete, when there was a Tzaddik of the caliber of the Baal Shem Tov wooing their congregants away with his supernatural abilities and awesome, soul-inspiring advice.

In other words: they got jealous.

Plus ca change

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There’s one last thing I want to add here, because clearly what I’m describing above has continued to play itself out in our day and time, too.

At its highest level, there was a dispute for the sake of heaven going on, between the Vilna Gaon and the Baal Shem Tov, about the way to bring Moshiach and geula.

The BESHT said:

Geula will only come when all the Jews make teshuva, and start to serve God sincerely, and not just to pay ‘lip service’ to the external commandments and mitzvoth. And God will wait as long as it takes, for that to happen.

The Vilna Gaon said:

Geula will come ‘in its time’, once we fix the halacha perfectly. And whoever is not on that level of perfection at that time, won’t make it through to the world-to-come.

(I should mention here, that the Vilna Gaon was kind of obsessed with the Erev Rav, and that he and his students both talked and wrote about them a great deal.)

This mirrored the debate that took place in Sanhedrin 97b, between Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol, and Rabbi Yehoshua, that you can read about HERE.

And we are still having that debate today in the Jewish world.

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On the one hand, there are the people saying geula is ready to come NOW!!! Today!!! And that the world is full of evil erev rav types that just can’t change, and won’t make it through, and that millions of people are going to die before Moshiach is revealed, because they just aren’t on the level to make it.

This is the ‘Rabbi Yehoshua’ approach.

On the other hand, we can see with our own eyes that each of these ‘end times’ keeps coming and going; and that the predicted wars keep fading away. And, that the whole ‘erev rav’ approach is basically unworkable in practice (as I cover in my book), and that with daily hitbodedut, regular visits to Uman, and a strong connection to our True Tzaddikim, people can and do transform into better Jews in some fantastic ways.

This is the ‘Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol’ approach.

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The note from Rav Kook, describing Rabbi Berland as a'spark' of Eliezer HaGadolA few years’ ago, Rabbi Dov Kook of Tiveria famously wrote a note where he stated that Rabbi Eliezer Berland is a spark, or reincarnation, of that selfsame Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol.

God is waiting for us all to open our eyes, and see what’s right in front of them.

After 200 years of trying the ‘Rabbi Yehoshua’ approach – which has clearly not worked to bring Moshiach and redemption – God is waiting for more of us to adopt the ‘Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol’ approach of sincere teshuva, talking to God, and connecting to our True Tzaddikim, instead.

And when we get that message, geula will finally happen.

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FOOTNOTES:

[1] The author of the Shulchan Aruch.

[2] Vilna Gaon’s commentary on Ra’aya Mehemana, Konigsberg, 1858, 28a.

[3] Yahel Or, Commentaries on the Zohar, Parshat Mishpatim 114b (Vilna, 1882).

[4] In his preface to the book: Pe’at Ha’Shulchan.

[5] Page 237, The Gaon of Vilna and his Messianic Vision

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Let’s take another look at BESHT’s Mirror Principle.

Until I really dug down, and started to figure out how the negative bunch of character traits that we’ll identify as ‘narcissism’, for ease of reference, works, I used to spend a lot of my time trying to warn others away from narcissists and crazies.

I have to tell you: this approach really didn’t work so well, and it actually only helped to alienate me from so many people. It was only when I started to learn about the Baal Shem Tov’s mirror principle, which I’ve written so much about, but most recently HERE, that I started to understand why this always used to backfire so badly.

To put it in colloquial terms,

birds of a feather flock together.

For as long as I continue to have a particular bad midda or negative character trait that I am justifying and excusing in myself, I simply won’t be able to spot it in other people.

As long as I keep making excuses for myself about why it’s okayyyy to speak lashon hara, or to keep exploding in anger at people, or to control others with guilt trips and deceit, and to avoid owning up to my own bad behavior (to name just a few of the more notable traits embodied by narcissism) – the less I’ll be able to identify those traits as ‘bad’ in other people.

