Since King David there has never been another devout Jew as pursued by his enemies like Reb Nosson Sternhartz zt”l. Reb Nosson grew up in a wealthy home not far from Breslov. He excelled greatly in his studies and married the daughter of Rabbi Dovid Tzi Orbach, a leading posek in Russia at the time. Both Reb Nosson’s father and father-in-law were staunch opponents of Chassidus.
Although Reb Nosson was extremely successful in his studies and queued to succeed his venerated father-in-law as the next leading authority, he felt that he was missing something in his devotions. Against the wishes of his family, he courageously left to study by many great Chassidic Rebbes including R’ Buruch of Medzhybizh and the Kedushas Levi. Although he was impressed by their devotions, it didn’t click for him.
Legend has it that one Motzai Shabbos by the chassidim it was Reb Nosson’s turn to go to the market and buy food for the Melava Malka. He was walking to the market when he was overcome with a feeling of emptiness. “Is this the life I’m supposed to be leading? Shopping for groceries?” He slipped into the women’s section of the synagogue and began to recite Psalms for a long time with great intensity until he fell asleep. In his dream he saw a ladder going from the ground to the heavens. Whenever he tried to climb the ladder, he would fall back down. He finally summoned the strength to climb close to the top and he fell all the way back down to the ground. This time he couldn’t get up at all. As he was lying on the floor, a man came over to him and encouraged him greatly. The man said, “if you get up and hold on tight to the ladder, you will be able to climb it”.
A year later, Rebbe Nachman moved to Breslov and Reb Nosson took the opportunity to travel there to meet him. Upon seeing the Rebbe, Reb Nosson immediately recognized his face as the man in his dream. When he introduced himself to the Rebbe later that night, Rebbe Nachman remarked “we know each other a long time, but it’s been awhile since we’ve seen each other”.
At that time Reb Nosson was 22 and Rebbe Nachman was 30 years old. For the next 8 years until Rebbe Nachman’s early death, Reb Nosson spent as much time as he possibly can with the Rebbe. This was all against the wishes of Reb Nosson’s father, who refused to allow him in the house, and his wife and father-in-law, who nearly ended their marriage.
The Rebbe made Reb Nosson his dependable scribe and even admitted later on that without ‘my Nossoleh‘ there would be nothing left of me after I die. Reb Nosson sat for countless hours with the Rebbe writing over and editing his Torah Lessons. Any time that Reb Nosson wasn’t around, upon his return to Breslov he would interrogate a number of close chassidim to find out if the Rebbe said over any torah. If he did, Reb Nosson would put together the pieces and present it to the Rebbe for approval.
It must be stated that Reb Nosson himself was a Gadol Hador and certainly fit to be a Chassidic Rebbe, but he wanted nothing of it. After Rebbe Nachman passed away, Reb Nosson was 30 years old and he made it his life’s mission to spread the teachings of the Rebbe, an extremely unpopular and downright dangerous endeavor. Although Rebbe Nachman certainly had his opponents, because he was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov and a world renown tzaddik, it was hard to oppose him too much. But once he was gone, the opponents came out of the woodworks in full force. The Savraner Rebbe made a campaign to smear Reb Nosson’s name. Reb Nosson was reported to the Russian police, arrested, exiled and even nearly assassinated. Breslover Chassidim were the subject of regular rock throwing, physical attacks and slander.
Throughout all the persecution and with unmatched mesiras nefesh, Reb Nosson managed to buy a printing press and illegally publish the writings of Rebbe Nachman. He expended much effort to organize the yearly Rosh Hashana Kibbutz to Uman, the gravesite of Rebbe Nachman and he even solicited funds and built a Breslover synogague in Uman for the chassidim.
Reb Nosson himself was a prolific writer. Besides printing everything he can from Rebbe Nachman, he was encouraged by the Rebbe to create his own novel torah ideas. This he did in his published set of books called Likutei Halachos, which follows the order of the Shulchan Aruch and explains many Jewish Laws and customs in light of the Rebbe’s teachings. In addition to other publications, he also wrote Likutei Tefilos, a collection of personal prayers begging Hashem to allow him to fulfill the different lessons and advice from Rebbe Nachman’s teachings.
We say in our evening prayers “ולא נתן למוט רגלינו” ([God] didnt let our feet slip). Theres an old Breslover joke: It’s very true. Without נתן, our feet would have slipped.