Reb Yisroel Odesser:
The Spirit of Rebbe Nachman
While in Los Angeles in 1983 visiting my mother, I heard through the grapevine that there was a Hasidic rebbe in town from Israel who sounded interesting. His name was Reb Yisrael Odesser, and he was somehow connected to Breslow I wouldn't call myself a "card-carrying" member of Breslov, but I felt very connected to Rebbe Nachman of Breslov from all I had received from both Reb Shlomo and Reb Gedaliah. I told my family that I was going out to meet some rebbe, and that I'd be back in an hour or so. They were fairly upset when I returned four hours later, but time had just evaporated while I was with him. Reb Yisrael was very old. His gray hair was a tangle, his peyot, or side curls, were askew, and his broad, round-rimmed, black hat sat at an angle. His clothes were wrinkled. He wore his
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tzitzit, his garment with the fringes on the four corners, over his shirt, and an old long black coat over it. He sat hunched over, but his eyes were dancing, his face was illuminated with joy, and he was telling stories about his youth to the few followers and visitors sitting closely around him. He came from an extremely poor family from Tiberias, a lovely town along the Sea of Galilee. His father was blind, and his mother baked and sold bread from flour that someone donated each week to support the family. He went to a religious school for poor children. Despite his struggle just to survive physically, he had a much bigger struggle in his life. He knew there had to be a way to pray from the deepest depths of the heart, with a longing and an enthusiasm and a fire. But whenever he asked his rabbis and teachers about this, they told him it was nonsense, and he should just get on with simply saying the words of prayer, then return to his studies. He begged to learn more, but they just ridiculed him. One day he found a Hebrew book whose cover pages had been torn off. It was lying in a garbage heap. That was no place for a holy book, so he picked it up and examined it curiously. After looking at the first page, young Yisrael started trembling with excitement, with awe, with fear. The book was about how to really pray to God, how to talk to God. It taught about going out into the fields to talk to God, about praying with the trees. This book was the answer to his prayers. He devoured it from missing cover to missing cover. He read it over and over again. But why was the book torn? And why was it in the garbage? And who wrote it? Reading the book one day in his yeshiva room, one of his roommates came in, grabbed the book from him, and said, "What's this you're reading?"
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He looked closer, recognized the book, and said, "This is trash! Where did you get this? These are the forbidden teachings of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov! Don't you know better than to read this?" He took the book and ran out the door with it. Yisrael was devastated. No sooner had he found the answer to his longing than it was cruelly snatched away from him. What could he do? At least now he knew who had written these inspired teachings. With the little that he had learned, he went out into the fields and poured out his soul to God-not speaking words from the prayer book, but speaking his own words, in his own language, and from the depths of his heart. "Rebono Shel Olam, Master of the World! I've waited so long to learn how to pray to You with love and awe, and finally You send me a book I can learn from. Then You take it away from me before I get a chance to learn it! Please send me another book, or send me a teacher who can help me. Please don't leave me like this." Day after day, week after week, Yisrael prayed like this. No response. Then one day, he was out walking and saw someone slumped over on a donkey, barely holding on. The man was very sick and weak, but he managed to whisper that he needed something to eat. Yisrael sensed that he was a very holy man, a tzaddik. Somehow he knew that God had sent him. Yisrael took him to his mother. Although she hardly had enough to feed her own family, they took him in and cared for him, nursing him back to health. When he was a little stronger, they went for walks and got to know one another. The old man was Reb Yisrael Karduner, from Sefat, where he had a print shop. Among other things, he printed the books of Rebbe Nachman. He spent most of his time in Meron, at the holy
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grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, praying as he had learned from the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. Now he had become very ill, but felt that he couldn't leave his holy place of prayer even for the sake of his health. So he kept putting off leaving, even temporarily, to come to Tiberias and soak in the healing hot springs. He had resisted and resisted for weeks until his condition was so precarious that he was forced to come down from the mountain. He was the answer to Yisrael's prayers. Not only did he print the books of Rebbe Nachman, but his life and practice also had been deeply influenced by him. The two of them spent a great deal of time together, and Yisrael learned everything he could from him about the secrets of prayer and about the teachings of Rebbe Nachman. Years later, in a moment of feeling far from God, Yisrael Odesser did not fast on an important fast day. After that he felt so bad about it that he didn't know what to do. He fasted and prayed, asking for help and guidance. Something told him to open one of his books and look for an answer in it. He pulled out a book by Rebbe Nachman and opened it randomly. He read what was written, but couldn't see that it answered his questions. But there was a piece of folded paper in the book. Yisrael moved it out of the way, and read what was written on the facing page. Again, he found no answer. He read it a few more times. Nothing. Finally, he picked up the paper and looked at it. It was a letter in Rebbe Nachman's handwriting-a message from beyond time and space. Mentioning
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that he hadn't fasted on that particular day, Rebbe Nachman was telling him not to give up. It was signed in a way that no one had ever seen before: Na Nach Nachma Nachman M' (from) Uman. This revelation for Reb Yisrael became the foundation of the rest of his life and of his teachings. Today, a whole movement within Breslov Hasidism is based on this. For them, "Na Nach Nachma Nachman M'Uman" is a powerful mantra. When Reb Yisrael finished telling this story to me, he began telling stories of Rebbe Nachman. Now, I had heard these stories from Reb Shlomo and Reb Zalman and Reb Gedaliah. They are powerful, and I learned tremendously from them. But no one told them like Reb Yisrael. It was as if he were telling it for the first time, blowing his mind on every word, on every image. He was also blowing my mind with every word and every image. For instance, when telling part of Rebbe Nachman's story of the Seven Beggars, where one beggar was telling of his ability to heal the princess who had been shot with arrows, Reb Yisrael said, "The beggar said, 'And I could heal the princess.' And when Rebbe Nachman said that, he pointed to himself, and he said, 'And I could heal the princess."' And while Reb Yisrael spoke, I could feel the healing coming through. Why did he pick that one short part of Rebbe Nachman's longest story? Did he know that my wife Ety had cancer and was struggling to be healed? As he told story after story, or just certain parts of the stories that he knew needed to be told, I lost all sense of time.
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I met with him a number of times after that, but that first meeting was the most powerful. He had an energy, a love, a joy that was totally beyond his old and frail physical body. Na Nach Nachma Nachman M'Uman. Na Nach Nachma Nachman M'Uman!
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