And so, I will think that anyone who tells me that this stuff is ‘bad’ is actually just a derango themselves.

It’s only when I really started to put my hand up to my own anger, jealousy, arrogance, and ‘always-have-to-be-rightness’ (again, to name but a few….) that my tolerance for these traits in others started to diminish rapidly.

It’s like an ex-smoker. When you really start doing the work of acknowledging that anger is bad, for example, you can detect even the faintest whiff of it wafting around. Acknowledging that my anger was bad, under any circumstances, lead to some massive breakthroughs in my relationships and also my teshuva process.

Because we’re not angry at the weather, the boss, the ex, the rude clerk in the bank. Really, we’re just angry at God.

And until and unless we accept that, we’re going to be far away from having real emuna, far away from having a real relationship with our Creator, and very far away from ever acknowledging our own issues and problems, because everything will always be someone else’s fault.

The only person to work on is ourselves

The mirror principle has helped me to work on my own (hidden….) bad middot, so very much. Once I really internalized that any trait or behavior that I see in someone else that upsets me personally, is really just my own problem in disguise – that’s when my teshuva process really started to accelerate, and to get somewhere.

I stopped making excuses, I stopped pointing fingers at everyone else, and I started to see the true wisdom in Rabbi Israel Salanter’s comment, when he said:

“When I was a young man, I wanted to change the world. But I found it was difficult to change the world, so I tried to change my country. When I found I couldn’t change my country, I began to focus on my town. However, I discovered that I couldn’t change the town, and so as I grew older, I tried to change my family.

Now, as an old man, I realize the only thing I can change is myself, but I’ve come to recognize that if long ago I had started with myself, then I could have made an impact on my family. And, my family and I could have made an impact on our town. And that, in turn, could have changed the country and we could all indeed have changed the world.”

Mussar – as defined as the practice of working to perfect your own character flaws, instead of just pointing them out in other people – isn’t very popular today.

That’s a shame, because Rav Berland explains that:

“The best advice to overcome the yetzer hara is to cultivate some lowliness.”

And the best way to cultivate some lowliness is to acknowledge just how imperfect we ourselves are – and that’s why God keeps shoving all these ‘awful people’ in our faces. Because when the problem is really mine, there is no getting away from it.

Personally, I used to get SO ANGRY!!!! At all those DISGUSTING LUNATICS!!!! Who have SUCH BAD MIDDOT!!!! And WHO ARE FOOLING EVERYONE ELSE AND MISLEADING THEM!!!!

I used to rant on and on about them, and diss them at every opportunity, and lie awake at night thinking of ways to expose them and their awful hypocrisy. But this attitude is the opposite of having emuna, it’s the opposite of acting like a believing Jew, and it was just a function of my own bad middot, that my yetzer had carefully dressed up as self-righteous ‘good’ judgment.

The Rambam’s first principle of faith teaches us:

Ein Od Milvado!

God is behind everything and everyone. He’s setting up every single circumstance I find myself in, just to show me what I myself need to work on.

It was only when I really started trying to internalize my emuna that Ein Od Milvado, and to look past the person themselves to decode the messages God was using them to send me, that I realized that the real work to be done was just internal.

And the more I understood that the bad middot I was identifying in others was really just a reflection, and the more I started to work on them, the less God had to put those angry, judgmental, hypocritical, arrogant people in my face, because:

Like attracts like.

When I stopped ‘liking’ my own angry, self-righteous outbursts, and when I stopped giving myself a ‘get out of jail free’ card for speaking evilly of others, and when I stopped pretending that I was perfectly pious saint who never does anything wrong – I stopped gravitating to the people who were reflecting this behavior back at me. And even the ‘difficult’ people I can’t totally avoid have mellowed, and become so much nicer to deal with.

And man, o man, has life been so much happier, calmer and sweeter as a result.

But, there’s another layer to the ‘world is a mirror’ idea, and that’s something that I learned from the ravberland.com website, HERE. The Baal Shem Tov also taught that:

The Tzaddik is just a mirror.

