PIERCING HEAVEN’S TURBULENCE : R. Ephraim Kenig
Hitbodedut & Reaching to the Top
Whether you are Jewish or not, hitbodedut is relevant to everyone. Since it is also a topic that lends itself to subjective interpretation, it is important to learn the basics directly from the teachings of Rebbe Nachman in order to properly understand it. He wrote, “Hitbodedut is the highest level [a person can attain] and is greater than everything.1
Framing this statement in a historical context will help shed light on what it actually means. Rebbe Nachman lived in the second generation after the Baal Shem Tov, and since he was the great-grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, he was also acquainted with his great-grandfather’s followers. Rebbe Nachman himself was surrounded by controversy during his life, much of it due to the fact that he publicized the practice of hitbodedut. He unequivocally stated that regardless of one’s spiritual level, it is impossible to be a fully realized Jew without hitbodedut. This claim alone formed one of the strongest arguments against him, since the Jewish leaders of the time felt hitbodedut was too potent for the common populace. Even the Baal Shem Tov and his students, who were great tzaddikim capable of practicing hitbodedut at the highest of levels, failed to transmit the practice to the wider public since they also considered it only something for the spiritually elite.
Rebbe Nachman’s approach was the opposite. He insisted that regardless of who you are, it is impossible to be a proper Jew without practicing hitbodedut. This is the context of his statement, “Hitbodedut is a supreme level and greater than everything,” since it is one of the highest ways one can serve HaShem. Unlike the students of the Baal Shem Tov, Rebbe Nachman knew that precisely because of its power, hitbodedut is for everyone. He made it accessible to anyone seeking to progress spiritually.
STRUCTURED VS SPONTANEOUS PRAYER
What is hitbodedut? No matter how hectic your schedule, establish a private time alone for an hour in a quiet room or in an open field to speak to your Creator every day. Beg, plead, and speak with words of grace, appeasement, and conciliation. Explain your actions and plead to be brought closer to HaShem in an authentic way.
When you wake up in the morning, and open your eyes and say, “HaShem, thank you for what I have, and I ask you for what I don’t have,” according to the Rambam, we are fulfilling our essential prayer obligation for the day. Before the Second Temple, there was no formal prayer structure as there is today. The daily mitzvah of prayer involved getting up in the morning, praying, and that was it. As time passed, knowledge drifted away and people stopped praying since they forgot how to pray or what prayer involved. It was at this point our sages instituted the specific order of prayers we are familiar with today: the morning blessings, the sacrifices, psukei d’zimra, Shema, the Amida, etc. For us, it is all set out in a specific order and wording. Since formalized prayer is a tikkun from our sages, we may not denigrate it in any way, since there is no practical difference between a Torah injunction or rabbinic ordinance to us today. If the sages instituted it, it is incumbent upon us with all of its stringencies and detail.
However, there is an inherent pitfall here. A dictated structure lacks the point of praying from the heart. King David actually restored this point when he wandered through the forests, fields, and mountains, spilling out his heart to God. Incredibly, these spontaneous prayers comprise the entire book of Psalms, included as one of the books of the Bible. The great tzaddikim always prayed to HaShem in their own words, straight from the heart, including the Baal Shem Tov and his small circle of followers. Nonetheless, it was Rebbe Nachman who publicized hitbodedut so everyone could easily practice it.
God waits for us to speak to Him in our own words since it is something that brings Him tremendous satisfaction and enjoyment. Thank Him for what you have already and use pleasant language to ask for everything you lack.
THE YETZER HARA HAS NO CLUE
There is another benefit that prayer from the heart brings, especially to our generation. When it comes to today’s established prayers, according to Rebbe Nachman, everyone needs special merit to have their prayers accepted Above, since the prayer of a Jew, in particular, must ascend to the “crown of Hashem,” a place so high that it is inaccessible to even the highest angelic beings.
Since each prayer needs a special merit, many people have the custom to connect [literally “bind”] themselves before each prayer to the tzaddikim of the generation, and particularly the tzaddik considered the “Tzaddik Yesod Olam,”2 since this is the tzaddik on the highest level who knows how to raise everything up to the right place. The prayer is then handed over to him to deliver, to protect it from the many forces waiting to pounce on it with accusations against the person. “How can this lowly creature forget HaShem most of the day, then suddenly decide to pray, expecting their words to be accepted?! Let’s check them out carefully to see who they really are!”
The accusations then begin, which block the prayer from ascending. But by connecting ourselves to the tzaddikim, not a single angel, especially a “destroyer,” will have permission to prevent anything from ascending.
This concept is directly relevant to the established daily liturgy found in the prayerbook, including prayers that require only the simplest of intentions. Obviously, it is all the more relevant to those prayers that demand proper pronunciation and intention of the various holy names of HaShem.
Hitbodedut on the other hand, is radically different. Astonishingly, it is a type of prayer unfathomable by the yetzer hara, who doesn’t understand how a Jew has the brazenness to pour out their heart and speak directly to HaShem, “Ribono shel Olam, You created me with all my deficiencies. You are my Father and I have no one but You. I want to thank You with all my body and soul for everything you have given me.” The yetzer hara is unable to comprehend this type of prayer enough to oppose it with accusations. It can read the words in Likutei Moharan where it references this thing called hitbodedut, but it is unable to grasp how God can descend so low, to whatever form or situation a prayer is uttered, and receive it directly and immediately. This is the greatness of hitbodedut.
