The Birth of a Tzaddik
On the holiday of Tu B'Shevat in the year 5560 (about 125 years ago), Reb Nosson was born to Rabbi Naftali Hertz Sternhartz and Chaya Laneh. He was a first-born child to his young father (back then people married at 13) who was already considered an important figure and philanthropist in their city. Aside from Reb Nosson, Rabbi Naftali Hertz had three boys.
Right from the start, Reb Nosson's thoughts always revolved around his real purpose in this world. He never lost sight of the ultimate goal. He lived every day like his last with constant repentance, just as our Sages teach. As a youngster, he already was living with this mindset of one day having to return his soul to its maker along with explanations for how he spent each day. As such, he never wasted a minute. Each one was spent in holiness: Torah, prayer, and doing the good before G-d all while remembering that every moment counts.
His grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Danzig, used to sit by the western wall in the Beit Midrash with other elders of the community. In his youth, Reb Nosson regularly sat amongst them and they enjoyed his presence. One time he noticed a certain elderly man was missing for a few days. He asked his grandfather, "Where is this elderly Jew?" His grandfather answered, "He passed away." When young Reb Nosson didn't understand what "passed away" meant, his grandfather explained to him that this life ends, we die, are burried, and return to dust. He wondered "That is the purpose of this whole life?!" And, from then on he asked himself "What is really, truly the purpose of this world?"
The Question of Questions
That question became Reb Nosson's main question throughout his life. It did not let him rest. It was always nagging in his brain. His search for the answer, the true meaning of life, lead him to repentance, prayer, service of G-d, and eventually to the pure wellspring of Rebbe Nachman. By Rebbe Nachman he found all the answers. All the time his heart beat, he searched and investigated, and already in his youth begged before Hashem.
With simplicity and honesty, Reb Nosson's family did their business dealings. They were wealthy and lived comfortably; hence allowed and wanted Reb Nosson to focus solely on learning and growing in Torah.
"The Brilliant One from Nemirov"
As a youth, Reb Nosson was already very diligent in his Torah study and would constant review pages of Gemara. He was an outstanding, prominent student; above all of his classmates in Cheder. He had a very uniquite way of learning. While the rest of the class was searching for intricate questions, he learned with a clear head and in a simple and straightforward manner. "What can I do that I don't have questions?", he would apologize. His teacher praised his to-the-point technique and said: "I prefer the simple explanation of Nosson over the complex questions of the other students." In the end, due to his simple tactics, he soared to great heights in learning and achieved depth of knowledge, eventually producing original ideas on the Torah.
In the year 5552, when he was 12, Reb Nosson was already a well-known scholar in his area and was even awarded the title "Iluy of Nemirov" (brilliant of Nemirov). At this age, his father matched him up with Esther Shaindel, daughter of one of the greatest sages of the generation, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi Orbach. In his generation, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi was referred to as "Rabbi Dovid Tzvi HaGadol" (the great) and was the Rabbi and head of Beit Din (Rabbinical court) over the cities Sharograd, Kremenetz, Mohilev and more.
Regarding the match between his daughter and Reb Nosson, Reb Dovid Tzvi once said: "They may have suggested to me more learned schoalrs than Reb Nosson, but I took his as a son-in-law because I saw he has nice broad shoulders." Reb Michel, grandson of Reb Nosson, explained this as Reb Nosson's broad shoulders bore the pangs of upholding the Torah and fulfilling its words. The wedding took place in Sharograd after Tisha B'Av in 5553.
Reb Nosson and his wife lived by her parents home in Sharogard for a little over two years; from his wedding in 5553 until Succot 5555. During that period, he soared higher and sanctified himself until he reached a tremendously high level of Torah and his soul yearned and begged for Hashem.
For this period after the wedding, Reb Nosson learned in the Beit Midrash of his father-in-law together with other studious learners his age. Amongst them were his brother-in-laws who were considered very great, yet he himself was viewed as embodying rarely seen perseverance and diligence.
During this time, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi deeply admired and respected Reb Nosson for his holiness and devotion. He saw in him a certain perfection which was rare in his opinion, even in previous generations, and even in the generation of Moshe Rabbenu.
