From his earliest years, Rebbe Nachman set lofty goals for himself. Just like the desire to see the “light of Shabbat” had consumed him, little Nachman aspired to experience God’s presence on a constant basis – to fulfill King David’s words, “I have placed God before me always” (Psalms 16:8). These yearnings led the growing boy to act in ways that were sometimes difficult for others to understand.
He knew that the great tzaddikim “ate to live” and didn’t “live to eat,” so he decided to swallow his food without chewing it, to avoid tasting its delights. (Later in life, Rebbe Nachman admitted that had he known the true power of hitbodedut, personal prayer, he wouldn’t have undertaken such self-destructive practices.) His mother was always protective of his health, and so little Nachman would try to carry out his resolve away from her watchful eyes.
Nachman knew that tzaddikim spent a great deal of time in private meditation and prayer…but how was a young child like himself going to find enough unsupervised time to commune with his Creator? During his early years, Nachman realized that as long as adults believe that a child is at play, he is usually left to himself. And so the young tzaddik developed a manner that he would come to rely on later in life: He would pretend to be involved in some other activity while, in truth, he was busy pursuing his spiritual goals.
So little Nachman made sure to act the part of any other young child: he would run wild, play with friends, be mischievous, amuse himself with games…and disappear into the fields and forests for hours at a time, searching for God.
One day, while in school, little Nachman appeared to be daydreaming. When his teacher couldn’t get his attention, he rebuked the boy. How was the teacher to know that Nachman was forming the Divine Name before his eyes, focusing on higher things?
Based on Or HaOrot I, pp. 66-69