The Difference between Heartbreak and Depression
“The sacrifice to G-d is a broken spirit; G-d will not despise a broken, shattered heart.” (Psalms 51:19)
“After heartbreak comes Joy.” (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom p. 150)
Rebbe Nachman begins his story of “The Master of Prayer” (Rabbi Nachman’s Stries pp.278-353) describing how the hero of the story, the Prayer Leader, lived far from civilization/ but would visit inhabite areas on a regular basis. There he would try to persuade people that the only true purpose of life is to serve G-d, spending one’s days in prayer and songs of praise. Whenever people were willing to join him, he would take them to the place he had chosen, far away from civilization, where their only activities would be praying, singing praises to G-d, confession, fasting, self-mortification, repentance and similar occupations. Concluding his description of their life, Rebbe Nachman tells us that, “for the people the Prayer Leader attracted to G-d, fasting and self-mortification were better and more precious than all worldly enjoyment.”
In point of fact, Rebbe Nachman was opposed to fasting and physical self-mortification, which he regarded as unnecessary. He taught that everything can be achieved through prayer (se Rebbe Nachman’s Wisdom p.324, Tzadd& #491 & #492, and Hishtapchut HaNefesh, Introduction). But to judge by Reb Noson’s prayers in Likutey Tefilot, spiritual self-mortification does seem to have a prominent role in the path of prayer taught by Rebbe Nachman. We repeatedly find Reb Noson making lengthy confessions of his sins, often in the most self-denigratory terms.
“See my wretchedness and degradation. Was it for this futile life of mine that You created me? I feel I’m hardly worthy of being called a person at all… (Likutey Tefilot 1:6). How can I speak before You, lowly servant that I am? … I have sinned, I have transgressed and rebelled, and I have done what is evil in Your eyes…. I, the lowest, merest creature* of all, a putrid drop, a clod of earth and fleeting dust, have rebelled against the G-d of the Universe, blessed be His Name for ever” (,bid. 1:4). It would be easy to find numerous passages in a similar vein.
Even for those willing to make the effort to understand Rebbe Nachman’s path of prayer, it can be hard to avoid the feeling that there is something morbid about this apparent brooding on one’s failures and shortcomings. Isn’t there something depressing about it? How does it square with Rebbe Nachman’s famous dictum that “It is a great mitzvah to be happy always” (Likutey Moharan 11:24)? Aren’t we supposed to be positive? If hisbodidus is the pathway to ultimate happiness, why does it seem to involve so much negativity?
In order to begin to answer these questions, we should recall that the purpose of hisbodidus is to deepen our attachment to G-d. It is not enough to know intellectually that there is a G-d. We have to bring our knowledge of His presence into our hearts – to put HaShem before us constantly and strive to know Him in all our ways. But it only takes a few moments of reflection on the awesome greatness and majesty of the Infinite G-d to be struck by a sense of man’s frailty and insignificance. How much more so when one turns to G-d in hisbodidus every day, working to keep one’s relationship with G-d uppermost in one’s mind. One cannot fail to become deeply aware of one’s own smallness and human weaknesses, and one’s total dependence upon G-d for everything in life.
The key to hisbodidus is truth: to acknowledge the truth of our situation in this life and penetrate to the truth in our hearts. The only way to do this is by having the courage to subject ourselves to careful and honest self-examination. We have tojudge ourselves (Aid. 1:15). How aware of G-d are we? Given that we are in His presence at all times, do we behave accordingly? Do we ead our lives the way G-d wants us to?
Rebbe Nachman is emphatic that we should udge ourselves positively so as to tip the scales of justice on the side of merit (aid. 1:282). But this does not mean that we can turn a blind eye to the negativity within us. That would be self-deception. While we must search for the good in ourselves, we must also examine the traits and activities that keep us far from G-d. This means confronting our sins.
