21 Tevet 5768 / December 30, 2007
Rabbi Nachman’s lesson about the “good points” was the first piece I ever learned from his master work, Likutey Moharan. This was over thirty years ago in the summer 1977, when I was just embarking on my Torah pathway – a 27 year-old secular intellectual working as a BBC radio commentator and knowing barely more than a few words of Hebrew. I took a short break from work to visit Israel, and it was in a class I chanced upon at the Dvar Yerushalayim Baaley Teshuvah yeshiva that I heard about Rabbi Nachman for the first time.
A few days later, during a visit to Safed, one of the handful of Breslover Chassidim who was living there at that time took me late at night up to the attic of the small, quaint Breslover shul in the old city that Rabbi Gedaliah Koenig זצ”ל was then in the process of renovating. Sitting in candlelight, my newfound friend, Mordechai Kramer, a talmid of Reb Gedaliah, explained to me the meaning of the Hebrew text of Rabbi Nachman’s teaching of “Azamra! – I will sing” (Likutey Moharan I, 282). I found it interesting and suggestive but it was far from clear to me exactly what it really meant. Little did I know then that six and a half years later I would married with a growing family, living in Jerusalem and authoring a volume of devoted to and named after this very teaching published by Breslov Research Institute. Even less did I dream that three years thereafter I would found an independent institute called AZAMRA which is today alive and flourishing more than ever!!!
The Breslov Research booklet called “Azamra!” (1984) was the first of its kind in English: a translation of a complete lesson from Likutey Moharan together with a selection of commentaries from Reb Nosson’s Likutey Halachot and other Breslov sources. The reason for starting the unveiling of Rabbi Nachman’s teachings to the English-speaking world with the lesson of “Azamra!” was because, in the words of Reb Nosson, “The Rebbe told us emphatically to go with this teaching: it is a major foundation for all who want to draw closer to God…”
I must confess that from the time of my first acquaintance with this lesson, it took me many years until I felt I was beginning to get a handle on what the Rebbe really meant by telling us to “find your good points” or even what a “good point” might be. People told me that your good points are all the mitzvos and good deeds you have ever performed… Or that the good point is the “pinktale yid” – your essential Jewish soul. But none of this really penetrated my inner self until an episode that occurred in the period when I was working on my translation of “Azamra!”. An uncle of mine who lived in Israel was dying of cancer, and I went to pay what I expected to be a final visit to him. During the conversation, I asked him what he felt he had achieved in his life. “Let me tell you a story” he replied.
He told me that in the late 1940’s, as a young school teacher of sewing crafts in Baltimore U.S.A., he had been assigned to teach a class of underprivileged black teenage girls. He said they were so wild that he was barely able to take the register in class let alone teach them to sew. He became so depressed that he went to the school principal to tender his resignation. However, the principal urged him to take a break to think about it calmly.
My uncle described to me how he went on a fishing trip and sat by the water watching the little fish swimming all around the bait at the end of his line. They all refused to take even a single bite! Suddenly it flashed into his mind that just as the fish did not want to take the bait he was offering them, so the girls in his class resisted receiving the “gift” of sewing skills he so badly wanted to give them. This was because they resented always being cast in the role of the receiver. They were always at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. If only a way could be found to turn these girls into givers – but what did these wild adolescents have to give, and to whom would they give it?
He decided to stay on in the school and try an experiment. He came up with a plan to have each girl sew a cloth booklet complete with various kinds of buttons, clips, ribbons and zippers, etc. designed to teach a little child to dress herself. He arranged for the entire class to be bussed to a junior school where each girl would be paired off with a little child to whom she would give her book and show her how to use it. When the books were ready and the teenage girls were in the bus on the way to the junior school, my uncle told me they were so wild that he was afraid to give them the books because they would have surely torn them to pieces.
However, on arrival at the school, each girl was paired off with her little pupil and showed her what to do – and the experience of being charged with some real responsibility completely transformed these adolescent girls! My uncle described how on the bus ride back to their own school the girls were calm, relaxed and behaving like ladies! The transformation of these girls got into the local news. My uncle was interviewed on the radio and became something of a celebrity in Baltimore at the time because he had succeeded in turning wild poor black urban adolescent girls into responsible citizens.
Hearing my uncle’s story as I worked on my translation of “Azamra!” gave me new insight into a teaching of Rabbi Nosson in his commentary on this lesson in the opening discourse of Likutey Halachot, Orach Chaim. Reb Nosson writes that when God was reconciled with Israel after their sin with the golden calf, the first thing Moses did on his return from Mt Sinai to the camp was to command them to bring contributions of gold, silver, bronze and other materials for the Sanctuary. This was because in order to raise the penitent nation from their abject state, it was necessary to reveal their good points. This came about precisely through giving them the opportunity to show their generosity by asking them to contribute to the Sanctuary. In other words, the nation was reclaimed through being turned into a nation of givers!!!
Thus the “good point” is not something static that exists in a person like some kind of painted lady’s “beauty spot”. Rather, it is a dynamic growth point in the personality that exists in potential deep within the soul of the person. But it has to be brought forth and actualized. The person himself has to “find” his own unique good points and work to actualize them. But it takes the Tzaddik (in the case of the Baltimore girls, my uncle) to have faith that the good point is there and to convince the person to make the effort to find and develop it.
Rabbi Nachman’s teaching about finding the good point has been a life-saver to me personally, helping me time after time to find my way out of the various episodes of bleakness and depression that any would-be Baal Teshuvah is almost bound to go through. This teaching has also served me time after time in family life and bringing up my children, in my relationships with other people in many different areas of life, and particularly when I have been called upon to counsel and advise people who are searching for their way.
Whether in the home, at work, in the clinic or anywhere else, one has to look at the other person not just as he or she appears on the exterior at this present moment. Simultaneously, one has to look at the person through the eyes of faith, with the belief that behind their face and exterior appearance lies an unfathomable inner world that is a most complex and subtle mixture of darkness and light, limitation and creative energy.
A child may be fretting, obnoxious and causing the parent great vexation and anger. Can the parent disconnect himself from the irritation he or she is feeling and ask whether there may not be some aspect of the child’s personality that is being thwarted, with the child’s resultant frustration being the cause of their bad behavior? Particularly when a child or teenager is doing poorly in school or in interpersonal relationships etc. it is time to search for “good points” that may have been pushed underground and ignored by those charged with his or her welfare. When you’re burning with anger against someone in a situation in the home, at work or anywhere else, take a moment to disconnect yourself from your emotion and your immediate perception of that person and instead try to connect yourself to the goodness that you believe must lie within them.
Rabbi Nachman’s teaching about searching for the good points is much more than smart psychology. It goes far deeper than that, because each good point in each person is one of the “sparks” of G-dliness that fell at the time of the “breaking of the vessels” as explained at length in the kabbalistic texts. The entire repair depends on releasing these sparks and incorporating them in the holy edifice that is being built generation by generation each and every day. When we search for, discover and connect the good points in ourselves, our dear ones and family members, our work associates and everyone else we encounter, we are contributing to the overall repair of creation – the Tikkun – that will be completed with the coming of Melech HaMashiach and the building of the Temple speedily in our times. Amen.