It's happened to me quite a few times recently that people who I thought were basically 'good', basically 'religious', basically 'believing', basically 'nice', basically 'kind' people turned out to be anything but.
I keep thinking about that Rebbe Nachman saying that if G-d would take all of the bad out of a person in one shot, they'd lose their sanity. He knows it's too hard to let go of all the lies, all the evil, all the terrible behaviours and bad character traits in one leap, so He does it bit by bit, at whatever pace a person is prepared to go at.
If you visit Uman, to Rebbe Nachman's tomb, the pace of change and of discarding all our innate evil can go up dramatically. By the same token, if you make a commitment to try to talk to G-d every single day, (otherwise known as 'hitbodedut'), then you can also see amazing, profound changes much faster than otherwise. And if you do both together, personal prayer and lots of visits to the tombs of holy people - you're breaking Olympic records in the spiritual realm.
Things that you thought 'could never change' do. Lots of them. Things that your family forbears told you 'can never change' do, often radically. Things that your yetzer hara, or evil inclination, tells you are permanent, and permanently upsetting, fixtures of your life, suddenly get unstuck and disappear.
The movement you see amongst people who are genuinely looking for Hashem, and genuinely trying to follow the Rebbe's advice, and genuinely trying to do their best to eradicate the evil inside themselves bit by bit, is tremendous. People literally transform in front of your eyes.
Where they used to be arrogant and brash, they are suddenly very sweet and considerate of others. Where they used to be terribly judgemental and critical, suddenly they are doing their best to find the good in others, and to see it from the other person's perspective. Where they use to take a lot, now they give. Where they used to grandstand, and steal the show, now they take a back seat and let someone else talk.
And so on and so forth. But all these things only happen when you're dealing with people who aren't fakes.
When you're dealing with fakes, you'll hear a lot of words, and you'll see a lot of 'flash' - but you won't see any real progress. They may drop Hashem into the conversation more, but it will still basically be the same whiny, nasty, poisonous, manipulative words as before.
Whatever those people were complaining about five years ago or ten years ago or 15 years ago - they are still complaining about it. Whatever horrible judgemental calls they were making about everyone around them back in 1962 - they are still making them today, in 2012.
Whatever their underlying 'theme' or 'motif' or 'story' is, whether it's self-pity, or self-righteousness, or disdain, or superiority, or worry, or anxiety, or anger, or jealousy, or (fill in the blank…) - it's still there, waving hello at you in every conversation you have.
Yes, they'll tell you they talk to G-d all the time. Yes, they'll tell you about all the holy places they visit, and all the holy people they're in touch with, and all the kindnesses and mitzvoth they do. And if they're really good at faking it, they can keep you going for years, with only a vague uneasy feeling in the pit of your stomach to clue you in that 'something' isn't quite right here.
But the real litmus test is change.
Has the person's character changed in any concrete, tangible, recognisable way? Does it take them longer to get cross now? Are they actively holding themselves back from speaking evilly about others, or apologizing when they realize they've just said something nasty?
Are they apologizing at all, for anything, or is still always someone else's fault? Are they happier with their lot in life, even though it's still hard? Are they more grateful for their blessings, which they have hundreds and millions of, like all of us walking around down here? Are they more thoughtful? Are they a bit kinder? A bit less selfish?
If the answer is 'no' - then you're dealing with a fake.
There are some fakes who go to Uman, year after year, and who come back completely unchanged, with exactly the same outlook, problems and character flaws as before they went.
There are some fakes who tell you 'they talk to G-d all the time', and they'll even go as far as to claim they've sorted out their tremendous character flaws in two months flat (because they are very good at getting G-d to do what they tell Him…) But if you dare to challenge them, or call them on what they're telling you, or test them, you quickly see it's all rubbish. Nothing's really changed and it may even have got worse.
Other fakes will use their 'devotion' to G-d and religion to trample everything holy and good and true.
The rule of thumb here, for dealing with religious fakes of every stripe, Breslev or otherwise, is to tune out what's being said, or what's being claimed, and to look at what's really changing, on the inside, where they won't get any big prizes or kudos.
This holds true for everyone. It holds true for me, as well. It's all very well for me to sit and write stuff for Breslev Israel, but am I really changing? Am I smiling more at the people who cut in on me at the Super? Do I have more patience for my kids? Am I making more effort to treat my husband like a king? Am I happier, kinder, gentler, more forgiving?
I don't know. Maybe you can tell me.
What I do know, is that it takes a lot of time to clean all the evil out of ourselves, especially these days, when we are all so immersed in it. The things I've learnt recently would've been far too hard to handle, if there weren't years of hitbodedut and multiple visits to holy people to help me 'catch' them without severely damaging myself.
Change can be a tremendous force for good, for growth, for spiritual progress - but the process of destroying the inner evil to build more inner good can be tremendously challenging.
That's probably why the fakes continue to fake it, instead of trying to really change. Because change without sufficient prayer and kedusha (holiness) and connections to G-d and holy people can be really dangerous. Almost as dangerous as staying exactly the same.
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Check out Rivka Levy's new book The Happy Workshop based on the teachings of Rabbi Shalom Arush