My current favorite Breslov tale is The Sophisticate and the Simpleton.(My favorite tale of Rebbe Nachman’s is always the one I’m reading at the moment.)
It’s easy to find parallel themes in the lessons in Likutey Moharan and the Rebbe’s stories. In class and b’chavrusa, we’ve been discussing how to have authentic, positive relationships. Especially with one’s self. The discussions are based on the quintessential Breslov teaching, lesson 282 in Likutey Moharan, known as Azamra.
At the end of the Azamra talk, we’ve been reading aloud from The Sophisticate and the Simpleton. This important yet humorous story offers a fascinating counterpoint and commentary on some of the themes of Azamra.
The Sophisticate is an expert in business, philosophy, and medicine. He has traveled extensively and has cultivated fine tastes. He is (perhaps, in my personal version) devastatingly witty. Because he is vastly superior to the little people, he finds it rather painful to live among them. The little people include those who do not meet his expectations and who cannot provide him with the level of honor and status he hungers for.
Because his tastes are sophisticated, he suffers constantly. It’s hard for him to connect to other people because he views himself as superior to them, therefore he’s lonely, and missing out on real friendship. He has what we might call a superiority-inferiority complex.
He can’t be seen with people who don’t have greater status than himself. (People with the same status are threats, and he’d be embarrassed to be seen with anyone “lower” than him.)
He’s also the finicky type who would cry “woe is me” when his purveyor of gourmet delights has run out of his favorite artisan cheese or a far-away war prevents his organically grown mountain-grown coffee beans from being shipped to him.
The Sophisticate is only okay under certain, specific circumstances which are incredibly challenging to maintain and extremely narrow in scope. Everything in his life, from people to poetry to porcelain, must be of the very highest quality.
The Sophisticate is like someone presented with a rainbow who hates every color except one particular shade, a slim specturm vibrating somewhere between indigo and violet.
The Simpleton (prustock in Yiddish, or average Joe)is a rainbow lover. In the Rebbe’s story, the Simpleton is a shoemaker. And not such a talented one at that (his shoes come out sort of triangular.)
His tastes are not particularly discriminating and most of the things of this world are good and of value in his eyes. A crust of bread or perfectly cooked Wagyu beef, the company of a famous violinist or the singing of his child, his old sheepskin or a sable coat—all are the same to him.
In other words, he is satisfied with everything. He sees the good in everything. He understands that his life mission is not to develop discerning tastes in music, art, or literature (or in food, clothing, or cars.)He knows that constant pleasure-seeking is shortsighted.
The Simpleton understands that chasing after riches or prestigious awards and titles will not make his life any happier. He doesn’t long for power or control over others. He doesn’t demand others’ respect.
The Simpleton is satisfied with who he is, an ordinary, kind person with plenty of emuna, faith. He doesn’t try to be who he is not. He is satisfied, too, with the people in his life, including his wife—even though she serves him a crust of bread at every meal.
Azrama is developing the ability to recognize who you really are—a spiritual being in a temporary body. It’s about perspective. When you have big-picture vision, being kind to everyone, even yourself, makes sense. You know this life is just the entry way to the life of the soul.
Living Azamra is challenging. Seeing the positive in everybody, especially you and your neighbors, is easier said than done, at least at first. Azamra doesn’t mean denying the negative junk is there, but it does mean searching for the treasure in the junkyard, and not quitting until you find it.
Ultimately, seeing the good is simple because good is simple. It’s the other dark stuff that’s so complicated.
The Simpleton lives with Azamra; the Sophisticate does not. Read the story. It’ll change your life.
(I’m leaving out most of the plot and the end of the story because we’re not up to it yet in class, but hang in there for the next post on My Favorite Rebbe Nachman Story.)
More on sophistication and simplicity.
Painting by Leon Kroll, 1920