Again, this isn’t ‘daas me’, this is properly sourced and referenced Daas Torah, and one of the foundational teachings of chassidut that’s grounded in the Gemara. Tractate Sanhedrin 110 explains that so many of the people in the desert suspected Moshe Rabbenu of committing adultery with their wives.

At that point, Moshe Rabbenu was an 80 year old man who’d even separated from his own wife, Tzipporah, because of his tremendous level of kedusha and personal holiness. Moshe Rabbenu was doing open miracles left, right and centre. Moshe Rabbenu had led them out of the desert, and redeemed them from Egypt.

And yet, so many Jews could still look at a Tzaddik of the caliber of Moshe Rabbenu, and suspect him of adultery.

How could this be?

A little later, the incident with the daughters of Midian showed exactly what was going on. That’s when 24,000 members of the tribe of Shimon, including their ‘big tzaddik’ of a leader, Zimri, died in a heavenly plague because they flagrantly committed adultery with the Midianite women, and bowed to their idols.

I’m sure those 24,000 were all over Facebook and the internet beforehand, swapping salacious stories about what they just ‘knew’ about Moshe Rabbenu.

The Tzaddik was just a mirror.

And the same principle is still playing out today, with this generation’s Tzaddik.

Those people who have pretensions to lead the nation, and to be the big enchilada and the main spokesperson for Am Yisrael¸ they look at the Tzaddik and they see a false messiah peeking back at them.

Abusive, angry people who want to ‘force’ others to do what they say, and think the way they think come near him, and they start to believe, incredibly, that the Tzaddik is an abusive, angry, controlling person

Self-righteous people who like to pretend they are perfect get a glimpse of the Tzaddik, and they come away convinced that he’s a hypocrite who is hiding a whole bunch of horrible sins underneath his flawless exterior – just the way they are, themselves.

People who are obsessed with making money, or miserly tightwads who are allergic to the idea of paying out 10% of their income to charity come close and all they see is dollar $ign$ – it drives them bonkers that people pay money to the Tzaddik for pidyonot!!!! They can’t stand it!!! How has that guy figured out how to dupe people into paying him large amounts of cash for free???!?!?!?!

Innately immoral people who support taavah-dik lifestyles look at the Tzaddik and see someone who’ll stop at nothing to gratify his own lusts and desires.

And the list goes on and on.

(It’s a side point, but it seems obvious that the Tzaddik’s most outspoken critics tend to be the most troubled people, for the reasons outlined above. They’re getting ‘triggered’ all over the place by all the ‘uck’ that’s reflecting back at them.)

There is nothing that can be done, to dissuade them out of these opinions and ideas because they aren’t based on facts, and they aren’t based on having the right information. It all just boils down to this:

Like attracts like.

What is pinging people away from the Tzaddik is their own innate evil, their own bad middot and their own negative character traits.

All the stuff that I’m doing with trying to get One in a Generation Volume II out there isn’t going to help these people one jot. Until and unless they start owning up to their own bad middot, and working on their own emuna that Ein Od Milvado, they can’t get anywhere near the Tzaddik of the generation.

That’s also why so many people come close initially, attracted by the light, but then subsequently ping away, when the Tzaddik’s enormous light starts to illuminate all the character flaws and personal issues they’d rather not deal with.

At that stage, God gives people a choice:

Are you going to admit that YOU are the one with the problems, or are you going to keep trying to blame things on other people, and carry on pretending that you’re just a poor victim? What’s it going to be?

Sadly, I’ve seen so many people stumble in this test. I think that without a regular commitment to hitbodedut, where you spend a chunk of time every single day asking God to show you what you really need to be working on, and looking at, and trying to see things from the other person’s point of view, more, it’s very hard to pass.

It’s so much easier to just keeping blaming the ex, the rebellious teenager, the rude bank clerk, the two-faced friend, the horrible boss.

Anyone except ourselves.

An infographic showing how to make teshuva using the BESHT's Mirror PrincipleSo, this is probably the main test that we all have to pass before geula really starts to kick off in a big way: the test of being honest with ourselves, about where we’re really holding with our own bad middot and lack of emuna.

