Silence (Part Ib) Serving God With Silence

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
In the story of "The Seven Beggars," R. Nachman introduces us to seven characters, all destitute, pitiful and full of blemishes.  Each of these characters meets a couple, a boy and a girl, who bestow upon him or her the vague blessing, "May you be like me."  The meaning behind the mysterious wish emerges gradually during the course of the story.  Following the couple's marriage, one of these beggars arrives on each day of the "Sheva Berakhot" (Seven Blessings) and explains his blessing by means of a speech.  Through the speeches, R. Nachman teaches us that these beggars, rejected and disdained by any regular, normal society, turn out to be figures with amazing, unique qualities.  Moreover, R. Nachman teaches that each beggar's special quality stems directly from his or her blemish itself.
In his distinct way, R. Nachman once again seeks to shatter the generally accepted norms.  He presents an inner world in which what looks to the outside world like a blemish is not a blemish at all, and what looks like success is nothing more than a disguise for emptiness.  Blindness, deafness, stammering, humpback and other sorts of blemishes may be handicaps on the sensory level; however, it is because of this that they facilitate a view of an inner world that is profound, rich, and variegated. 
Pertinent to our discussion, the beggar who comes on the third day suffers from a speech impediment.  This man's handicap, then, concerns man's most fundamental and important ability – speech:
On the third day the couple were reminded once again, and they cried with longing: "How shall we bring the third beggar, who was heavy of speech?"  In the midst of this, he arrived and said: "Here I am!" 
He fell upon them, kissed them, and he, too, said to them: "At first, I blessed you that you should be like me.  Now I shall give you, as a gift, an explanation of how you should be like me.  You believe that I have a speech impediment? I have no speech impediment at all.  Simply, worldly utterances, which do not praise the blessed God, are not whole and perfect.  (Therefore he appears to suffer from a speech impediment, for he has difficulty uttering those things of the world that lack completion.) But in truth I am not heavy of speech at all; on the contrary, I am a great and wonderful speaker and orator; I can utter wonderful riddles and songs – so much so that there is no one in the world who would not wish to hear me."
This man, "heavy of speech," testifies that he is a great orator.  His sayings, poems and riddles are so wondrous that there is no one who would not wish to hear them.  Ironically, the beggar explains this with a severe stutter, unable to deliver a single proper word.  This "heaviness of speech" tests the patience of his listeners, who obviously derive no enjoyment from their conversation with him.  Nevertheless, the beggar makes the effort to explain the apparent contradiction between the content and the form of his words.
Heaviness of speech is nothing more than attempting to avoid the content of worldly speech that is not praise of God.  The beggar, "heavy of speech," instantly transforms his disability into a useful and admirable trait.  It is his great sensitivity that will not allow him to express anything properly.
Here we have discovered an important lesson regarding the world of speech that encompasses much more than the subject under discussion.  Difficulty in expressing oneself, stuttering, and perhaps even silence, are not necessarily signs of disadvantage and inferiority.  Silence and stuttering can sometimes testify to an impressive level of sensitivity, gentleness, modesty, and even insight.
On many occasions, it is specifically the person who is silent during a lively conversation, or who expresses his opinion in a hesitant or incomplete manner, who manages to perceive the falsity and bluff that lie behind crafty orators' speeches.  This discernment is what causes his silence or hesitation.  Beware of silent people, warns R. Nachman, because their silence sometimes can penetrate to the very depths and expose the inner truth concealed by the flood of words.
Although R. Nachman put these words into the mouth of the stuttering beggar in the story, perhaps this lesson reflects his own life experience.  R. Natan, his disciple, testifies that while his teacher did not stutter in the physiogical sense, he was "heavy of speech" for similar reasons:
I heard it told in his name that he had teachings without garments.  This means that he was unable to clothe them in any garment.  He quoted the Talmudic dictum (Pesachim 81b), "The biblical text is a mere support" – i.e. the biblical text cited in the Talmudic passage in question is a mere support (asmakhta), not the source, for the enactment of the Oral Law under discussion.  He continued, "The Torah teaching rests upon the biblical text just as a person may rest on something for support…"  Similarly, his perception of Torah was so exalted that it could be clothed only in an asmakhta.  Understand this.
He said that the reason he had to struggle so much before he taught his lessons was because it was very difficult for him to pin his Torah ideas down to garments and words in order to express them and to reveal them.  Prior to giving his lessons, he would sit with us for as much as an hour or two, and from his movements and groaning it was clear that he was struggling.  He would sit without speaking, but his movements betrayed the intensity of the struggle.  Only afterwards he would open his mouth and begin speaking.
Once I watched with my own eyes as he was beginning to teach us the lesson "Nine Tikkunim."  He kept on repeating the words "nine tikkunim" again and again, and each time he would give a strong pull at his beard with both hands.  He almost pulled the hairs of his beard out because of his infinite awe and devotion at that moment.
He said that anything he did in public was extremely difficult for him, and when he gave a lesson he felt as if his very soul would leave him as soon as the first word left his mouth.  He had the same feeling when he recited the kiddush – that as soon as he would say the first word his very soul would depart.