Evoking the beginnings of spiritual awakening and self-understanding, Rebbe Nachman says: “One must ‘speak the truth in his heart’ (Psalms 15:2). It is only when he begins to speak with the warmth of heartfelt passion, when words of truth begin to flow from the depths of the heart and he pours out the truth in his heart before G-d, that he sees his own insignificance and the greatness of the Creator. Until now, he threw his sins behind his back without caring to glance at them. But now he knows them and feels overwhelmed with shame at the greatness of his transgressions against the Ruler and Controller and Root of all the worlds…
“The closer one is to the King, the greater his shame. The more he knows the glory of the King, the more he is ashamed to face Him. Before repenting, his knowledge was still limited, and for this reason his shame was not apparent on his face, because his sins unte is intellect and sensitivity as a result of the foolishness within him. (The Rabbis said that a person only transgresses because he is overcome by a foolish spirit Sotah 3). But afterwards, when he repents and removes his foolishness and insensitivity and his understanding grows, he is more ashamed than ever and the shame is revealed on his face…” (Likutey Moharan I:38).
If the painful confessions in Likutey Tefilot make us feel uncomfortable, part of the reason could be that we ourselves are still inclined to throw our sins “behind our backs” without wishing to look at them too closely. Subliminally, we maybe aware that there is much in ourselves and our past that we still have to come to terms with, and we may not be willing to do so yet.
But until we do confront our sins, they continue to have a power over our personalities and behavior, often in ways we may scarcely be consdous of. Rebbe Nachman expresses this by telling us that “the sins a person commits are engraved upon his very bones (cf. Ezekiel 32:27). The sins themselves exact vengeance from him, holding him back from G-d. But when he confesses them, the entire accumulation of evil engraved on his bones is lifted. All his sins are orgiven and atonement is granted” (Likutey Mohoran 1:4).
Rebbe Nachman taught that we should make a spiritual accounting every day – this is one of the main aspects of hisbodidus. “For deeds done against G-d’s will, set aside a time every day to isolate yourself with a broken heart. Be heartbroken – but not depressed even during this hour. One should then be happy throughout the rest of the day” (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #43).
It is only when we do confront ourselves honestly in hisbodidus that we can be happy for the rest of the day, knowing that we have “come clean” with G-d and are not trying to run away from the truth. G-d is full of loving kindness and compassion. But these are qualities that we can only experience when we face Him honestly. The only way to do so is by first acknowledging the sins that have distanced us from Him.
Rebbe Nachman was at pains to distinguish between heartbreak and depression: “Heartbreak is in no way related to sadness and depression… Depression comes from the side of evil and is hated by G-d. But a broken heart is very dear and precious to G-d.”‘ [Cf. Psalms 51:19: “The sacrifice to G-d is a broken spirit; G-d will not despise a broken, shattered heart.”] “It would be very good to be broken-hearted all day. But for the average person, this can easily degenerate into depression. You should therefore set aside some time each day for heartbreak. You should isolate yourself with a broken heart before G-d for a given time. But the rest of the day you should be joyful” (Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom #41).
Rebbe Nachman defines the difference between depression and heartbreak as follows: “Depression is like anger and rage. It is like a complaint against G-d for not fulfilling one’s wishes. But one with a broken heart is like a child pleading before his father. He is like a baby crying and complaining because his father is far away” (ibid. #42). Another time the Rebbe said: “When you have a broken heart, you can be standing in a crowd and still turn around and say, ‘Master of the World…'” (ibid. #231).
“After heartbreak comes joy” (aid. #45). We should not imagine Reb Noson as living in a constant state of sadness and self-denigration. Throughout his prayers in Likutey Tefilot we see him boldly and determinedly asking for G-d to lift him up, confident that He will help him and answer his prayers. We should also remember that what we read in Likutey Tefilot reflects Reb Noson in only one part of his day – during his hisbodidus, the very time that Rebbe Nachman said we should be broken-hearted. The rest of the time, Reb Noson must surely have been positive and joyous, as indeed we see from many of the stories about his life. He was a man of extraordinary zeal, activity and alacrity. He was constantly busy – writing, printing, publishing, travelling, teaching… He could only have achieved all that he did through positive thinking and joy.
Reb Noson would have been the first to say: don’t be depressed. Once somebody came to him and told him that every time he studied the renowned Mussar text, the Reishit Chokhmah, it made him depressed. Reb Noson replied: “The author of the Reishit Chokhmah never intended that you should become depressed by his work. If you can’t study his work without becoming depressed by it, then study something else” (siach Sarfey Kodesh 1- 601).
Surely Reb Noson would have said the same about those who find parts of his own Likutey TOilot depressing. That is surely not what he intended. But if it happens turn to something more positive!
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