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Friday takeaway: Advice from Rebbe Nachman

  • Ilan Stavans


By ILAN STAVANS
Thursday, January 31, 2019

The other day, while a group of friends were bemoaning the current status of the world, I thought of Rebbe Nachman.

“We are on a boat about to sink,” one of them stated. “To avert disaster, we must jump off as fast as possible.”

Catastrophism is an illness. To me it is always bizarre how each generation — ours included, of course — laments the general decline of the world. Yet we praise the frantic speed science and technology keep. Don’t we live better and longer than ever before? Isn’t violence at a record low? Aren’t people happier today than in the Middle Ages?

​​​​​​A great-grandchild of the legendary Hasidic master Ba’al Shem Tov, a kind of Luther who revolutionized Jewish practice in the early part of the 18th century, he, like Jesus Christ, never wrote anything down; everything we have from his comes from his scribe, Reb Noson. His tales are Kafkaesque, so much so it is impossible, in my mind, to read the aphorisms and fiction by the author of The Metamorphosis without feeling, even if passingly, that secretly he was a Hasidic master, too.

As the group of friends was presaging the apocalypse, the story by Rebbe Nachman that came to mind was “The Tainted Grain.” It is rather short and goes like this:

There was once a king who believed in the stars. One day he read in them that anyone who would eat of the coming harvest would go mad.

He called in his viceroy and friend to ask for his advice.

“My recommendation, Your Majesty,” said the counselor, “is that you and I shall only eat last year’s harvest, which is untainted. That way we will remain sane.”

The king was unpleased. “I don’t accept your proposal,” he replied. “How can we separate ourselves from our people? To remain the only sane people among a nation of madmen — they will think we are the ones who are mad. Instead, you and I shall eat of the tainted grain and shall enter into madness with our people.”

Then the king thought for a moment: “We must, however, at least recognize our malady,” he said. “Therefore, you and I shall mark each other’s foreheads with a sign. And every time we look at one another, we shall remember that we are mad.”

A bunch of interpretations are possible. One is that Rebbe Nachman, who lived when modernity was in its infancy, used the story to offer a premonition of what was to come. Modernity, in his eyes, was a form of madness capable of depriving things of their essence. On the surface, science, radical politics, consumerism, technology, secularism, and other “isms” offer advantages, but they are also replete with drawbacks. In the face of change, it is important to retain one’s core values, to remain truthful and authentic, even if that means becoming an impostor.

Another interpretation concerns the ruling elites, in Rebbe Nachman’s time as well as today. By definition, those elites are always divided: some among them reject full involvement in the challenges humanity faces, while others are only ready to engage those challenges as long as they don’t lose their privileged status. Beware of those leading the masses, the story advocates, for they are traitors.

In that sense, the most inspired lines in “The Tainted Grain” are “To remain the only sane people among a nation of madmen — they will think we are the ones who are mad. Instead, you and I shall eat of the tainted grain and shall enter into madness with our people.”

What these lines suggest is that it is incumbent on those who have a deeper knowledge of the world — those who are called to be leaders — not to separate themselves from society. Instead, they must be ready to become active participants in the human debacle.

This interpretation might explain why Elie Wiesel loved “The Tainted Grain.” He taught it to students. For him, it was an invitation to reflect on the genocidal instincts of modernity and on how to resist those instincts.

To me there is yet another dimension to Rebbe Nachman’s story. Its message invites us to reflect on difference.

If everyone goes mad, does the world lose its purpose? For things to turn around, it is crucial for people, wherever they are, to retain a sense of reality, even if that retention needs to be done in secret. “Therefore, you and I shall mark each other’s foreheads with a sign,” the king says to his counselor. “And every time we look at one another, we shall remember that we are mad.”

Those who recognize difference are never alone, although at times they might think they are. It is difficult to find support, but that support exists. In metaphorical terms, difference comes in the form of a mark on one’s forehead.

To be an outsider is to keep an eye on the world. The world itself needs it.

Ilan Stavans is the Lewis-Sebring Professor of Humanities and Latin American and Latino Culture at Amherst College, the publisher of Restless Books, and the host of “In Contrast” on NEPR.