His diligence was such that it was said he gave teachers his pocket money so that they would teach him overtime. He absorbed the teachings of the Bible, the Talmud, and the Kabbalah, especially those of Isaac Luria, but after a difficult struggle with himself, he chose a Hasidic path that differed from that of his contemporaries.
He left his village to move among the ordinary people and settled in the town of Medvedivsky, where he taught Hasidism to all who came and listened. He was still highly esteemed by the tzaddikim and this strengthened his arrogance. He claimed that the Baal Shem Tov visited him and to one rabbi he said, “I want to bless you so that in the next world you will be able to understand my everyday speeches.” He felt the need to create a new direction but at the same time did not want the responsibility of destroying what existed.
The turning point in his life came with his visit to the Holy Land in 1798. He traveled anonymously and arrived in Galilee just when Napoleon was engaged in fighting the Turks in the region. He suffered great hardships and his experiences became the basis for later legends. He spent a winter in Tiberias, studying holy books and visiting the graves of famous rabbis. While wanting to remain there, he decided he had a mission to revive Hasidism and returned to eastern Europe, but said longingly, “Wherever I go, it is always to the Land of Israel.”
In 1802 he settled in Bratslav, Podolia. The tzaddikim now strongly resented his criticism and began to attack him and combat his teachings. He in turn was completely confident of his mission, holding that the Jewish Diaspora had known only four great teachers, each of whom characterized and guided an era: Simeon bar Yohai, Isaac Luria, the Baal Shem Tov, and himself. As for the tzaddikim, he said, “It was difficult for Satan to lead the world astray, so he appointed such men in high places to help him." He felt that they needed him to lead them on the right path. They for their part persecuted his followers, refused to intermarry with them, and would not eat meat killed in their slaughterhouses.
In his last years Nahman suffered from chronic ill health. In 1810 a great fire destroyed most of Bratslav, including his home, and he moved to Uman in the Ukraine. He assured his Hasidim that he would continue to be among them even after his death and indicated that there would therefore be no need to choose a successor. “I want always to be with you,” he told them “and you will come and visit me when I am in my grave,” where he washed them to talk to him as though he were alive. If they did so, he promised to bring them to heaven, even if they were sinners.
He thought that Hasidism was deteriorating as a resuit of the behavior of the tzaddikim, whom he regarded as unworthy of leading the movement.
Followers flocked to Bratslav and, unlike the other Hasidic leaders, Nahman treated them as partners in his journey to God. He regarded himself as their equal, not their master, saying, “Every one of you is a partner in my doctrine: our souls are united all the time.” He taught them in many ways, writing letters, giving speeches, and relating tales and parables. These were written down and widely distributed. Especially famous were thirteen tales that he related to his followers with instructions that, after his death, they be published in the original Yiddish, and translated into Hebrew. He also recorded dreams and reported them to his followers.
He stressed the importance of prayer in which man must lose himself and forget his existence. He believed that the best place to pray is in the open air, far away from others. The prayers that come from the heart, he said are superior to the set formulae. Solitude was especially recommended, for only in solitude can man become united with God. A man should therefore endeavor to be alone for an hour a day for religious meditation.
Nachman’s teachings gave priority to ethical behavior in which poverty was the ideal and material benefits were disdained. At one stage. Nahman encouraged his followers to confess their sins to him. He denounced lying and any forms of cheat.
Nachman of Breslov was known for his aphorisms:
- God is present in every action and in every thought.
- Rather a man die than lie.
- He who wishes to be a real Jew must go to the Land of Israel - despite all the obstacles and difficulties.
- When I see a poor man with his clothes in rags and his shoes torn serving God, I love him very much.
- Proper praying is like a man who wanders through a field gathering flowers: one by one, until they make a beautful bouquet. In the same way a man must gather each letter, each syllable to form them into the words of prayer.
- God is with the joyful man; he forsakes the sad man.
- Melody and song lead the heart of man to God.
- Even a criminal has his good side.
- Always be humble - but not by bowing your head, which is external humility. Real humility is internal and has its origin in wisdom.
- Honest dealing is possible.only if one is not striving for wealth.
- Judge a country’s prosperity by its treatment of the aged.
- Better a superstitious believer than a rationalistic unbeliever.
- Nine tzaddikim do not make a prayer quorum, but one common man joining them makes it whole.
- The whole world is like a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid.
- God is present whenever a peace treaty is signed.
- The fact that Nahman, like other Hasidic leaders, had no successor, has evoked the contemporary joke: How many Bratslav Hasidim are needed to change a lamp bulb? None - because they never change the bulbing and forbade all forms of flattery.
Quotations: He contested the view that the Hasidic leaders (the tzaddikim) had elevated souls, saying, “A man is never endowed with a good soul or a bad soul: everything depends on his own good deeds, everyone can elevate himself - but only by his own actions.”
He regarded himself “like Moses, the most modest of men.” He did not seek quarrels with his opponents and only shook his head to show they could not understand him.
At fourteen he married a rich man’s daughter and began to prepare himself for the role of Hasidic leader.