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Simplicity (Part 1)

  • Rav Itamar Eldar
In the previous shiur we saw how R. Nachman proposes a path that "circumvents" intelligence and rationalism on the road towards sanctity at its highest level. In this shiur we shall focus on the concept of simplicity (peshitut) and wholeheartedness (temimut) as presented in his teachings. The starting point for our discussion will be R. Nachman's story, "The Clever Man and the Simpleton." Below are some excerpts from the story (anyone interested in reading the text in its entirety will find it in any collection of R. Nachman's stories):
"Once upon a time there were two "balebatim" in the same town; both were very wealthy, they had large houses, and they had two sons - each man had one son - and these two studied together at the same 'cheder.' Of these two sons, one was clever while the other was simple (not that he was stupid; rather, he was of simple and mediocre intelligence). These two children loved one another greatly. Over time the fortunes of the two balebatim began to turn; their position deteriorated to the point where they lost everything and became paupers; all they were left with were their homes. And the sons grew up. The fathers told their sons: We do not have the means to pay for you and maintain you; do what you can for yourselves. The simple son went and learned to be a cobbler. The clever son, who was intelligent and did not wish to engage in such a simple occupation, decided to tour the world and see what he would do...
He went to the marketplace and saw some merchants traveling in a large wagon. He asked them, "Where are you going?"
"To Lagurna."
"Will you take me there?"
They took him there, and from there he sailed to Italy, and then on to Spain. All of this traveling took several years, and during this time he became even more knowledgeable, having visited many countries. Then he thought to himself, "Now it is time to think about the ultimate purpose." He began, using his philosophy, to think about what to do, and it seemed best to him to learn to be a goldsmith, since this is a great and pleasant occupation that involves wisdom and is also lucrative. Since he was perceptive and a philosopher, it did not take him many years to learn the trade - within a quarter of a year he had mastered it and became a great artist; in fact, he was a better goldsmith than his teacher was. Then the thought to himself, "Although I have mastered this trade, nevertheless this is not enough for me. Today this trade is important, but perhaps at some other time a different occupation will be highly esteemed." So he went and apprenticed himself to a tailor. Owing to his perception, he mastered this trade, too, in a short time - only a quarter of a year. Thereafter he pondered once again with his philosophy: "Although I have two trades, who knows if perhaps both of them will not lose their importance. I should study medicine, which is important for the world." With his perception and his philosophy he studied medicine, which is something that is always needed and always held in esteem. Now, the study of medicine involves the prior knowledge of Latin language and script, and also the philosophical wisdoms. Because of his perception he learned all this, too, in a short time - just a quarter of a year - and he became a great doctor and philosopher, knowledgeable in all types of wisdom.
After this the world began to appear to him like nothing: because he was so clever, such a great artist and so wise, everyone in the world seemed to him like nothing. So he decided to adopt as his purpose to marry a wife. He said to himself, "If I marry a woman from here, who will know what I have made of myself? Let me go back to my home, so they can see what I have become: I was a young boy, and now I have achieved such greatness!" He traveled back home, and suffered greatly on the way, since because of his intelligence he had no-one with whom to talk, he could find no lodging to his liking, and so on.
Let us now leave aside the story of the clever son, and turn our attention to the simpleton. The simpleton learned to be a cobbler. Because he was simple, he had to study for a long time until he learned the trade - and even then he did not master it completely. He married, and supported himself by his trade. Since he was simple, he was not a great expert and hence his money was tight and his income limited. He had no spare time even to eat, for he had to work continuously at his trade, which he had not mastered completely. It was only in the midst of his work, while he worked the awl and the heavy thread in and out in the cobblers' manner, that he would take a bite of bread and eat.
And his nature was to be always happy; always full of joy, and he had all the food and drink and clothing that he needed. He would say to his wife, "Wife - give me something to eat!" And she would give him a piece of bread, and he would eat. Then he would say, "Give me some soup with groats!" She would cut him another slice of bread, and he would eat. Then he would give praise, saying, "How wonderful and very tasty this soup is!" Likewise he would ask for meat and other tasty foods. For each food that he requested she would give him a piece of bread, and he would enjoy it greatly and praise the food - how fine and good it was - as though he had really eaten the real food itself. And in fact he would imagine, while eating the bread, the taste and sensation of every type of food that he wanted, out of his wholeheartedness and great joy. Then he would command, "Wife - give me brandy to drink!" And she would give him water, and he would praise the brandy. "Give me honey!" She would give him water, and once again he would praise it. "Give me wine!" and so on. She would give him water, and he would relish and praise the drink as though he had drunk the real thing.
