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"Shiur #22: "The Wicked Man Plots Against the Just and Grinds his Teeth Against Him. The Lord Shall Laugh at Him, for He Sees that His Day is Coming" (Tehillim 37:11-12)"

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Introduction To The Thought Of Rav Nachman Of Breslov
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Shiur #22: "The Wicked Man Plots Against the Just and Grinds his Teeth Against Him. The Lord Shall Laugh at Him, for He Sees that His Day is Coming" (Tehillim 37:11-12)

By Rav Itamar Eldar


We concluded our previous shiur with the assertion that dispute results from distance from the Divine outpouring or from a halt in its flow and influence. We saw that this distance brings the disputing parties to oppose a person whose words lack vitality or the disputed party himself to burst forth because of the Divine outpouring that is locked within him. We argued that dispute expresses the thirst of someone who hears the words of the tzaddik, the teacher of Torah, or his colleague, but does not find in them the waters of Divine outpouring from which to drink. Alternatively, it expresses the thirst of the Divine outpouring itself to flow and illuminate.

These ideas are sharpened even further in the following teaching:

When a few people band together against an individual, even if he is more distinguished than they, they can defeat him. This is because each one's portion of honor joins with the others, and as a result his portion of honor (kavod) is negated. He falls because of them, as in: "The youths saw me and hid" (Iyov 29:8). For the smallness is negated in the presence of greatness.

This is because their portions of honor which have gathered and banded together are greater than his portion of honor alone; unless this person with whom they quarrel is on a very great level, so that his portion of honor is greater than all their portions of honor put together. In that case, on the contrary, they are negated before him, as in: "The youths [saw me and hid]," as above.

However, if he is not so great, they can defeat him through their bond even if each one [on his own] is less than he. This is so, provided they are not wicked. For the bond of the wicked is not taken into account, as our Sages teach (Sanhedrin 26a). This is because the wicked have no portion in the honor.

But if he is not wicked, and he has vitality from the soul - he has a portion in the honor. They can defeat the person whom they oppose by means of their bond, as above.

Regarding this, Yaakov prayed that Korach's quarrel not harm Moshe Rabbeinu, may he rest in peace. He said: "Let my honor not be joined in their group" (Bereishit 49:6). That is, they should not join and bind together their portions of honor which each had, for they were "representatives at the assembly, esteemed men" (Bamidbar 16:2) [and] important. By their not joining and binding together their portions of honor, Moshe would certainly be able to stand up against them and defeat them.

And this that he said, "My honor" - this was because Yaakov is the aspect of honor. For he corresponds to the soul, as is written: "All the souls in Yaakov's family who came" (Bereishit 46:27).

Moreover, when a person is defeated, the main defeat is that he falls into the lust for adultery, God save us. (Likutei Moharan Kama 181)

Once again, R. Nachman, in his usual manner, presents us with what seems to be a dry sociological fact. Disputes are essentially "games of honor." When a person who is less distinguished than you are argues with you - you will certainly come out on top. But if a number of people join together, even though each one on his own is less distinguished than you, the fact that they have banded together allows for a combination of their individual portions of honor to overpower your own portion of honor.

Again, however, R. Nachman seems to be saying one thing but means something quite different, as is hinted at by what he says about the wicked man, and especially by what he says about one who is not wicked: "But if he is not wicked, and he has vitality from the soul - he has a portion in the honor."

Honor, then, results from joining with and imbibing of vitality from the soul. What R. Nachman hints at here is explicitly stated in a different passage that we have already cited in a previous shiur:

Each person is required to minimize his own honor and maximize the honor of the Omnipresent One. For anyone who pursues honor does not attain God's honor, but the honor of kings, of which it is said: "But the honor of kings is an investigated matter" (Mishlei 25:2). Everyone inquires about him [to see if he is deserving of such honor,] asking: "Who is he and what is he that he is afforded such honor." And they oppose him, saying that he is not deserving of such honor.

