This is a letter I wrote for a class assignment partway through a semester-long deep dive into the work of Rebbe Nahman of Breslov in fall 2020.
Dear Rebbe Nahman,
The first time I met you, I was an undergraduate student at UC Santa Cruz. A dear friend had died suddenly, and then another close friend was diagnosed with cancer. When I asked my rabbi for support, he introduced me to you: a chronically depressed hasid, obsessed with death and brokenness, yearning deeply for joy, and cleaving desperately to God. My rabbi recommended Hitbodedut, so I hiked off into a redwood forest (which burned last month in a massive fire). The fire inside me fueled a flood of words, pouring from my heart in a great gush of nouns and verbs and exclamation points. I didn’t know it at the time, but you became one of my rebbes that day. I’ve never forgotten it.
We’ve connected many times since then. Your words about bringing sorrow into the dancing circle arrived for me when I was at my youngest brother’s wedding, which I officiated the day after officiating my beloved grandmother’s funeral. The dancing circle appeared for me again when it was time to give my presentation on your teachings in the History of Hasidism class, at the end of the week when I lost a pregnancy I’d yearned for. As a neo-hasid (of sorts), who shares your obsession with death, grief, and brokenness, your work has been a source of comfort whenever I’ve felt alone in the joy-driven world of Renewal Judaism. I wonder sometimes if you felt alone in the joy-driven world of hasidism too, and if it was loneliness that drove you to tell yourself (and us) that “it’s important to be happy, always.” You had to have known that’s impossible. But I understand the impulse. When you’re alone and suffering, it’s easier to say “I must always be happy,” than it is to accept your own pain.
It’s so human to push the pain away, and I love how human you are. That’s why I struggle when you try to be more than that. I don’t understand your messianism. I do (sort of) understand your belief that it was your presence that killed your son, or that your presence might kill your daughter and grandchild…it’s easier to assume you are responsible for death than it is to accept there was nothing you could have done. Sometimes it’s hard to understand how you could be filled with self-loathing (as I sometimes am), and still believe you had the power to absolve people of their sins. Were you trying to convince yourself by convincing others? I admit that I desire attention and accolades for my writing and teaching, despite my own self-loathing. Maybe that’s similar to your messianism – a desire to see yourself, and be seen, as big…when the truth is that you felt small, sad, and alone.
But here’s the thing, Rebbe Nahman, what makes you big for me – what I appreciate about you most of all – is that you wrote openly about things that made you feel vulnerable. Your words have encouraged me to be less afraid of my own, and to share more openly, even – or especially – when it’s hard. I can’t always do it. But I try.
Thank you for joining me in the woods in 2005. Thank you for dancing with me – and with my sorrow – at my brother’s wedding in 2015, and thank you for reminding me that I could bring sorrow with me when I presented your teachings in 2018. Thank you for walking the narrow bridge, for teasing meaning out of madness, and for seeking Divine Light in the Sacred Dark. And thank you, most of all, for writing about it, so that I could find my own experiences reflected in yours.