And so it was with clothing: He and his wife together owned but a single sheepskin cloak. He would say, "Wife - give me the sheepskin!", whenever he needed to wear a cloak - to go to the market, for instance. And his wife would give it to him. When he needed to wear a fur coat, to meet with other people, he would say: "Wife - give me the fur coat!" And she would give him the sheepskin cloak. He would rejoice in it and praise it: "How magnificent this fur coat is!" And when he needed a Caftan to go to the synagogue, for instance - he would command: "Wife - give me the Caftan!" She would give him the sheepskin cloak, and he would stroke it and praise it - "What a wonderful, lovely Caftan!" Likewise when he needed a silk coat, she would give him the cloak and he would praise it in the same manner, and so on.
He was full of joy and happiness at all times. When he would finish making a shoe and happened to find that it had three sides (for he had not completely mastered the trade), he would take the shoe in his hand and praise it greatly, rejoicing in it and saying, "Wife - how beautiful and wonderful this shoe is! How sweet this shoe is! What a shoe of honey and sugar!" She would ask him, "If that is so, then why do the other cobblers ask three gold coins for a pair of shoes, while you take just a half-taler (one-and-a-half gold coins)?" He would reply, "What business is it of mine? That's what he does; this is what I do! And besides, why should we talk about other people? Let us rather think about how much I earn from this shoe, from hand to hand: the leather costs such-and-such, the glue and thread etc. costs such-and-such, the rest of the materials cost such-and-such, and now I earn from hand to hand ten great ones - I don't mind earning such a profit from hand to hand!" He was simply full of joy and happiness always.
Everyone else scorned him and took advantage of him; they found in him someone whom they could make fun of to their heart's content, for he seemed like a lunatic. People would come to him and would begin talking to him with the intention of making fun. This simpleton would say, "Please - no foolishness!" And as soon as they promised him that they would not be foolish, he took their word and began talking to them, for he had no wish to calculate more complicated thoughts (which is also a kind of foolishness), for he was a simple man. And when he saw that their intention was to make fun, he would say: "What will happen when you are more clever than I am? Then you will be an idiot, for what is my worth?! So when you are more clever than I - on the contrary, you will be an idiot!"
All of this describes the simpleton. Now let us return to the first son.…"
These excerpts demonstrate the power of the expression, "The more knowledge, the more pain." Attention should be paid to the manner in which R. Nachman highlights the differences between the two characters in his transition from the story of the clever son to the story of the simpleton. Let us address the main differences:
  1. It would seem that the clever man is depicted as a person of wide horizons, a "man of the world." He does not remain static for even a moment - he is continually progressing from one place to another, from one occupation to the next. The simpleton, in contrast, is presented as a man who never leaves his four walls; nothing is renewed in him, nothing progresses, he sets himself no challenges or objectives. But it soon becomes clear that this difference between them actually reflects something else: the issue is not one of broad horizons or narrow horizons, but rather the contrast between temporariness, restlessness, unease and the insatiable hunger that characterize the clever man, and the equanimity, satisfaction and peace that are the portion of the simpleton: "And his nature was always to be very happy, and he rejoiced as though he had every type of food and every drink and all the garments."
  2. The second difference relates to the respective attitude of the two men towards the world, and here there is some measure of absurdity: the clever man is presented as one who scorns the world. He finds no value in anything; he feels that the entire world is like nothing before him. In R. Nachman's words, "Because he was so clever, such a great artist and so wise, everyone in the world seemed to him like nothing." We would expect a person with such an attitude to have no interest in having any connection or contact with the world. Why should he pay any attention to or want any attention from something that he considers worthless? But, it becomes apparent that this man has an obsessive need for feedback from the world about himself. He establishes his plans according to whether or not a given objective will raise his esteem in the eyes of the world. He suffers when his occupation is not valued as it should be, and is filled with sorrow when the world regards his medical successes as coincidental or his failures as his own fault. Not so the simpleton. The one time when his wife raises the question of his relationship with the world, he immediately dismisses the very legitimacy of the question: "What business is it of mine? That's what he does; this is what I do! And besides, why should we talk about other people?"
  3. The third difference pertains to the attitude of the world towards the clever man and the simpleton. The clever man is held in great esteem by all those around him. Upon his arrival in town the rumors immediately spread, telling of his greatness and his wisdom, and he enters the town with the appropriate honor. The simpleton, in contrast, is the subject of disdain in the eyes of the world, regarded even as a madman. Their attitude is such that each time he speaks with someone he has to ask that he not be made the subject of mockery - a request that obviously is not heeded.
In light of the above comparisons, R. Nachman presents a picture that is different than the accepted notions about intelligence and the lack thereof in relation to man and society.
Here R. Nachman presents cleverness as a factor that deprives a person of peace. It drives him towards endless ambition, eating away at any chance of equanimity and preventing him from creating any genuine dialogue with the world. Simultaneously it creates within him a complete dependence on the world and its attitude towards him. Intelligence is driven by a world of concepts and scales, whose acceptance leads to total, lifelong subservience and brings a person to an endless search for himself.