However, the person who flees from honor - minimizing his own honor while maximizing the honor of God - attains God's honor. Then [they] do not investigate whether he is deserving of his honor or not. Of him it is said: "The honor of the Lord is a concealed matter" (Mishlei, ibid.). For it is forbidden to inquire into [this type] of honor. (Likutei Moharan Kama 6,1)

The wicked, asserts R. Nachman, have no portion in the honor, because their honor is the "honor of kings." However, he who maximizes the honor of God attains Divine honor. Honor for R. Nachman is not a word of derision. It is merely a utensil which man fills with his content. If a person fills this utensil with the pursuit of power, chasing after honor, it will be the honor of kings. And we have already noted that two kings cannot rule with a single crown, so that when a human kings rules, there is no room for the kingship of God. This honor does not "join" with others, nor does it connect with any type of bond to any other honor, for it is entirely connected to that person who attributes the honor to himself. For this reason, notes Rav Nachman, people investigate such a person to see whether or not he is deserving of such honor, for he pretends to draw legitimacy for his honor exclusively from himself, and such a claim requires investigation.

If, however, a person fills this utensil with Divine honor,[1] he does not give others an excuse to question his honor, for it is not his own honor, but rather Divine honor that he carries within him. For our purposes, this honor is nothing more than connecting to and imbibing from a spiritual source, and it is only natural that this vitality should join with other vital forces drawing from the same source.

If this is the case, then the dispute described in our teaching is a dispute between parties possessing honor who draw their honor from Divine vitality[2], and in essence the dispute here is a struggle over who should receive this Divine vitality. "Who may ascend the Lord's mountain? Who may stand within His holy place?" (Tehillim 24:3). If a person falls because of those who oppose him, it is a sign that their banding together created an elevated spiritual reality, the source of whose vitality and the connection thereto are higher and more significant than the source of his own vitality.

Here too, as in the teaching we saw in the previous shiur, R. Nachman sees in the question of vitality the central and most dominant factor in disputes. In the earlier teachings, R. Nachman tried to blur the rational foundation - which seems to be the central factor in controversy - and replace it with a spiritual factor. Here R. Nachman tries to push aside the issues of honor and power - which appear to accompany every dispute - and set in their place as the central question an entirely different issue, that of "Where is the place of His honor."

R. Nachman concludes this teaching with the difficult and cryptic sentence: "Moreover, when a person is defeated, the main defeat is that he falls into the lust for adultery, God save us." What is the connection between the lust for adultery and controversy which falls upon a person?

According to what we have said, the idea is clear. Controversy emerges from distance from Divine vitality, and the greater the controversy, the more the connection to vitality is severed. When there is Divine vitality, when there is no source of holiness, man falls into this-worldly lust.[3]


Thus far, we have seen how distance from the source of holiness and from the illuminating light of God leads to dispute. When those who explain the Torah do not drink from the source of living waters, the world opposes the tzaddikim, and when he who advances new ideas has no faith in his insights, he opens them up to controversy, so too in the previous teaching, regarding the soul's connection to and drawing from Divine honor.

We shall now see how a dispute can result from a deficiency in the disputing party, not only from a lack in the party being disputed. Thus, R. Nachman states in the following teaching:

Moreover, there is a person who is turned entirely into speech, becoming the topic of people's conversation, with everyone talking about him. He wanders about and becomes scattered "[because he is] in everyone's mouth." Wherever he comes, he suffers [severe] torment and unnatural misfortune.

For each person, commensurate with his level, possesses a "Pharaoh". When he comes into the mouth of a great person - there Pharaoh is king, Egypt is the land, and there are three officers. And even though he is very pained when they capture speech and control [the words], he is nevertheless relieved, for he can find holy sparks there and there will be benefit from this.

But when he comes into the mouth of base people, where they capture the speech for the nape, and is controlled there - in "a desolate wilderness, drought-ridden and dry, through which no man passed" (Yirmiyahu 2:6) -  it [speech] has no one to meet. It is very painful and bitter. [His] soul wanders about and becomes scattered; a scattering of the soul into the mouths of numerous people. He is tired, hungry and thirsty in the wilderness; and [his soul] has no sustenance with which to restore its starving and parched self, so that it eats itself up. This corresponds to: "Every man eats the flesh of his own arm" (Yishayahu 9:19). This is like the man who has been overcome by a great chill but has no cover with which to warm and wrap himself. So he curls and bundles up and contracts into himself. Similarly, the soul. It has no cover in which to wrap and cover itself. This is as in: "Their soul was enwrapped within them" (Tehillim 107:5) - it wraps into itself. It becomes so faint that even if given some food, it cannot tolerate eating it. This is like the sick person who has been unwell for very long. He has become so sick that it is impossible for him to tolerate any food. When it is given to him, he rejects it and cannot tolerate it.