Reb Nosson continued going higher and higher on the ladder of Torah with great dedication. His brain was sharpened and his talents developed under the guidance of Rabbi Dovid Tzvi. His father-in-law gave him special attention and he enjoyed it, especially from such a great person and especially conversing with him about Torah. Through the years, Rabbi Dovid Tzvi saw in his son-in-law a student with tremendous capabilities and with unique sharpness who could one day take his place as chief Rabbi. He began to train him in common questions and situations and in the laws regarding the answers.
Opposition to Chassidism
Reb Nosson's knowledge of Torah, Gemara, and Poskim was now as great as the greatest of sages in the country. His father-in-law was very hopeful that even while alive he would pass on part of the Rabbinate to Reb Nosson. In order to prepare him, he used to constantly speak to him and instruct him about the Torah laws with dealings for hours on end. In the meantime, he warn him to distance himself from Chassidism, which was not his speed.
Already in his father's house, Reb Nosson was raised with an anti-Chassidism attitude. His family and the people in the area were against the ways of the Ba'al Shem Tov and his holy path. And, now, in the home of his father-in-law, with daily talk against Chassidism, naturally he followed his surroundings and adapted their view.
Sitting amongst great Torah learners, with a great father-in-law, constantly attaining higher levels of Torah and G-dly service, Reb Nosson should have been in bliss. Yet, that was not the case. His heart and soul were being pulled elsewhere. His soul was unable to rest. His deep thinking brain, like his heart, was able to grasp much more and he felt as if he was still lacking. The young questioner was unsatisfied with his learning and praying. Actually, as he grew in Torah knowledge and service, his thirst for someone greater became stronger. His soul was raging inside of him. He was a great student, he served G-d with great service, all above the rest. Yet, in his nature he was a "deep thinker" and would think about this world and become more agitated, more thirsty. He was unable to reach a point of inner peace. He apologized constantly for his internal lacking, yet his soul's questioning nagged at him... the same question which burned inside him from that day... "What is the real purpose and point of my life? And what can I do to get to it?"
During Sukkot 5556, Reb Nosson moved to his father's house in Nemirov after two years of living by his father-in-law. There he continued to grow in Torah learning and levels. In his father's house and amongst his friends he was well accepted with love and admiration. In the house, he was given a room for them in which he continued to dwell in Torah and its service while his livelihood was provide by his well-off father.
It is important to note the love, respect, and admiration which was showed to Reb Nosson during this time, by his father, father-in-law, and others. The fathers used to argue amongst them as to who would merit hosting Reb Nosson, as they both wanted him to be by them.
The Light of Chassidism
Reb Nosson learned in the Beit Midrash in Nemirov regularly that winter. His study partner was Rav Lipa, who was raised on the path of Chassidism, while Reb Nosson was raised anti-Chassidim. They were placed together as study partners by divine providence, as Rav Lipa was the first to begin removing the anti-Chassidim attitude which was in Reb Nosson. He also spoke to Reb Nosson with warm words about the great light which lies within Chassidism. While Reb Nosson listened, his father-in-law's words still rang in his ears and he remained against Chassidism.
His Heart Begins to Soften
Rav Lipa and others continued to argue the light of the Chassidish path to him. Meanwhile, he was still loyal to his father and father-in-law's opinion. Although, not much time did pass until the words of truth sank into his heart. Rav Lipa's influence on Reb Nosson began taking effect.
The main point of Chassidism repeated by Rav Lipa and those who would join the arguements was love and fear of Hashem, which is the true way of serving Hashem. These words penetrated Reb Nosson's heart because, really, this is the way to serve G-d. As it says: "What does Hashem ask of you? Just to fear Hashem, your G-d... and to love Him and serve Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart, with all your soul... and it is good for you." (Devarim 10:12)
"Hashem is good." Rav Lipa himself exlaimed, as he merited visiting several great Tzaddikim of the time and noted that all of them were real servants of Hashem who serve their Creator with devotion and excitement, which flows from the depths of the heart, with arousal and great joy. With these words, Rav Lipa touched the sensitive point within Reb Nosson's heart: "What don't I feel pleasure and satisfaction in serving Hashem? And if I didn't get to this... it must be that I am far away from my Creator..."
Reb Nosson wondered why he was so far from these feelings, as he was a great learner. Why doesn't he feel the good of Hashem and the spiritual pleasure the Chassidim feel when they serve Hashem. As a result of these discussions with the pious Rav Lipa and seeing Rav Lipa's G-dly service, Reb Nosson - with boldness and courage - decided to use all his means to discover the truth and to arrive at true G-dly service, spiritual service, even if his parents and in-laws are against him.