The same idea finds expression in a different saying of R. Nachman:
"A person must strengthen himself in his fear of Heaven - even when he is focused on simplicity - as much as he can, and he can achieve great joy through his wholeheartedness and his faith, for one has no need of wisdom at all, only faith and wholeheartedness and simplicity, with no wisdom whatsoever. For wisdoms are greatly harmful to a person, and clever people are trapped by their own cleverness, for it misleads them from one philosophy to the next, and from that philosophy to yet another, and so on, until they are trapped and led astray by their own thinking, demonstrating the principle of "trapping the wise by their cunning" - i.e., specifically by means of their cunning; by the cunning and cleverness of themselves he traps them. Happy is he who walks wholeheartedly." (Likutei Moharan Tanina 78)
The simpleton, in contrast with the clever man, does not seek fulfillment in ambition and conquest. He finds his fulfillment and joy in the recesses of his soul. Intelligence is required only in order to help man live, and no more. When there is no insane race for achievements then there is also no existential need for the world's appreciation of one's needs and for a positive attitude of one's surroundings towards oneself.
The environment in R. Nachman's story represents the norm and the accepted conception, in which intelligence is respected and achievement is the highest value. The simpleton, despite his wonderful and happy life, is perceived as an idiot. He is not respected, and is subjected to continual scorn. In a single sentence the simpleton explains to those who scorn him their tragic mistake: "What will happen when you are more clever than I am? Then you will be an idiot, for what is my worth?! So when you are more clever than I - on the contrary, you will be an idiot!"
What is the meaning of this convoluted logic? These words contain a certain logical fault that gives rise to the absurdity that they express. If we perceive stupidity as the absence of intelligence, then the attainment and increase of intelligence surely cancels the stupidity. But at the foundation of the simpleton's words stands a different basic assumption.
We have just defined stupidity as the absence of intelligence, but let us now define it in a different way: not as the absence of intelligence, but rather as low intelligence. Thus, a person who acquires much intelligence will at some point acquire a quantity of wisdom that passes the threshold that defines him as stupid. But, the simpleton, in his convoluted statement claims that this little, basic intelligence is itself stupidity. In other words, cleverness is nonsense, and whoever increases his wisdom in fact increases his stupidity.
The simpleton rejects society's view of stupidity as the absence of intelligence, or a tiny quantity of it, believing rather that intelligence itself is what makes a person into an idiot - and therefore whoever increases his intelligence actually makes himself stupid.
Anyone hearing the words of the simpleton will immediately point out their logical fault and conclude that the person before him is a complete idiot who is incapable of uttering a single coherent thought. But, someone who pays close attention and is prepared to accept that his words are not uttered randomly will detect a new and profound understanding of the concepts of intelligence and foolishness.
The words of the simpleton, at first appear illogical, but in fact have profound meaning when viewed from a different perspective. They reflect the whole lifestyle of the simpleton which also at first appears foolish, but, upon deeper examination, turns out to represent wonderful qualities completely absent from the life of the "clever" man.
R. Nachman's simpleton rejects society's normative concepts that are derived from a world of intelligence and knowledge. He owes nothing to the world of knowledge and achievements. The simpleton does not compare his achievements with those of the world around him. The sole significance of his achievements is whether they allow him to live happily or not. This is what frees him from the subjugation that so oppresses the clever man.
This outlook also allows the simpleton to experience, in his dry bread, all the tastes in the world, and to perceive his tattered cloak as all the grandest garments in the world. In the world of wisdom and of societal norms built on competition and, on a scale of values based on intelligence and knowledge, there are definitions that differentiate between various tastes and styles of clothing. The same quality that R. Nachman ascribes to the simpleton is also characteristic of the heroes of his most famous story, which we shall encounter below - "The Seven Beggars."
R. Nachman tells that seven crippled beggars approached one after the other to grant a newly married couple the blessing that the couple should be like them. As usual in a story by R. Nachman, the absurdity of the situation contains its very significance: what kind of blessing is it, if it comes from the mouth of a deformed beggar who wishes one to be like him? Apparently, what appears from a "normal" perspective to be a deformity or deficiency is not necessarily seen the same way from a different perspective. We shall focus on the first two of the seven beggars.
The message of the blind beggar to the couple is as follows:
"You believe that I am blind. I am not blind at all; only, the duration of the whole world does not appear to me even like the blinking of an eye (and therefore he appears blind, for he does not pay any attention to the world at all, since all the time of the world does not appear to him even like the blinking of an eye, and therefore the concept of "seeing" and "looking" at this world do not apply to him at all)..." (Seven Beggars, p. 212, Yehudit Kook - Studies in His Stories).
