Tehillim should open the gates of your heart - Breslov expert


CAMBRIDGE University graduate Trevor Bell was working in the City of London as a commercial solicitor when he discovered Breslov chassidut.

After graduating in economics and sociology, Trevor became an investment manager.

As if the long hours were not enough, in his spare time he studied law, qualifying as a barrister.

He then re-qualified as a solicitor, as, now married to Mancunian wife Linda (nee Potash) and with two children, he could not afford to work as a barrister.

But the drive for financial success was not enough for him.

Trevor, who now lives in Jerusalem - and has reverted to his Hebrew name of Yitzchok -told me: "I was looking for something authentic. I also reacted a little against the intellectual snobbery of Cambridge."

He was drawn to study the life and works of the founder of chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov. Then back in the 1970s, Trevor picked up a book written by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov.

He revealed: "It really changed my life."

Rebbe Nachman, who lived from 1772-1810, was the great grandson of the Baal Shem Tov. Breslov chassidim concentrate on serving God with simplicity, joy and sincerity. That did it for Trevor.

He said: "It helped me focus on the truth of what was important in life and on what was its purpose.

"I didn't see my path in life as just acquiring material goods."

He explained: "We never had much money. It wasn't as though we were living in a six-bedroom mansion and threw it all over.

"But there was a tendency to work longer and longer hours. I found I was getting swept away with those long hours.

"I wanted more time for myself to study chassidut and to be with my family.

"I very much felt the important things were my family and serving God.

"One of the important things in Breslov is having personal communication with God. Rebbe Nachman stresses that one should speak to God each day in one's own language.

"It is very much about personal communication, simplicity and meaning."

Nowadays, Breslov chassidism has become exceedingly fashionable with some 50,000 men spending Rosh Hashana at the grave of Rebbe Nachman in Uman in the Ukraine.

Yitzchok said: "I got involved when there were very few Breslov chassidim in England. In those days, Breslov was not as big a movement as it is today.

"I have been going to Uman since 1985 when it was still under the communists.

"In 1989, we were first allowed go there for Rosh Hashana. That year only 800 went. In the early days it changed my life. But to be honest it is so busy and so noisy now. It's become a bit like Meron on Lag b'Omer, so popular. It's the place to be."

Yitzchok is quick to add: "It's good that so many people go now."

In 1988, Yitzchok and his family moved to Manchester, primarily to cut down his working hours, gaining employment with two firms of solicitors for just three days a week.

He said: "That was a blessing."

In his spare time in Manchester, Yitzchok trained as a counsellor with Relate and worked for the Jewish Marriage Council. He also gave shiurim and started writing books, mainly about Rebbe Nachman and his disciple Rebbe Noson.

Nearly six years ago, Yitzchok and his family moved to Jerusalem, where he continued writing and giving shiurim. He still makes his annual pilgrimage to Uman, but admits that it's now getting harder.

He said: "In terms of comfort I would much rather be at home, particularly now that I live in Israel.

"But Rebbe Nachman said that he is only able to assist people's spiritual repair on Rosh Hashana in Uman. This is not possible any other time or place. I first went when I was in my early 40s. It makes a big difference."

But, although he might find the pilgrimage to Uman more difficult than in his younger days, Yitzchok has now expanded his writing horizons and set up a worldwide movement to encourage women to understand the Psalms.

Moving out of the Breslov writing niche, Yitzchok has just published his most accessible book, Psalms That Speak to You - A Clear and Meaningful Translation for our Generation.

Yitzchok told me: "I have been interested in the tehillim for years. I always loved them. But I always found it very difficult to feel involved with them because I didn't feel they were speaking to me personally.

"The Hebrew is very difficult and all the English translations did not flow for me. They didn't enhance my personal attachment. I found I wasn't emotionally involved.

"I felt that no modern English translation flowed and spoke to people."

He explained that traditionally it is women who say tehillim, often in groups to pray for the sick.

In the last couple of decades, tehillim groups for women have mushroomed in tune with the rebirth of Jewish learning and observance and the desire for women to increase their role in religious life.

But Yitzchok found that many of the women who attended these groups did not understand what they were saying and therefore did not feel emotionally attached to the Psalms.

He says: "I am not decrying women saying tehillim. I think it's a very great thing to say them, even if you don't understand them.

"The Psalms are supposed to open the gates of Heaven. But do they open the gates in one's own heart? Do they speak to you? Many women tell me they don't."

Having found no satisfactory English translation, Yitzchok set about doing his own, incorporating the views of the leading commentators into his flowing, but not totally word-for-word, translation.

With the publication of the book, Yitzchok set up the organisation Tehillim Today, whose aim is to encourage people around the world to become personally involved in the saying of tehillim.

TT now has ambitious plans to produce translations of the Psalms in French, Russian, Spanish, Yiddish and even Ivrit in different formats.

Yitzchok said: "I want people to relate personally to the tehillim. Besides reciting the number of Psalms they already do, they can take one verse and read it in Hebrew and English and relate it to their own lives."

He said that he purposely did not include in the book an explanation of the history of why King David wrote each Psalm, because he says: "Every person has to relate it to their own lives and find themselves in the Psalm.

"They should look at every word in the Psalm and say this is happening to me."

© 2017 Jewish Telegraph