In hopes of healing his soul, he began to delve into the world of the Chassidim; the way they prayed and did Mitzvot with excitement and with vitality. His heart was full of holy jealousy. Slowly, the doubts in his mind began to fade and he thought maybe there, amongst the Chassidim is his place, the place where he can find the healing for his pained soul which felt spiritual lacking.
Not much time passed, and despite the opposition of his family, he began visiting with Chassidish Rebbe's, students and followers of the Ba'al Shem Tov, in hipes of finding tranquility for his soul.
Reb Nosson did not rest or sit still; his heart was like a windstorm inside him. Such was his pure fear of Heaven and will to come closer to hashem, although he still did not know how to live on a daily basis. He began asking more and more about the ways of the holy Tzaddikim who live in holiness.
The Truth is With the Tzaddikim
He writes: "From the many words of my friends, mentioned above, I tested the truth... and my opinion was with the Chassidim that it is good to come close to the famed Tzaddikim, the greats of the Chassidim, because they are men of truth and Hashem is with them..." Internally, his heart stopped testing. Without his family knowing, he went to visit the holy Rabbi of Kremenetz, Rabbi Mordechai, son of Rabbi Yechiel Michel of Zlatslov, student of the Ba'al Shem Tov.
Reb Nosson said he would, and he did it. Immediately upon arrival by Rabbi Mordechai, he was impressed and became very excited. He saw before him a great Tzaddik who served his Creator with joy and tremendous excitement of which Reb Nosson yearned for all his days. Reb Nosson's heart melted within him and he wondered how such a level of G-dly service is achieved. He considered staying in Kremenetz enough time to learn from the ways of serving Hashem of Rabbi Mordechai, but he had to quickly return home so that his family would not be suspicious. There was great opposition at every corner.
One morning he got up and traveled to the holy Rabbi, the "Pe'er Yisrael", Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. The Tzaddik welcomed him with open arms. He quicly recognized the high level and strong yearning for Hashem of this young Chassid. He gave him special attention and called him "My Nose'le" affectionately. Reb Nosson was content in the presence of this Tzaddik. He was now in the shade of the great tree of which the greatest of sages put their heads down in front of. The love which the Tzaddik had for every Jew had no limits. He fulfilled the Mitzvot of Hashem with a flame of holy fire and his prayers were like the prayers of the angels above. When the Tzaddik of Berditchev would recite the blessings of Kriyat Shema and say the passuk "Who chose His nation, Israel, with love", right before he would say the Shema, his face would frighteningly change rapidly until Reb Nosson saw in the signs of death listed in Shulchan Aruch. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak sacrificed himself to completely serve Hashem. His holy soul would be on the brink of leaving his holy body. Here, Reb Nosson saw to what point and level a person can reach; a level of self-sacrifice and complete dedication to Hashem in this world.
When will he merit this? Reb Nosson thought. The holy Tzaddik of Berditchev opened the doors of Chassidism before Reb Nosson. He recorded the lessons he heard from the Tzaddik of Berditchev. One day later on, one of his students saw his writings printed in the holy book "Kedushat Levi".
Reb Nosson's heart burned inside him, and still he did not find a cure for his ambition. He himself wanted to be aroused and merit serving his Creator appropriately. He already merited being in the presence of such a great angel and became effected by his holy Torah. Yet, still his soul was yearning and thirsty. He was trying to climb up the ladder, but everytime he went up a little, he would fall down again. In this state, the days and years continued to pass.
Reb Nosson decided to continue searching and visiting other Tzaddikim. He traveled to all the holy Tzaddikim: Reb Boruch of Mezibuz, Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, Rabbi Avraham Dov of Chemlik, and Rabbi Shalom of Provisht. All welcomed him warmly and drew him close. He spent time at each; at each he followed the unique way of that Tzaddik. But, all these did not yet influence his internal essence. He recognized that their ways were correct and truthful, but why are they not changing his character? He searched for a Tzaddik that would shake him with strong force and direct him what to do exactly. One who would show him on which path he will reach the house of Hashem. He wanted to stick to a Tzaddik who would be connected to the root of his soul; a Tzaddik and a teacher, who would teach him the way step by step to serve his Creator. A Tzaddik who would mold him just as a carver does to pottery.
Reb Nosson again came back to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev and connected with the students who came to drink from his pure wellspring. He tried with all his heart and soul to find the appropriate way for himself...