And the following are the words of the deaf man:
"You believe that I am deaf? I am not deaf at all; only, the whole world is worth nothing to me, that I should hear of its shortcomings. For all the voices represent only shortcomings, for each individual only complains about what he lacks. And even all the joy in the world is only a result of lacking, for a person rejoices in a lack that he previously experienced and that has now been filled. And all the world is worth nothing to me, that all its shortcomings should enter my ears, for I live a good life with no lack at all.…"
     Seeing and hearing, the two most central senses in a person's contact with the world, are perceived by us as a means of grasping and knowing the world. A person who is blind or deaf, from a simplistic point of view, is cut off from the world. He appears to have fewer tools with which to contact the world and to know it. Therefore, we perceive blindness and deafness as a deformity and a shortcoming. But, suddenly R. Nachman's beggars appear and turn our entire perception upside down.
     Sight, according to the blind man, actually limits the scope of man's encounter with the world. A person who encounters the world through his eyes, establishes that his world extends only as far as his eyesight. Whatever is behind him or on the distant horizon does not enter his field of vision and he will never experience it. Moreover, the limitations of sight pertain not only to the dimension of space, but also to that of time. What a person sees with his eyes is a picture of the present. He cannot see what was or what will be. To the blind beggar, this itself is a serious limitation to which a sighted person is subject.
Thus, the blind beggar changes our perception of sight from something that allows a person to encounter reality to a limitation on this encounter. And just as our perception of sight is inverted, so is our view of blindness. The blind beggar describes his ability to encounter all of reality as the blink of an eye. R. Nachman focuses on the blind man's ability to overcome the limitations of time: he does not assume the burden of sight, and therefore blindness permits him to "see" all of reality and all of time.
The same applies to the deaf man, and here the point is made more explicitly. The voices of the world represent life. Silence is perceived in normative society as being associated with death: "The dead shall not praise God, nor all those who descend to silence" or as in the song - "If birds do not sing here then death here is sovereign." Hence a deaf man, unable to listen to the sound of the world, is cut off from it to some extent. But, once again R. Nachman turns this conception on its head.
R. Nachman views sound as the symbol not of life but rather of the limitations of life: "For all the voices represent only shortcomings, for each individual only complains about what he lacks." It should be emphasized that R. Nachman does not refer here specifically to a broken-hearted cry or a plea for help. As the continuation of his words testifies, "Even all the joy in the world is only a result of lacking, for a person rejoices in a lack that he previously experienced and that has now been filled." The voice, according to R. Nachman, expresses a person's encounter with the limited reality. Every statement uttered limits the spirit that it seeks to express. Every person in the world has a statement, but just as this statement describes the person, it simultaneously negates all the possibilities that are not fulfilled in itself. (Later on in the year we will devote a number of shiurim to the issue of speech and silence; therefore, at this stage we will address this point only briefly.)
Once again we are faced with a person for whom the whole world is worth nothing. Deafness describes a person's ability to include all of reality in its entirety, without its shortcomings. The voice, representing a specific expression, brings a person to the dimension of limited reality: "Two voices cannot be heard simultaneously." A person who hears cannot listen to two voices at the same time. When he listens to one of them, this attention that he pays negates the possibility of listening to anything else - in just the same way as a person who looks in one direction and sees much, even very much, thereby loses the view in the other direction. But a person who is deaf and is therefore not focused on a single voice, acquires the ability to listen to all the voices together.
R. Nachman goes on to describe the uniqueness of this deaf man - a uniqueness that finds expression in the fact that he lives a better life than anyone else, and R. Nachman explains: "His good life was that he ate bread and drank water."
     The explanation for this statement is to be found later on, when R. Nachman describes a country in which there was a garden, containing fruits with "all the tastes in the world, also all the fragrances in the world, also all the colors and forms in the world - everything was to be found in that garden."
At some stage all the tastes and appearances are lost to this garden, and the people who thought that they were living a truly good life cannot manage to find the tastes and appearances that were lost, until the deaf beggar arrives and gives them some of his bread and water. In these the people sense all the tastes and fragrances, "and that which was broken in them was repaired."
     This idea brings us back to our simpleton. The ability to include all of reality, to overcome the objective shortcomings that reality involves, is acquired through relinquishing the regular tools with which we customarily encounter the world - whether sight or hearing or, as in our case - intelligence.
The ability of the blind man to see the whole world as the blinking of an eye, the ability of the deaf man to include all of reality without its shortcomings, and the ability of the simpleton to experience all the tastes of the world and all the appearances of the world in his meager bread and his shabby cloak, all arise from the concession that each of them makes. This concession is perceived from a human perspective as a defect, as madness, but from an internal perspective it conceals the secret that brings a person happiness and brings him to a limitless encounter with the limited reality.
Translated by Karen Fish