The Tree at the Center of the World

the fifth and penultimate chapter of Nachman of Breslov’s “Tale of the Seven Beggars”

On the fifth day of the wedding, in the midst of all that happiness, they remembered the hunchbacked beggar and longed for him, thinking, “If only he were here, our joy would be greater still!”

In came the hunchbacked beggar and said, “Here I am!” They all embraced and kissed, and the beggar said,

“Back then I blessed you, promising you would one day be like me, and today I make you a gift of this. You may wonder what sort of a present that is, to become a hunchback. But in fact I am nothing of the kind. I have a fine back and broad strong shoulders, perfectly proportioned, that possess the power off the Little That Holds Much.”

The hunchbacked beggar told this story:

Once, a group of people gathered to brag about having exactly this power, the Little That Holds Much. One fellow said he had it, but some among them stated their claims in a manner which more appeared more satisfactory—though I myself had to chuckle at their conceptions of the Little That Holds Much.

The first one of the boasted that he could keep in mind thousands of people, with all their needs, their ways of behaving, their appearance, their little quirks. Surely that would count as the Little That Holds Much!

The rest of them laughed, saying, “You’re nothing, and your people are nothing.” Which was actually rather witty, because you could take “your people” to mean “your family” or “the people you keep in mind”—a joke which you can be sure the man did not relish.

Another one said, “I don’t have the quality of the Little That Holds Much, but I’ve seen someone who does. Once, while I was traveling, I saw a mountain that seemed to have a great mound of dung on top. I was astonished. How did the manure end up on a mountaintop? As I approached the  mountain I saw a man sitting beside it, and he proudly announced, “ I made this mountain, all of it came out of me.” And I realized that the entire mountain was a heap of shit. All the waste products from the man’s eating and drinking he threw onto the heap. By the digestive efforts of an entire lifetime, he built a pile which became a hill which finally became this malodorous mountain. Un-questionably this man was a Little That Holds Much.”

Another man bragged that he possessed the Little That Holds Much in an acre of land which had, over the years, produced more crops than could stand on an acre, even if stacked up high. This claim was met with general approbation.

Someone else said he possessed a beautiful garden, so beautiful in fact that many people came to visit it, even distant princes traveled to see it, especially when the weather was fine. That garden could never have held all at once the multitude of people who had strolled through it, so surely this was a good example of the Little That Holds Much. This claim earned even greater favor, for the reasoning was more sophisticated.

Another said his speech was the Little That Holds Much, for he was secretary to a great king. Many people came to see the monarch, some to flatter him, others to make requests, and so on. The king couldn’t possibly speak with all of them individually, so the secretary would hear them out and summarize it for the king, condensing their flowery phrases and elaborate explanations into few words. Thus the speech of the secretary was the Little That Holds Much.

Another said his silence was the Little That Holds Much, for he had many enemies, detractors and slanderers—he was the object of countless verbal attacks. To all of these he replied with silence, that was his only engagement with all the dreadful things they had to say. Thus his silence was the Little That Holds Much.

Another said he was the real Little That Holds Much, for he had a poor blind friend of tremendous size, and though he himself was a most petite person, he acted as the huge fellow’s guide. Conducting him carefully, he kept the blind giant from slipping and falling, so one might fairly say that he was the Little That Holds Much.

I (the hunchbacked beggar) was there, and said,

This one is right, he most truly possesses the quality of the Little That Holds Much. I have correctly understood the sense in which each of you have or are the Little That Holds Much, and this last speaker has the greatest claim to the title—though in fact I myself possess this quality in a grander, more exalted sense than the whole lot of you.

The fellow who said he led the blind giant meant that he conducts the moon in her course, for the moon has no light of her own, and in that sense may be said to be blind. And indeed, he could have made his claim greater, for the existence of the earth depends on the orbit of the moon, so in maintaining the latter he sustains the former, so he is a most considerable instance of the Little That Holds Much.

But I possess the Little That Holds Much to a higher degree and in a loftier sense. Here’s the proof:

Once upon a time there was a group of philosophers who held that every living creature has a particular place in the scheme of things, where it becomes complete and finds rest, its own shady nook, as it were. The whole momentum of its being makes it tend towards that place. There exists then a place, a state of repose, of fulfillment and perfectedness for every being, a different one for each creature.

We may picture this arrangement of the world as a tree where every bird seeks safety and repose on its own particular branch, and every beast longs to rest on its own spot in the shadow of the branches.

These profound thinkers reasoned further that such a tree must indeed exist, and decided to find it, for the pleasure which all living things obtained in the tree’s proximity would be literally limitless. Every creature, bird or beast, would be there, and since this was the locus of their proper rest and contentment, none would harm another, but all play together as in paradise.

But when they had to determine what direction to set out in, a dispute arose. Should they go east or west, this way or that. No one could judge which direction was best.

A wise man happened by, who said to them, “Why are you discussing what direction is best for reaching the tree? First you need to figure out who is worthy of reaching it. Not everyone can come to that tree, only people who possess the qualities of the tree.”

“That tree has three roots, the first is Faith, the second is Awe, the third is Humility, and if you haven’t even found God, then good luck finding those!

“Truth is the trunk of the tree, that is, the truth is what arises from such roots, a concept with many ramifications, or to speak more picturesquely, branches.

“The only ones who can approach this tree are people who have the tree’s qualities: who believe in God, who fear His displeasure, and who don’t think too much of themselves.”

Not all of our band of thinkers had these traits, only a few of them did. But they had great love and fellow-feeling, and the ones who qualified didn’t want to leave the others behind and head for the tree alone. They stayed together and worked with one another till they’d all achieved those perfections of character. As soon as they did, they all came to the same conclusion regarding the correct direction, and off they went.

When they had gotten close to the tree, they saw it didn’t exactly have a location. It was there, but its there wasn’t a where, because it didn’t exist in space.

And I (the hunchback) was with them, and I said,

I can take you there.

The tree exists on a higher plane than that of physical space. The quality of the Little that Holds Much that all of you possess, even though it bends the laws of space, so that a small area holds more than can fit on it, that Little that Holds Much is still a kind of space—just not a Euclidian one. My Little that Holds Much is not a space but the limit of space, it’s more like a bridge or an isthmus between the worlds, for it doesn’t comprise a space but participates in space, and also in that which is beyond space. My Little that Holds Much is connected to the tree like the tree’s own shadow, which reaches the ground but doesn’t physically touch it—rather, it rests impalpably upon it.

I brought them to the tree, and so I earned my affidavit, that I possess in the highest degree the Little that Holds Much. (This is why I seem to be a hunchback. I appear to be distorted because I exceed the space I occupy, in me dimension is folded into itself like a map.)

Today I give you as a wedding present that you will become like me.

Great was the happiness and rejoicing at his words.

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