What is there to do? We brought this on ourselves by not accepting the good advice given us by God, as in: "They turned their back on Me, and not their face" (Yirmiyahu 2:27). And then, he is imprisoned in jail, because he is caught and bound there.

Occasionally, they raise him up, up toward heaven. But afterwards, they cast him far down. For the ascent was not a progression, but like an incidental casting upwards. Hence, he was cast down, as is written: "They ascend heavenward, they descend to the depths" (Tehillim 107:26).

May God send a healing for the soul. For we have trusted that all will be as it should, and our end He will make good. Amen. (Likutei Moharan Kama 163)

R. Nachman, in his picturesque style, describes the bitter fate of one whom all oppose and speak against, so that he is the topic of everyone's conversation. R. Nachman paints a fascinating picture, one with far reaching implications. The man who has become the talk of everyone "is turned entirely into speech." The gossip and slander spoken about him do not remain merely "people's conversation." The person himself being spoken about turns into the words emitted from the people's mouths. He now wanders about the land from mouth to mouth and from conversation to conversation.[4]

The difficult existential feeling emerging from this description is familiar to anyone who has become the subject of controversy. Any leper or vulgar person can place him on the table as he wishes, dissect him, examine his innermost experiences, and do with him as he pleases. He has no control and no possibility of defending himself; he is held captive in the mouths of men. R. Nachman aptly describes this difficult feeling with the assertion that it is not the person's name that rests in the people's mouths, but rather the person himself.[5]

A person who lies exposed to public criticism and analysis forfeits his mightiest stronghold - his privacy! He can no longer screen those who turn to him, those who approach and observe him: "Whoever is hungry, let him come and look." Every radio and television station, every newspaper, every commentator, and every elderly couple enjoying their afternoon rest on a park bench, can do with him as they please. And he cannot defend himself, say, conceal, or reveal anything. The immanent experience that R. Nachman attaches to controversy carries within it the great afflictions suffered by the disputed party, but it also contains within it the great potential of repair.

The tables may be overturned in a moment. The fact that the disputed party is found in the mouths of his opponents turns into a powerful instrument of influence and repair. R. Nachman's assertion that the very rabble that speaks evil of a certain person causes him to be present before them, is what allows that person to influence and repair anyone who raises his name on his lips, all this without public relations men and media advisors.

When a tzaddik wishes to influence, elevate and redeem the Divine spark that lies deep within a person or the universe, he must stand before them. The contact that the tzaddik makes with them is what allows the redemption of that Divine spark. The tzaddik's ability to observe the person standing before him, to ignore his weaknesses and deficiencies - his chaff - and relate to that Divine spark that is at times hidden in the innermost aspects of his soul, is what allows him to redeem and actualize the potential of that dormant spark covered by innumerable layers of darkness and obscurity. But the tzaddik's ability to reach and act upon every person is limited, and it is here that R. Nachman comes up with his novel idea.


When a person opposes a tzaddik and speaks about him, even if he speaks evil of him, he brings the tzaddik within himself; he captures him with his mouth and words, and does with him as he pleases. But, like a Trojan horse, bringing the tzaddik within him extracts a price from the tzaddik's opponent. At that moment, the road is paved for the tzaddik's action upon the heart of his opponent. R. Nachman does not tell us how the tzaddik influences his opponent, how the spark is redeemed, but the main thing he does tell us: When the tzaddik is already there, he is there! There is, however, a certain condition:

Now, behold, when speech is holy speech, it is the aspect of Sarah, for the Divine Presence resided with her. Then, even though it was very, very painful for Avraham when she was taken, he nevertheless knew and trusted in God that it was a great favor that she was held captive there, as it would produce great satisfaction for God. This corresponds to: "There is a time when one man rules over another to his [the ruler's] own detriment" (Kohelet 8:9). For she gathered the holy sparks from there, as is known.

But if speech is mundane, the possibility exists for it to be taken captive there, God forbid. It could almost be trapped there, God forbid, were it not that a true tzaddik comes, who has the power to remove it from there. (Likutei Moharan, ibid.)

