In Uman, Rebbe Nachman spent time with the local maskilim (Jewish assimilationists) as well as with his Chassidim. Though people wondered about his motives, the Rebbe’s whole mission with the maskilim, as with all Israel, was to implant faith and Torah. But he understood their outlook and attitudes, and used a very different approach with them.
While warning his followers to stay well clear of them, he himself would speak with them for hours. The maskilim enjoyed his company and visited him often. They discussed every subject under the sun…except Torah, which the Rebbe studiously avoided.
The Rebbe described one of these maskilim, the atheistic Hirsh Ber, as the “head of the snake” (evil incarnate) of the generation. But as time went on, Hirsh Ber – who had vowed never to even think of God – said, “I feel compelled to say there is a God!”
During one of their visits, Rebbe Nachman was playing chess with them. In the middle of the game, Reb Noson and Reb Naftali came in. Their awe and respect for the Rebbe made the maskilim feel somewhat embarrassed about their own casual behavior with him.
The Rebbe then told them a story about a king who had a good friend with whom he used to play chess. They would become so absorbed in the game that the king forgot he was a king and his friend also forgot he was playing against the king. Sometimes the king won, sometimes the friend.
Once the royal ministers entered, showing all the respect and awe due to a king. The friend became ashamed of his casual behavior and asked the king for forgiveness. The king told him, “That’s not your business. With them, I manage countries. With you, I play chess.”
Rebbe Nachman then pointed at Reb Noson and Reb Naftali and told the maskilim, “With them, I govern countries. With you, I play chess.”
Rebbe Nachman’s efforts bore fruit. The time the maskilim spent with the Rebbe that summer brought them a little closer to Judaism. When the Rebbe passed away, Reb Noson was crying bitterly over his loss. Hirsh Ber said to him, “You miss the Rebbe? I miss the Rebbe! If the Rebbe had lived longer, I would have repented and become a truly God-fearing Jew.”
From “Through Fire and Water”