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Rebbe Natan of Nemirov: The Truth of Truth

Rabbi Natan Sternhartz of Nemirov (Nemyriv, Ukraine) was born on the 15th of Shvat 5540 (1780) to his father, Rabbi Naftali Hertz, a wealthy merchant. At the age of 13, Rabbi Natan married the daughter of Rabbi David Tzvi Orbach, the rabbi of Sharhorod. After his marriage, Rabbi Natan was drawn to Chasidut. At first, he connected with Rebbe Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, who opened his arms to him. In 5562 (1802) Rebbe Natan heard of a tzaddik who had moved to nearby Breslov, by the name of Rebbe Nachman. When he went to him, he was amazed that this was the Torah scholar whom he had seen in a dream. From that point on, Rebbe Natan cleaved to Rebbe Nachman and transcribed all the words of Torah that he heard from him. After Rebbe Nachman’s passing in 5571 (1811), Rebbe Natan became the leader of the Breslov Chasidut—not as a Rebbe, but as a follower who teaches his Rebbe’s Torah. On the morning of the 10th of Tevet 5605 (1845), which came out on a Friday, Rebbe Natan’s disciples read him the first stories from Rebbe Nachman’s book of stories. The second story ends with the words, “and they returned to their home.” When he heard those words, Rebbe Natan nodded his head, as if to say, “My time has come to go home.” On that same day, just before the beginning of Shabbat, he departed from this world.

In his book, Yemei Moharnat, Rebbe Natan writes[1]:

In the winter of 5563 (1803) Rebbe Nachman directed me to travel to my father-in-law to the holy community of Mahlov to request a rabbinical position in one of the nearby cities. And thank God, I was saved from that.

In the Breslov book Si’ach Sarfei Kodesh, the rest of the story appears: “When Rabbeinu [Rebbe Nachman] sent Rebbe Natan to his father-in-law to give him a rabbinical position in one of the cities under his supervision, Rebbe Natan apologized to Rebbe Nachman, saying that he was afraid to take a rabbinical position on himself, for it comes with great responsibility.

“Nu, so who should be a rabbi? Not the person who is afraid?” Rebbe Nachman reproved him.

“Is accepting a rabbinical position the truth, and correct?” asked Rebbe Natan.

“Yes,” answered Rebbe Nachman, “It is the truth.”

“Is it the truth of the truth?” Rebbe Natan asked again.

“If you want the truth of the truth,” Rebbe Nachman replied, “don’t be a rabbi!”

And Rebbe Natan was saved.

We all know the rest of the story. Rebbe Natan cleaved to the “truth of the truth” and remained with his teacher, Rebbe Nachman, creating the foundation for all the writings of Rebbe Nachman that we have today. What is the distinction between truth and the truth of the truth? Can something that is not the truth of the truth be true? Or is it simply falsehood?

We can find support from Maimonides in the Laws of Sanctifying the New Month, regarding the two approaches to calculating the new moon: The approach of Shmuel and the approach of Rav Ada. Maimonides writes that Rav Ada’s calculation is “more accurate than the prior opinion (Shmuel’s calculation)” and hence the law is according to Rav Ada regarding the secret of determining the time of the new moon. But Shmuel’s approach is also truth, and we apply it in calculating seasons and the blessing of the sun." The words of Maimonides, that we can use the term “truth” even when referring to something that is not fully accurate, and that we can rate something as “truth” or “more true” is a major innovation that requires deep analysis.

Chasidut broadens the picture and identifies an additional, more ephemeral level of truth, which it refers to as “the cusp of truth.” Beneath the “cusp of truth,” there is falsehood. If there is a distinction in truth between “truth” and “more true,” (the truth of truth), we can also make the same distinction in falsehood: Between subtle falsehood and blatant falsehood.

We can parallel these five levels—the truth of truth, truth, the cusp of truth, subtle falsehood, and blatant falsehood—to the five titles discussed in the Tanya’s first chapter: the consummate tzaddik (the truth of truth), the non-consummate tzaddik (truth),[2] the intermediate person (the cusp of truth), the non-consummately evil person (subtle falsehood) and the consummately evil person (blatant falsehood).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains[3] that the two levels of truth exist in different worlds. Shmuel’s approach, which seems less accurate in our world, is the truer approach in the spiritual world.

We can learn an important foundation that can be applied to other matters from the Rebbe’s words. What is understood in our world as being approximate—as rounding out the numbers—is the correct and more exact reality in the higher world. And what we understand as accurate in our world, is only approximate, relative to the true reality in the upper world. We may have thought that the upper worlds are complicated and complex worlds of intellect, while our material world is simpler. But just the opposite is true. The abstract spiritual reality is relatively simple and clear. As we descend into the lower worlds, all the way to physical reality, there are more details and more complications, and everything becomes less accurate and more unclear.

We can replace the “truth” and “falsehood” with “approximate” and “exact.”  As we explained, the perception of reality in different worlds reveals the complex reciprocity between approximate and precise. These two adjectives switch places when the perspective changes. What is considered exact in this world is nothing more than approximate in the higher world (according to Rav Ada’s approach) and what is only approximate in our world (according to Shmuel’s approach) is precise in the higher world.

It is specifically when we reach the lower level, corresponding with the sefirah of kingdom whose “legs descend to death,” that we encounter the need to use the approximate. Lower levels are a realm of the complex possibilities that are not clearly defined as either black or white, unlike the more abstract discussions of Jewish law, for example. As we descend into the realms of action replete with issues related to current events and politics, the clarity of theoretical legal discussion (including the practical application of Jewish law, which focuses on how to apply rulings in these issues with respect to a private individual, who can isolate himself from the outside world), an apparent gap opens between the Torah and reality. Those who decide on the ruling in such events need to bridge the gap between reality and the normative approach found in Jewish law; they need to unite the precision of the heavens with the practical approximate-ness of physical reality. We can say that the deviation of the lower world from the precision of the higher world is what makes issues related to the public, such as laws of war, etc., to be less attractive to Torah scholars, who like to engage in clear and exact topics.

An example of the approximate-ness required in order to appoint a ruler can be found in Rebbe Nachman’s story, “The Master of Prayer,” which describes how each group chose a king, with the knowledge that he is not the true king, but rather, an approximate king who displays just one of the attributes of the consummate king. The same holds true for the individual when looking for a soulmate. The Lubavitcher Rebbe emphasized that often, people have an exact picture of what their spouse should be like, including an array of specific characteristics and personality traits. We must know, however, that although this picture may be accurate and acceptable in the higher world (the world of thought), in our lower world nothing is perfect and we can expect to find someone who only approximately fits the specific picture in our heads.

Image: Ishpashout, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

[1]. §8.


[3]. Discourse of the Last Day of Pesach, 5713.

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