(Chaye Moharan, His Lofty Teachings and Books, 22, 361)
According to this testimony, speech is a garment.  The loftier the matter is, the more difficult it is to find for it a suitable garment.  On the other hand, speech is communication with others.  Unfortunately, the deeper and more esoteric the matter being discussed, and the larger the audience, the more difficult it becomes to connect the one with the other.  Speech thus becomes an enormous burden for one who seeks to talk.
For R. Nachman, this silence, practical and symbolic, represents a very high level, whose effects are noticeable.  The first consequence pertains to the community of listeners, about which R. Nachman writes:
There are people who show off falsely with great signs and wonders, as though nothing is beyond their abilities and as though they are capable of anything.  Some of them are even leaders of the generation.  Ironically, their power and sustenance stems only from the great tzaddikim.  There are genuine tzaddikim of great stature who have holy mouths and whose way is to speak of great and wondrous matters….  The boasting of the great tzaddikim that emerges from their holy mouths facilitates the existence of hypocritical liars. Using exactly the same terms of self-aggrandizement that emerged from the holy mouth of the true tzaddik, they liken themselves to monkeys and show off accordingly….  They derive no power, however, from simple tzaddikim who serve God with simplicity, in Torah, in prayer, and in good deeds.  These tzaddikim do not speak in exalted terms; they behave simply in their wholehearted service.  Therefore falsehood and grandiosity do not have such a strong hold on them….
This is what Rabbi Zeira asked Rav Yehuda (Shabbat 77b): "Why does a camel have a small tail and an ox have a large tail?"  "A camel" (gamla) represents the simple tzaddik, as reflected in the verse (Tehillim 131), "…nor have I engaged in matters greater and more wondrous… like a weaned child (ke-gamul) beside his mother."  For he behaves simply, without speaking of great things.  All of his service reflects silence because no great things and wonders emerge from his mouth; he is like a weaned child beside his mother.  This is the meaning of "gamla."  (Likutei Moharan Tinyana, 15)
The liars and false prophets of the generation cannot exist in their own right.  Falsity has no independent foundation, and it therefore cannot exist in reality without being nourished by a genuine source.  Attempting to isolate the origin of falsity's nourishment in the world, R. Nachman proposes a daring idea: it stems from the great tzaddikim.  Precisely those who perform great deeds, whose mouths are holy and whose words are elevated, provide this opportunity.  These are the great tzaddikim, holy and pure.
It is not by chance that R. Nachman chooses the terminology that he does to describe them: "whose way is to speak of great and wondrous matters."  Such expressions refer to the verse that R. Nachman quotes explicitly later to compare the simple tzaddik with the great tzaddikim: "God, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes arrogant, nor have I engaged in matters greater and more wondrous than myself" (Tehillim 131:1).  But the key to understanding this is found in the expression, "than myself."  The psalmist (King David) declares that he has not behaved with glory and self-aggrandizement that are above his level.  Pride arises when a person seeks for himself a level of greatness of which he is not worthy.
R. Nachman is not accusing the genuinely great tzaddikim, with holy mouths, of excessive pride; such pride could not coexist with their righteousness.  It should be noted that in quoting the verse, R. Nachman omits the word "mi-meni" (from myself).  The great tzaddikim live on an exalted level, one that is appropriate to them.  Not a single one of them seeks greatness that he does not deserve.  All of their assumption of airs of greatness arises from their genuinely exalted level and righteousness.  What sets the simple tzaddik apart from the great tzaddikim is not the fact that he does not go about in a manner greater and more wondrous than himself; the great tzaddikim themselves do not do this.  Rather, it is the fact that he does not go about in a manner of greatness and pompousness at all!
The simple tzaddik is silent.  He neither gathers crowds, delivers speeches, nor expounds on explanations.  He refrains from declaring his intention and mission "to repair the world in the Kingdom of God."  Performed with modesty and humility, all of his service is silence.
The power and glory of the tzaddik, states R. Nachman, bears a heavy price.  Every word that emerges into the world concretizes and externalizes its message, no matter how holy its origin and no matter how lofty and elevated its content.  All outwardly orientated spiritual service commits the "sin" of physicality: it builds an idol and sews garments.  Only when the precious light is clothed in skin is the snake able to strike.
The garment results from the loss of wholehearted innocence and integrity.  The distinction that is made by virtue of the knowledge of good and bad creates a world in which the way to the Tree of Life must be guarded against unwanted visitors.  These unwanted visitors, whom R. Nachman calls "liars and false prophets," hear the words of the tzaddik, see his work, his habits, and his customs – which are admittedly oriented toward the world in order that the world may learn and may be elevated – and learns from them.  When the lofty substance is clothed in garments, the liars only must strip what is holy of its garment and clothe the Other Side in that same garment to transform it to evil.  This is the grip that the masters of falsehood maintain on the great tzaddikim that R. Nachman describes.  The simple tzaddik eludes the liar's grasp by making no effort to clothe his work in garments, in physicality.  Through his silence, the tzaddik may sometimes concede the aim of interacting with, contributing to, and influencing the world; however, by doing so, he successfully protects his vitality from evil.
The sin of speech, then, traps even one whose mouth is holy and whose words are elevated.  The act of speaking inherently cultivates the sin, regardless of the speech's content.
The first ramification of this sin, R. Nachman explains, lies in the power that it bestows upon the evil one, who is capable of cleaving only to that which is external and physical.  However, we shall see that this is not the sin's only effect.
(Translated by Kaeren Fish)