While learning Rebbe Nachman of Breslov’s most famous lesson, Azamra (LM 1, 282), we came across the section which says when a person begins to take a good hard look at herself, she is liable to find that she has so many flaws, and such an absence of good deeds, that the forces of negativity hijack her self-condemnation and use it to push her into a bleak depression (God forbid).
And in fact, depression is a real pitfall of examining oneself with too much harshness. But, we still must examine ourselves if we want to grow.
Rebbe Nachman tells us that while self-assessment is indeed necessary to spiritual growth, a person must judge herself favorably. She must reflect on the good she has done—and the good she desires to do in the future. Otherwise she is liable to fall into a bitter depression, and a bitter depression may lead to her falling out of touch with Hashem, Torah, and mitzvos altogether. And one of the main themes of Azamra is that depression is to be avoided because it is a life-destroying weapon.
My chevrusa paused and I had a good idea why she did so. She is a special young woman, committed to living the life of a Torah-observant Jew. She lives in the holy city of Jerusalem and spends much of her free time doing a variety of amazing Judaism-related volunteer work. She is the kind of person who immerses herself in Shabbos (Shabbat) and studies Torah and Chassidic wisdom daily and uses her leisure time to pray at holy sites or help others.
How then, is this part of Azamra speaking to or about her? Is my chevrusa or others like her truly liable to fall off the holy path? Sounds unlikely, doesn’t it?
Or, perhaps the fall is possible, but not in a way that others can see. A fall doesn’t have to be so obvious—it may be invisible to everyone but the one who is doing the falling.
And also, what constitutes a fall, is relative. One person’s fall might be higher than another is able to reach.
My Banana Peel Is Not Your Banana Peel
The Rebbe reminds us that not only holiness, but heresy, too, is commensurate with a person’s level. For a person must serve Hashem with both her good and her evil inclinations (LM I, 62.) A person’s heart should be “whole with God” and should not be divided.
Still, for many of us—at least some of the time—our heart is divided. We move closer to the light in some moments and slouch towards the darkness in others. We rise and we fall in our thoughts and ideals. We achieve emotional sincerity one minute and embrace flippancy, sarcasm, and hipness the next. And we might even travel the entire spectrum, many, many times a day.
Falling spiritually isn’t as obvious as slipping on a banana peel for all to see. Falling is often incremental, silent, and inner-directed. The banana peel is invisible to outsiders.
If A Righteous Person Falls, Does He Make A Sound Others Can Hear?
When a religious figure of any background is caught in a scandal, the outrage is far greater than when Joe the pizza delivery guy messes up. In Judaism especially, a teacher, spiritual leader, or other important figure is expected to have impeccable middos, or personal attributes. Morality, honesty, kindness, humility, piety and scholarship must go hand in hand.
The Rebbe tells us that scholar-demons are those who are void of good character and use their scholarship to impress, manipulate, or overthrow. And throughout the depth and breadth of Jewish teachings, would-be scholars (and others) are cautioned about putting intellectual achievement over moral achievements.
That’s why the people religious Jews celebrate aren’t necessarily rich, famous or even talented.
We look up to our teachers and leaders as whole-role models. Think of some of the holy souls we lost in recent generations such as Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv; the Baba Sali; Rebbetzin Kanievsky; the Lubavitcher Rebbe; Rav Ovadia Yosef; as well as so many others that have less fame such as Rebbetzin Chaya Sara Kramer and Rabbi Avraham Blumenkrantz, both of whom were admired in their lifetime for their devotion to helping others in uniquely personal ways, using their moral talents to the fullest.
Were these leaders without flaws? It might look that way from the outside. But we know from Rebbe Nachman that a Tzaddik, a righteous individual, is generally made, not born, and that a Jewish soul spends a lifetime in growth. When we learn Breslov Chassidus, we develop an awareness of levels, stages, and our own growth, too.
If we’re making progress, personal growth takes on a spiral formation in which even our lows are higher than some of our previous highs. If we’re sliding backwards, our falls may not appear like the falls we made years ago; they might be hidden but just as bruising.
But the Rebbe tells us that we have the power to start over, again and again and again, no matter how many times we slip on that metaphysical peel. We can learn to forgive ourselves (and seek forgiveness when possible). We can learn to see our good points. We can fight prevent bitterness and depression, which will destroy our ability to live a joyful, spiritual life.
*I think fear of failure can also lead to stagnation, where no movement at all feels safer than growth. But standing still and remaining where we are is only an illusion—think of standing still as a murky puddle as a breeding ground for mold and bacteria and growth as waves lapping at the shore, taking the detritus out to sea where it gets lost in the greater ocean of possibilities.