In a Fractured World, Our Students Need Rebbe Nachman
To Jewish educators: our high school students need the Torah of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. No, I am not suggesting that we convince Jewish teenagers to start growing flowing peyos and jump up and down to upbeat music (although, a little singing and dancing can’t hurt—see here for some fun Breslov tunes). I am suggesting that high schoolers should be introduced to Rebbe Nachman the Torah genius. I am suggesting they should learn from Rebbe Nachman the Chassidic sage and spiritual guide whose teachings can lift one out of the plunging depths of anxiety and worry to the loftiest heights of authentic joy and spiritual fullness. I am suggesting that they should witness the Rebbe Nachman whose ideas changed my perspective on life.
Although I can write an entire thesis about the significance of Rebbe Nachman’s teachings and their inherent pedagogical value for people of all ages, I want to focus on why I think the Torah of Rebbe Nachman can specifically be of spiritual and psychological benefit to Jewish teenagers. I am by no means an expert on Jewish education or psychology, but from my own experiences in high school, as well as being a summer program counselor for Jewish high school students, I have developed strong opinions on what can be added to the Jewish high school curriculum to help its students succeed religiously and spiritually. Through my own experience of delving into the Torah of Rebbe Nachman, I am certain that his two-century-old lessons are more relevant now than ever.
There are two reasons why I believe Rebbe Nachman’s Torah can help high schoolers. Firstly—and unfortunately, this is not spoken about enough—Jewish high school students experience a tremendous amount of stress and pressure, which leads to significant mental health challenges. These pressures stem from social, financial, and academic matters; and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a new study conducted by the CDC, “in 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.” Secondly, high school is a transformative time for Jewish children to develop their life paths and build their religious identities. That being said, for Orthodox and non-Orthodox high schoolers, Jewish life can seem daunting. Full devotion to religious life and independence may seem like an entire change in identity which can be frightening for a teenager. Additionally, the flawed way in which teenagers view sin and failure may lead to despair and discourage them from continuing to develop their relationship with God.
The convergence of these two areas—struggles with mental health and religious devotion—is where I see Rebbe Nachman’s teachings being crucially beneficial. Rebbe Nachman’s Torah can serve as an access point for high schoolers who want to find a religious connection while simultaneously gaining psychological or emotional support. Rebbe Nachman's teachings deeply understand human emotions and the role they play in religious service. For example, in numerous places (Likutei Moharan II, 24, Sichot HaRan 45, Likutei Etzot, Simcha, Likutei Tefilot I, 89:3, Hakdamah Likutei Moharan), Rebbe Nachman asserts that is absolutely necessary for Jews to serve God with a sense of joy and fullness, yet unapologetically recognizes that many, including himself, dealt and deal with sadness, hopelessness, and despair. For students who are stuck in despondence and hopelessness, Rebbe Nachman proclaims: “ein shum yeush ba’olam klal — there is no such thing as despair in this world.” Rebbe Nachman speaks to the Jews who grapple with the brokenness of life and encourages them to be confident in their own accomplishments while inspiring them to stay committed to Godly service. In other places (Likutei Moharan II, 95, Sichos HaRan 229), Rebbe Nachman preaches the importance of developing a relationship with God that is akin to a companionship one would have with a friend. Through his teachings, Rebbe Nachman reaches those who are struggling emotionally and encourages them to reach out to their creator—in whatever language they would like—and use personal tefilot (prayers) to spiritually and emotionally heal. In my mind, it is through these kinds of teachings that teenagers struggling with mental health can find their emotional redemption while simultaneously developing a spiritual connection with God.
High school students also fear that devotion towards Yiddishkeit (Jewish life) means grabbing everything at once and, as a result, overwhelming themselves with a new identity. On the flip side, when they experience failure and sin as all-encompassing, they completely lose hope of returning to religious dedication. In several places (Sichot HaRan 27, Sichot HaRan 79, Likutei Moharan I, 282), Rebbe Nachman teaches that our introduction to Yiddishkeit must be slow and incremental, and we must not despair when we make mistakes along the way. Rather, Rebbe Nachman implores us to find the “points of goodness” in ourselves, acknowledge our incredible self-worth, and use that motivation to continue striving for spirituality. Instead of seeing the commitment to Yiddishkeit as a one-time, package deal in which one either grabs everything or nothing, our teenagers can learn from Rebbe Nachman that a relationship with God is a gradual, and incremental process, as he declares: “rak leilech b’nachas--just go with ease.”
Some may claim that teenagers can find the aforementioned influential and motivational ideas of Rebbe Nachman in any contemporary self-help book. Others may suggest that there are other works of Chassidus that can equally kindle a sense of spirituality in young Jews. To these assertions, I respond: No—Rebbe Nachman is a novelty. Rebbe Nachman’s teachings do not only assist those who suffer from anxiety and worry like any psychologist, nor do they simply inspire those who lack confidence in their relationship with God like other spiritual guidance; Rebbe Nachman beautifully and ingeniously integrates these two facets of the human condition—doubt and depression on one hand, and spiritual yearning on the other—and forges them into concise, accessible, and engaging teachings. The essence of Rebbe Nachman is that he is a psychologist and a spiritual leader simultaneously.
I am well aware that not every high schooler needs this kind of approach. Perhaps some students succeed with the conventional type of Jewish education we’ve been offering and end up living beautiful Jewish lives. But for those teenagers who are struggling Jewishly and emotionally—and we must not deny this struggle exists for many—Rebbe Nachman’s uplifting teachings may validate their emotional challenges and lift their religious spirits. And even for those students who don’t “need” this kind of stuff, I stubbornly contend that everyone would benefit from at least a little bit of Rebbe Nachman’s wisdom.
//AIDEN ENGLANDER is a first year in SEAS. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.