The Hassidic Rebbe (spiritual leader), Rabbi Nachman (1772-1810) was born in the town of Mezhibuzh, Ukraine to Feiga the daughter of Odel, the daughter of the Baal Shem Tov, who was the founder of the mystical Hassidic movement within Judaism.
Rebbe Nachman was born in the very house where his legendary great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, had lived. Rebbe Nachman’s mother, Feiga, was known far and wide as “Feiga the prophetess,” for she could see her grandfather the Baal Shem Tov in visions that came to her while awake and asleep.
Rabbe Nachman’s wisdom and insights were greatly inspired and influenced by his mother, “Feiga the prophetess” who taught him the importance of consulting with a loving female (mother, sister or wife) to gain an understanding of the message of dreams.
Once Rabbi Nachman’s scribe and closest disciple Rabbi Nussan dreamt that he and Rabbi Nachman were walking down a seemingly endless path in the midst of a very dark night, when they saw a ladder rising all the way up to the heavens. Rabbi Nussan asked Rabbi Nachman what they should do? Rabbi Nachman replied “we must climb it to the top” and started climbing.
Rabbi Nussan hesitated to begin the climb up and watched as Rabbi Nachman climbed higher and higher. When Rabbi Nussan could no longer see Rabbi Nachman he suddenly felt fearful and alone and he started to climb the ladder but no matter how hard he climbed he could not catch up with Rabbi Nachman. Then he suddenly awoke from his dream.
The next day he related the dream to Rabbi Nachman who listened attentively and then said, “Your dream is wonderful Nussan, because it shows how powerful is the spiritual longing within you. You have studied Torah with me for several years, and your moral qualities have become highly refined. The only thing holding you back are your own fears. Remember, this: The whole world is a very narrow bridge; the essential thing is not to be afraid.”
Even today two hundred years after this tale was first told, people still sing a song made up of these words: Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m’od v’ha-ikkar lo l’faheid k’lal. “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”
But Rav Nahman actually said something slightly, yet importantly different. In his great work, Likutei Moharan (II:48), he writes: k’she-adam tzarikh la-avor gesher tzar m·od, ha-k’lal v’ha-ikkar shelo yit-paheid k’lal. “When a person must cross an exceedingly narrow bridge, the principle and essential thing is; not to frighten yourself at all.”
Not to frighten yourself—the narrow bridge is daunting, fraught with risk and danger. A little care is good, but you’ll never get across if you surrender to fears of your own making. At such a moment, caution is wisdom, but fear is a bad choice for “The only thing we have to fear; is fear itself” Or as Rabbi Mordecai of Lekhovitz taught, “We must not worry. Only one worry is O.K. We should worry about always being worried.”
Rav Nahman concludes this passage, written to encourage his followers not to despair in their spiritual progress, “You should understand the power of encouraging yourself, and never yield to despair, God forbid, no matter what happens. The main thing is always to be happy, to gladden yourself in every permissible way that is possible.
And always remember that joy is not merely incidental to your spiritual quest. It is vital.”