R. Nachman believes that only when the party who is being opposed and spoken about is a true tzaddik ("holy speech" - for the man is speech), who speaks words of truth, then even when they are mentioned in a negative manner, they impact upon that true point, which while not yet shining, is nevertheless waiting to be redeemed. We often hear how great opponents of a certain idea or a certain person became the greatest proponents of thidea or person.

R. Nachman argues that one who ignores a certain phenomenon does not come into contact with it, and therefore cannot be influenced by it whatsoever. But one who comes into contact with that phenomenon, whether in a positive or a negative manner, exposes himself to its influence. The most ardent heretics who set as their objective to attack and denigrate tradition and religion have at times turned into fanatic believers. For even in them, argues R. Nachman, there lays hidden an inner point that wishes to connect with the source of holiness.

However, R. Nachman adds a reservation. At times people are so base and the Divine spark is so hidden in them that the tzaddik is unable to vitalize himself and others with that spark; in such a case, the afflictions remain without any possibility of repair. These afflictions are the pangs of death for which R. Nachman finds no remedy.

Thus, the controversy that falls upon a tzaddik is inherent to him and part of his role. In order to have an impact, argues R. Nachman, people must oppose him. The tzaddik must suffer the afflictions of "You shall be a fugitive and vagabond on earth"; he must bear abuse and humiliation; he must accept the annoying fact that every vulgar person allows himself to speak ill of and criticize him; and all this in exchange for the ability to influence. The more people that oppose a person, argues R. Nachman, the greater the impact that he will have upon them.[6]

This is not the only teaching in which R. Nachman presents dispute as an instrument in the hand of the tzaddik to influence and repair. This idea is implicit in the following passage:

"The wicked man plots against the just, and grinds his teeth against him. The Lord shall laugh at him, for He sees that his day is coming" (Tehilim 37:11-12). The matter is as follows: For there is a difficulty, from where does an alien thought come to the tzaddik, who wishes to pray with great communion? Surely our Rabbis, of blessed memory, said (Yoma 38b): "He who comes to be purified is given assistance." Rather the idea is as follows: From the time of the break (shevira), sparks fell from all the worlds, and by way of the prayers of the tzaddikim they go up little by little, step by step. And when the tzaddik stands to pray and cleave to the quality at whose level he is at now, an alien thought similar to that quality comes to him. And when he reaches a higher level, an alien thought similar to the quality at whose level he is now at comes to him. The tzaddik must know from which quality and from which world this alien thought comes. And he must know how to elevate it to that world and that quality at whose level he is at now. Sometimes, however, the tzaddik wishes to elevate it, but he is unable to do so. The reason is that the alien thought comes to him from a higher level, which he has not yet reached. Therefore, he cannot elevate it, for he is still at a lower level, that is, the level at which he is now. But there is a difficulty: Why does this alien thought come to him before its time? Know, for I have a tradition, when controversy surrounds a certain tzaddik, an alien thought similar to that controversy falls upon a different tzaddik, and because he wishes to elevate it, even though he does not do so, he breaks all the opponents by the force of his will. This is the meaning of the verse: "The wicked man plots" - this refers to the alien thought. "Against the just, and grinds his teeth against him" - that is, the one who wishes to elevate it. "The Lord shall laugh at him, for He sees that his day is coming" - that is, that he has still not arrived at the level of this alien thought. But where does this alien thought come from? "The wicked have poured out the sword" - about which Rashi comments: "A sword in the sense of war," that is, that a controversy arose around a certain tzaddik. "Their sword" - that is, the alien thought regarding that controversy. "Shall enter into their own heart" - that is, into the heart of that tzaddik. And because he wishes to elevate it, through that will - "Their bows shall be broken", that is, that controversy. (Likutei Moharan Kama 96)

In this teaching, R. Nachman draws a connection between the alien thoughts that come to a tzaddik during prayer and the controversies that fall upon the tzaddik. This comparison greatly adds to our understanding of R. Nachman's perception of controversy surrounding a tzaddik.

R. Nachman raises the question why do alien thoughts enter the mind of a tzaddik when he wishes to pray and elevate himself;[7] why do such thoughts come? Surely, the tzaddik's sole desire is to draw near to God and be elevated. It would seem then that he should be given help and assistance: "He who comes to be purified is given assistance!" All this notwithstanding, he is sent alien thoughts, which grow within him and impede his elevation. The explanation that R. Nachman offers for this phenomenon follows from his basic perception of the role of the tzaddik.