Anyone who is doing that will make it through, regardless of where they live or which ‘group’ they belong to.

And anyone who isn’t doing that simply can’t ‘fit’ into the world of truth that is going to blossom when Moshiach shows up. Because the Tzaddik is just a mirror, and the people who aren’t working on themselves simply won’t be able to see his light, and to follow him out of the darkness.

 

For a few years’ now, I’ve had precious little patience for people who claim to be doing ‘the best they could’

– as they continue to mistreat their nearest and dearest; cheat on their taxes; lie to everyone, about everything, and generally act like horrible human beings.

I mean, really. How can they possibly claim to be doing ‘the best they could’? Do they think I’m retarded, or something?

But after this trip to Uman, something fundamental has changed in my outlook, and strange to say, I’m actually starting to see how these people really are doing ‘the best they could’, after all.

When people are raised, for whatever reason, in environments that are very harsh, critical, cold and unloving, it literally rewires the way the energy flows in their body; the way they think; they way they see things; and the way they act.

They don’t act the way they do because they want to be horrible, hateful, deceitful, selfish people.

They are acting the way they do because they got stuck in ‘survival’ mode, spiritually and energetically, and they can’t see any way out.

Until a few days’ ago, I also couldn’t see any way out for them. Logically, if people aren’t even willing to take the first basic steps in becoming self-aware, and can’t even conceive of being willing to change, or to work on themselves, or to ask G-d to help them out of the rut they’re in, then how can anything ever change?

It takes a lot of work, effort and time to change. It takes an awful lot of prayer. It takes an awful lot of teshuva. And a lot of people today, especially the ‘interesting characters’ in our midst simply don’t have the inclination or energy to invest in the process.

So it seemed to me, they were stuffed.

But after this last trip to Uman, I’m really starting to believe it’s possible after all. How? They just need someone, anyone, to pray for them, even a little bit, and then G-d will do the rest.

Rebbe Nachman made a promise that if someone came to his tomb and said the Tikkun HaKlali, and gave a penny to charity, that he would do everything in his power to help them, and pull them out of hell.

There’s an idea in Judaism that if someone can’t perform a certain mitzvah themselves, that you can be their shaliach. It hit me this time round that I could say the Tikkun HaKlali and give charity on behalf of a whole bunch of people, and then they’re automatically going to start getting the help they need to get out of ‘hell’.

Hell doesn’t just mean that very hot place you go to when you die. People can and do experience ‘hell’ while they’re still very much alive.

Just ask anyone who’s addicted to drugs, alcohol or internet porn; ask the workaholics who hate that they spend 18 hours at the office, but can’t see any alternative; or the people who are trapped being superficial caricatures of themselves, unable to ever have a real conversation with anyone, including G-d.

It’s hell, mamash.

And Rebbe Nachman promised to get these people out, if they’d just follow his instructions.

Now, you might say that you can’t do Tikkun HaKlalis on behalf of others without their permission, but there’s a story about two Breslev elders that puts that idea to rest.

When Uman was behind the iron curtain, very few people managed to get there. One of the Breslev elders of the last generation had been privileged to be there a few times, and another Breslev elder who’d never managed to get there asked him to ‘sell’ him one of his recitations of the Tikkun Haklali.

He was willing to give in return all the heavenly reward for his mitzvoth and Torah learning – and remember, we are talking here about a giant of a man, spiritually.

That story showed me that you can do ‘surrogate’ Tikkun Haklalis, and this trip to Uman, I got another bit of the puzzle: Rebbe Nachman really wants us to do it! He wants us to pray for other people that are never, ever going to make the trip themselves (at least, the way things stand at the moment).

He wants everyone to get out of hell, both in this life and the next.

Even those people who despite doing ‘the best they could’ are still leaving a trail of destruction, evil and suffering in their wake.

Our job is just to pray on their behalf, just to be G-d’s shaliach, and then He and His Tzaddikim will do the rest.