Once it happened that Reb Nachman woke up in the middle of the night, and instead of the deep silence that usually pervaded, he heard something like faint music. At first the sound seemed no more than an approaching wind, hut soon he realized it actually was a kind of music. What could it be? He had no idea. But he continued to hear it ever so faintly, sometimes present, sometimes about to disappear. And as it did not grow any louder, he had to strain to listen. One thing was certain, though: Reb Nachman felt drawn to this music, as if it were a message coming to him from a great distance, which he was trying to receive.
Then Reb Nachman got up and went into his study and sat down by the window. And yes, from there the music seemed slightly louder, as if he were a little closer to its source, hut it remained very faint. It did not seem to come from any instrument with which he was familiar, for it did not sound like a violin or a flute: not like a bass fiddle and not like a drum. Nor did it have the sound of voice or voices. If only he were able to hear it better, he thought, he might be able to identify its source.
Then Reb Nachman left the house and walked out into the field beyond the gate, under a sky crowded with stars. There he had no memory, except for questions that concerned the origin of the mysterious music. And while his eyes were fixed on the heavens, the ground remained unknown beneath his feet. And for that time he did not impose patterns on distant stars or imagine the life they might sustain. Nor did he count the gift of the stars as riches. Instead he listened for a long, long time.
At first Reb Nachman thought that what he heard was coming from a single instrument. But soon he was able to separate the instruments that wove their music together so well. Yet this new knowledge did not satisfy his longing and curiosity; in fact, it only served to whet it. Where was this distant music coming from? Surely it was not drifting there from any orchestra in Bratslav; or from anywhere else in this world. Of that Reb Nachman was certain. No, this was some kind of celestial music, music of the spheres. It was then Reb Nachman realized how much he wanted to follow that music and discover its source. And this longing grew so great that he became afraid his heart would break. Then, while he was staring upward, he saw a very large star fall from its place in the heavens and blaze across the sky like a cornet. He followed that star as it fell, and shared its last journey. And somehow it seemed to Reb Nachman that he was falling with that star and was caught up in that same motion, as if he had been swept away by an invisible current, and he closed his eyes and let himself be carried.
Now it happened that when Reb Nachman opened his eyes again he found himself seated inside a chariot of fire that blazed its way across the heavens. And he did not have time to wonder how this had happened, or what it meant, but merely to marvel in awe as the wonders of the heavens passed before his eyes. Before him he saw two kinds of luminaries: those that ascended above were luminaries of light and those that descended below were luminaries of fire. And it was then, when his eyes had become adjusted to the sudden illuminations crossing his path, that Reb Nachman became aware of a presence beside him and began to perceive a dim body of light.
That is when the angel who drove the chariot first spoke to him, and said: “Reb Nachman, I am the angel Raziel. You should know that your calling and your prayers have not gone unheard in heaven. This chariot has been sent to bring you to the place you long for, the source you are seeking.”
And with each word the angel Raziel spoke, the light surrounding his ethereal body grew brighter, until he appeared to Reb Nachman as a fully revealed human being. This was the first time Reb Nachman had ever been face-to-face with an angel. And yet, strange to say, he did not feel the fear he would have expected, but rather feit as if he had been reunited with a long-lost companion.
Just then the chariot approached some kind of parting of the heavens, which resembled a line drawn across the cosmos. As they drew closer, he saw it was actually an opening through which an ethereal light emerged. Raziel recognized the question taking form in Reb Nachman’ s mind, and he said: “We are approaching the place where the Upper Waters and the Lower Waters meet. This is where the Upper Worlds are separated from the Lower Worlds, and what belongs to the spheres above is divided from what belongs to the spheres below.”
No sooner did the angel finish speaking than the chariot approached close enough to that place for Reb Nachman to catch a glimpse of what lay on the other side. And what he saw was a magnificent structure suspended in space. And from that one glimpse he knew that whatever it was, no human structure could begin to compare with it. But then, before he had time to question the angel, the chariot passed through that very aperture, to the complete astonishment of Reb Nachman, for it was no higher than a hand’s breadth. It was at that moment that Reb Nachman grew afraid for the first time, for he realized he was flying through space at a great height and did not dare to look down. Then he said to the angel. “How is it possible that we have passed through that place which is no more than three finger-breadths?”
Raziel said, “In your world of men, Reb Nachman,it is possible to contain a garden in the world. But in this kingdom it is possible to contain the world in a garden. How can this be? Because here, whoever opens his heart to the Holy One, blessed be He, as much as the thickness of a needle, can pass through any portal.”