The tzaddik, according to R. Nachman, does not live for himself. The tzaddik is an agent, mediator and go-between, between the Holy One, on the one hand, and the world and the Divine Presence within it, on the other. The tzaddik cannot allow himself to rise and commune with God, while leaving the world behind. He cannot allow himself, and God does not allow him to do so.

That very same ability of the tzaddik to look at the person standing before him, and by contemplating the unique and heavenly point found within him, and exposing that point and bringing it to actualization, he succeeds in elevating the person to that very level that until now was hidden within him - that very same ability of the tzaddik allows him to take the alien thoughts that come to him during prayer and harness them to the galloping horses that draw the tzaddik's carriage heavenwards.

Each and every level that the tzaddik passes must be gathered to him and elevated along with him. As in the teaching that we spoke of earlier in this shiur, every article, every thing, and every creature with which the tzaddik comes into contact is redeemed through the elevation of the spark within it.[8]

The alien thought reflects the cry of the world in which the tzaddik stands, and from which he wishes to be elevated, that he not abandon it behind. Do not elevate yourself, it cries, leaving behind you something unresolved, an idea unredeemed, or a spark unexposed. It is by no means a simple matter, and sometimes, says R. Nachman, the tzaddik stands before an alien thought that does not reflect the level at which he now finds himself and from which he wishes to be elevated.

The higher a tzaddik climbs and rises, the deeper and more penetrating is his ability to see. Higher means deeper within, teaches R. Nachman, and, therefore, the more that the Divine spark is covered and concealed, the higher the level necessary to expose it. The greater a person is and the better his vision from afar, so will he be better able to see the good and the holy that can grow out of any situation, out of any event, or out of from any person. At times, the tzaddik encounters absence and concealment, the level of which does not allow him to reveal and expose the Divine light hidden within it, the truth that it carries within it beneath the cover of lies and the vanity in which it is clothed.

It is here that R. Nachman brings dispute into the picture, and it seems that the same piercing questions that distressed R. Nachman with regard to alien thoughts also cry out in the face of the question of controversy, for the tzaddik's sole desire is to rise and be elevated. Why do abuse and humiliation constitute his lot? What evil does he do, and what malicious intention may be attributed to him?

The same thing is said here about alien thoughts as in the previous teaching. Controversy falls upon a tzaddik in order that he should be able to repair those who oppose him. As we have seen, both with respect to controversy in the previous teaching, and with respect to alien thoughts here, controversy is the cry of those who wish to be redeemed,[9] those who are not prepared for the tzaddik to rise anclimb up without taking them with him. The harsh objections and criticisms that they direct towards him reflect the feeling that the tzaddik's words and actions are not directed towards them, to the point that it appears as if he has no intention of gathering them in on the way, on the road going up to the house of God.


Here too, argues R. Nachman, controversy falls upon the tzaddik in accordance with his level.[10] And here too the tzaddik must redeem the true spark that is hidden within the dispute and within those who oppose him. But here we come to R. Nachman's novel idea on this matter. There are times that a great tzaddik can be assisted by the lesser tzaddikim that surround him; their connection to the controversy comes through the alien thoughts that are above their level, "similar to that controversy."

The ramifications of the controversy regarding the tzaddik effect not only him but also those who surround him. When the high-level tzaddik is not at rest, there can be no rest for the other tzaddikim of a lower level. This restlessness comes upon them in the form of an alien thought that is above them.

The alien thought, as we said, reflects an unresolved reality the wishes to be redeemed. It stirs to life precisely at the time that the tzaddik tries to elevate himself to the next higher level. When it stirs, teaches us R. Nachman, the world cannot escape the tremors created by its stirring.

The controversy befalling a tzaddik is not his private lot, and its marks are evident in the hearts of all those for whom the world's redemption is precious. The high-level tzaddik touches upon reality's sensitive nerves and infuses them with high tension, and from then on, the tension flows in the form of an "alien thought" for anyone who wishes to rise to that level.