One Saturday night, after Shabbat, Reb Nosson was sitting at the Melaveh Malkah (meal) amongst the students and they were discussing Torah and Chassidism. They were missing bagels, and they appointed Reb Nosson to go buy the bagels, as he was the new, young Chassid. He head out towards the bakery...
The First Meeting
While on his way, his mind was far from his mission of purchasing bagels. His confusions and bothersome thoughts were still nagging at him. At this particular moment, they returned to him. While on his way to buy the bagels, he began making a self-calculation: now, he had already come close to Chassidism. He found a place and his heart is still bitter. He still has highs and lows; highs in the Heaven and lows in the depths. "What is my purpose?", he thought in his bitter heart. "Is this why I was created?" he asked himself, "to buy bagels?!"
He was hopeless. "By no means is this the way!" True, he was standing at the lower level of Gan Eden and felt the aura which emitted from the Beit Midrash of the Ba'al Shem Tov, but it was as if the door was locked in front of him. He already merited visiting with many Tzaddikim and exploring their holy works, but he wondered what will be with him. When will he merit quenching his thirst for his Father in Heaven? The thirst only increased after meeting with the other Tzaddikim.
Reb Nosson burst into tears. He couldn't take the suffering anymore. "Master of the Universe!", he cried, "what will be with me?" Due to his pain of being the one appointed to buy the bagels, and instead of conitnuing on to the bakery, he went into the next Beit Knesset (synogogue) that was on the way. He went into the women's section and began reciting Tehillim while crying out his heart. Because of his great pain, he rolled on to the floor and was unable to calm himself down. He felt like on this path, he could not continue living...to stay in one place and not grow? His life was not life. The young lad cried and cried, and the heavens and earth cried with him.
Reb Nosson got up from the floor and continued saying the second chapter of Tehillim. When he finished, he again lay on the floor. He hoped for the gates of Heaven to open before him. And so, he continued reciting Tehillim. When he got to chapter 50, he again fell on to the floor, devoid of strenght and with a broken heart. His mouth had no more strenght to pray, his eyes were swollen from tears, and all he yearned for was to be truly glued to Hashem and go on his true path.
He continued crying until he fell asleep. During his sleep, he dreamt an awesome dream. He saw a huge ladder that began on the ground and went up into the sky. He begins to climb the ladder, step by step, and to his amazement, he is unable to grasp the next step, and falls to the ground. He gets up and tries to climb up again, reaches a higher step and then falls again. This happened again and again. Every time he reached a higher level, he fell even harder.
A dark cloud and opaque fog surrounded him and deep depression overcame him. He had almost reached the top and now he fell the lowest. Would he be able to recover from this great fall and try to climb up again? He stood up in the face of despair, but he couldn't try again. His body was hurt and broken from the previous hard falls.
He laid there broken. To his surprise, the image of a young man with a face full of light appeared. Reb Nosson got up, embarassed and slightly flustered, and the Man of G-d said: "Young man, young mang, climb! But hold yourself!"
This was the first instruction Rebbe Nachman taught his young student, who begged for closeness to Hashem. Here in the dream was the first time they saw each other. He climbed, and climbed, but needed strenghtening from a Rebbe. These words were the first encouraging words Rebbe Nachman gave Reb Nosson's soul, the "requester", who needed it. It was the beginning of the covenant between them, as they still had not met. Still, Reb Nosson had to pass through much more until he meritted meeting Rebbe Nachman face to face.
Reb Nosson woke up from his dream. The image of the lit up face and the spiritually uplifting words were strongly implanted in his brain. He wondered: "Where is this man, the one with the face full of light whose words were encouraging and gave me new life?" His heart beat strongly and he was emotional and excited. He was sure that this was a message from Heaven, but he still wasn't sure exactly what it meant.
Suddenly he realized that he was supposed to be buying the bagels. He quickly went to the bakery and brought back bagels to the men in the Beit Midrash. They were still sitting together and having deep discussions which lasted many hours. He joined them.
"When will I come and see?" Much time Reb Nosson spent in the midst of the Tzaddik of Berditchev, and then returned to his father's home in Nemirov.
The dream took place a year before he actually met and became close to Rebbe Nachman.
A year later, 5562, he hardly remembered his dream. He continued to suffer spiritual afflictions... "When will I come and see the face of Hashem?!"...
Click for Part II