Even as Raziel spoke these words Reb Nachman had already been captured by the radiant vision that loomed ahead. And again, without his having to ask, Raziel replied. “The place you are about to be taken to, Reb Nachman, is the very one you have been seeking. Yet since even this chariot is not permitted to approach much closer to that sacred place, you must soon depart from it and remain suspended in space, like the Sanctuary you see before you.”
And without any other explanation, Reb Nachman realized that the wonderful structure he saw must be the Celestial Temple, after which the Temple in Jerusalem had been modeled, and with which it was identical in every aspect, except for the fire surrounding the heavenly Sanctuary. For the marble pillars of this heavenly miracle were illumined by red fire, the stones by green fire, the threshold by white fire, and the gates by blue fire. And angels entered and departed in a steady stream, intoning an unforgettable hymn to a melody Reb Nachman heard that day for the first time, hut which he recognized as if it had been familiar to him all the days of his life.
That is when Reb Nachman realized he was no longer within the chariot hut suspended in space without support for his hands or feet. And it was then, with his eyes fixed on that shimmering vision, that Reb Nachman was first able to distinguish the Divine Presence of the Shekhinah hovering above the walls and pillars of the Temple, illuminating them and wrapping them in a glowing light, which shone across all of heaven. It was this light he had seen from the other side of the aperture, before the chariot of fire had crossed into the Kingdom of Heaven. And so awestruck was Reb Nachman to witness the splendor of the Shekhinah, he suddenly experienced an overwhelming impulse to hide his face. He began to sway in that place and almost lost his balance. Had it not been for the angel Raziel speaking to him at that instant he might have fallen from that great height. The angel said, “Take care, Reb Nachman, and know that the Temple remains suspended by decree of the Holy One, blessed be He. And you must remember above all to keep your eyes fixed on its glory, if you are not to become lost in this place. For should you look away from the Temple for as long as a single instant, you would risk the danger of falling from this height. Even a mere distraction would take you to places unintended, from which you might never return. So too should you know that no living man may enter into that holy dwelling place and still descend to the world of men. For no man could survive the pure fire burning there, through which only angels and purified souls can pass.”
And it was then, when he had regained his balance, that Reb Nachman finally discovered the source of the celestial music that had lured him from his house in a world so far removed, and yet so close. for as he followed that music to its source in the Celestial Temple, his eyes carne to rest on concentric circles of angels in the Temple courtyard. Then he realized that the music he had been hearing was being played by an orchestra of angels. And when he looked still closer he saw that each of the angels played a golden vessel cast in the shape of a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. And each one had a voice of its own, and one angel in the center of the circle played an instrument in the shape of the letter Bet.
And as he listened to the music, Reb Nachman realized it was the long note of the letter Bet that served as its foundation and sustained all of the other instruments. He marveled at how long the angel was able to hold this note, drawing his breath back and forth like the Holy One Himself, who in this way brought the heavens and the earth into being. And at that moment Reb Nachman was willing to believe that the world only existed so that those secret harmonies could be heard. And he turned to the angel Raziel, who had never left his side, and once more the angel knew what he wished to know, and said. “The score of this symphony is the scroll of the Torah, which commences with the letter Bet, endless and eternal, and continues with each instrument playing in turn as it appears on the page, holding its note until the next letter has been sounded, and then breathing in and out a full breath.”
And when Reb Nachman listened to that music he arrived at a new understanding of the Torah and realized that among its many mysteries there was one level on which it existed only as pure music. He was also aware that of all the instruments in that orchestra it was only the letter Bet that spoke to him and pronounced his name. Then the angel Raziel turned to him and said, “The souls of all men draw their strength from one of the instruments in this orchestra and thus from one of the letters of the alphabet. And that letter serves as the vessel through which the soul of a man may reveal itself. Your soul, Reb Nachman, is one of the thirty-six souls that draw their strength from the vessel of the letter Bet, which serves as their Foundation Stone and holds back the waters of the Abyss.”
Then it happened that when the angel Raziel said the word ”.Abyss,” Reb Nachman forgot all of his warnings for one instant and glanced down at the world so far below. And the next thing he knew, he felt like a falling star. That is when he realized he was still standing in the field beyond the gate. And the celestial music, though faint once more, still echoed in his ears.
Howard Schwartz (b. 1945)
Schwartz is an American poet, story-teller, editor, and scholar of Jewish literature. In “The Celestial Orchestra,” a Jewish treatment of the music of the spheres, the great Hasidic rebbe Nachman of Bratslav travels to the Celestial Temple to discover the source of the divine music that has troubled his sleep.
In: Zaleski, C., Ph. (Ed.), The book of Heaven. An Anthology of Writings from Ancient tot Modern Times, Oxford 2000 (Oxford University Press), p. 111-115