R. Nachman teaches us that those with these alien thoughts are unable to redeem and elevate the spark found in the controversy, for their level is lower than the level which the controversy reflects. They can, however, raise it by the force of their will, "breaking the opponents."

It seems to me that breaking a controversy is not the same thing as elevating it, and from this expression of despair erupting from R. Nachman's words we hear his admission that it is not always possible to elevate a controversy. Sometimes the tzaddik finds himself struggling with an alien thought, produced by a controversy of which he was not part. He sees himself standing at the front line, and perhaps even serving as cannon fodder of the great tzaddikim, whose battles he wishes to fight, even though the forces are not equal.

The positive and optimistic note rising from R. Nachman's basic understanding that controversy is constructive, containing within it the potential for repair and redemption, is enshrouded by a dark cover that places restrictions and limits upon his earlier assertion, beyond which there are many lost battles.


[1] We have already seen (Shiur 16) that R. Nachman describes in this teaching the way to achieve this.

[2] It should be noted that we see no contradiction between what R. Nachman says in teaching 6 about one who attains Divine honor that his honor goes unchallenged and the assertion found in this teaching that such a person is at times subject to dispute (R. Nachman deals here with Moshe Rabbeinu, whose honor was certainly Divine honor). For there is certainly a difference between opposing a person and challenging his being a man of honor.

[3] In teaching 23, 5 (Likutei Moharan Kama), R. Nachman speaks of dispute that leads to lust for money, and in teaching 39 (ibid.), he warns that controversy that falls upon a person results in lust for food. R. Nachman omits none of the material lusts - adultery, greed, and hunger for food - and sees all three as direct results of dispute.

[4] Elsewhere, R. Natan says: "I heard in his name that he spoke of dispute and said that it should make no difference that one person is speaking [ill] of another. In truth, however, because of controversy that people raise against a person, they can cast him down from his level, God forbid" (Sichot ha-Ran, 213).

[5] As stated above, R. Nachman experienced this feeling on a personal level. As R. Natan testifies: "He said: 'There are people who grant me no recognition and oppose me" (Chayei Moharan, Concerning the Controversy Surrounding Him, 3, 394).

[6] It should be noted that in the course of his exposition, R. Nachman slips in a remark of a very personal nature: "What is there to do? We brought this on ourselves by not accepting the good advice given us by God... May God send a healing for the soul. For we have trusted that all will be as it should, and our end He will make good. Amen." R. Nachman gives expression here to the afflictions of his soul. He feels that he is being held captive in the mouths of simple people and distinguished ones alike, who oppose and speak ill of him. Alongside the feeling about his opponents that they are beyond repair, he believes that the controversy raised against him is intended to magnify his effect on the world.

[7] It should be noted that R. Nachman, in his usual manner, is not prepared to suffice with a psychological explanation of the phenomenon, for according to him, every psychological phenomenon is rooted in a spiritual reality and in Divine forces acting upon man.

[8] This is also the way to understand the passage cited in the previous shiur: "Any tzaddik, before he attains his level, there is controversy surrounding him. For, as our Rabbis taught, 'Strife is like the rush of water.' Thus dispute is like water, and the water - i.e., the dispute or controversy - elevates him. But I require that there be controversy surrounding me always, for I am constantly moving from one level to the next" (Chayei Moharan, Concerning the Controversy Surrounding Him 10, 401).

[9] Again, R. Nachman speaks out of personal experience, as R. Nachman himself testifies on a number of occasions: "In Uman he spoke of the opposition to him, that people are lying about him. He responded in the manner of a complaint: 'And I will redeem them.' This is the first verse in the book of Hoshea, where the prophet complains about Israel that he comes to do good things for them, and they lie about him. As it says: 'And I will redeem them, and they speak lies of me.' But he, of blessed memory, only mentioned these two words: 'And I will redeem them.' And he said then with intonation, with the melody appropriate to the verse, as one who is fluent in the Scriptural text and its explanation." (Chayei Moharan, Concerning the Controversy Surrounding Him, 5, 396).

[10] Thus R. Natan testifies about R. Nachman: "The more people he drew near to God, the greater the opposition to him, but he, of blessed memory, did what he did, and went up every day, every hour, every minute to unimaginably high and elevated levels" (Chayei Moharan, The Place where He was Born and Where He Lived, and His Travels, 12, 115).

(Translated by David Strauss)