SPEAK YOUR OWN LANGUAGE & ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
Hitbodedut should be expressed in the language you normally speak, since it is difficult to clearly articulate your thoughts otherwise. It is also much easier to express anything harbored in the heart because the heart is drawn more after words spoken in one’s native tongue. Many are not accustomed to expressing intimate inner thoughts during regular prayer, because the prayer is in a language they don’t normally speak. The mind mentally translates the prayers, making proper focus doubly difficult and causing thoughts to easily fly off in another direction. The beauty of hitbodedut is that the same language used to converse with friends and family is the same used to speak to HaShem.
Set aside a special room or go outside somewhere in a quiet, isolated area on a regular daily basis to spill out everything in your heart, since on the deepest of levels, hitbodedut is the vehicle to ask for any spiritual level you desire. If you are satisfied with the simplest of levels, you’ll pray a little bit, and go off to work. If this is enough for you, then you will receive accordingly. On the other hand, if you say, “HaShem, lift me up to You, help me understand what is really going on in the world and how You supervise every detail—help my faith to grow so I can see the intelligence found in Your Torah,” you will be granted this level. Ask for even the highest of levels! “Master of the Universe, grant me the knowledge and awareness—the daat—and clear prophetic vision of Moses.” HaShem will have no choice, as it were, but to give you such a level where you will be literally encompassed in the soul of Moses. You will receive according to your true desire, which is the proper context for Rebbe Nachman’s statement that everyone can achieve spiritual heights according to their level.
SIDE EFFECT OF HAPPINESS
Establishing a regular daily routine of hitbodedut, brings an implicit promise of happiness ensured by Rebbe Nachman himself. “Be very careful to accustom yourself to a special hour every single day—and the rest of the day, be happy.” The simple meaning is that regular hitbodedut will bring happiness to the rest of your day.
When one practices hitbodedut, it is possible to discuss anything with HaShem, including the painful things that cause bitterness. Sometimes, when you begin to express what is weighing on your heart, and start to understand the many negative emotions you are actually holding, whether anger, arrogance, money, lust, cravings, etc., it can bring you to sadness and brokenheartedness. Nonetheless, Rebbe Nachman says you have accomplished something by verbally expressing it, so you can be happy the rest of the day. Of course, proper hitbodedut itself will also bring happiness to the rest of the day. This happiness and pleasure comes only through routine and habit, not after only one or two sessions of hitbodedut.
THE EYE YOU PUT ON YOURSELF
Much of the power of hitbodedut comes from what you do for yourself. For example, since you naturally desire to be seen in the best light, you’ll be on your best behavior when others are around, especially if they are important people. But when no one is looking, you inevitably relax your standards and regress to a lower level. Hitbodedut on the other hand, is an eye you put on yourself. You may be willing to fool someone else, but not yourself. Hitbodedut is your own self-administered eye put on yourself each day, prompting constant self-examination: “What was the result of yesterday’s session?” On Tuesday, you must already contend with the outcome of Sunday and Monday. How long can you make excuses for yourself or engage in self-deception? Putting your own eye on yourself gives you a bigger push to move forward without all the excuses, even if it is only a tiny step—everyone according to their ability. In a sense, you will be forced to progress, since the moment you become responsible for yourself, it is impossible to remain in the same place. This type of upward movement draws blessing and shefa down on your home, your mind, and everything you do. This is yet another reason why regular hitbodedut is such a high level of divine service.
WHEN YOU CAN’T OPEN YOUR MOUTH
In many ways, hitbodedut is only a matter of routine and habit, and there is great value in merely accustoming yourself to this practice without compromise. Sometimes the channels of speech are clogged up, so even when you are unable to open your mouth and your heart feels like stone, the fact that you already established a special time and place, and showed up ready to speak to HaShem, is in itself significant and beneficial. Use the situation as a subject to start speaking. Plead for compassion that your mouth should open so you can properly express yourself, despite the efforts of the yetzer hara to seal it. It is during these moments that you can simply say, “HaShem, here I am at our hitbodedut meeting…”
This is a familiar situation to all those who practice hitbodedut. You come prepared and fired up with things to speak about, you arrive at your special place and, suddenly, everything is blank. The wellsprings of the mind are sealed, your heart is closed, and you can only manage to raise your eyes heavenward.
More than a few old-time Breslevers related this phenomenon. They would arrive at their prepared place, gaze at the heavens, the earth; look around at the mountains and fields, then all over again. They knew HaShem was there, but no words were able to escape their lips. I heard this first hand many times from a Jew who moved to Israel from Russia in his old age. He told me that when he couldn’t speak, he would simply raise his hands to heaven and after a while, HaShem helped. His eyes would then begin to fill with tears of longing for the Creator. Such words of desire and reconciliation began to flow from his heart, which perhaps even caused the yetzer hara to regret it closed the mouth of this Jew—such desire would not have come in any other way.
ME? A TZADDIK?
Rebbe Nachman points out that many great and well-known tzaddikim openly claimed that they came to their high spiritual level only through hitbodedut. The same applies to each of us. I hope becoming tzaddikim ourselves isn’t considered a frightening idea. Sometimes you can look at yourself and say, “Such a level is for me?” and you are overcome with apprehension. However, don’t worry, one doesn’t become a tzaddik overnight. After all, the tzaddikim themselves worked very hard to attain the levels that they did. It is a step-by-step process that through establishing good habits, we can accustom our hearts to yearn for spiritual heights and good middot—character traits. We will purify our materiality so much that after 120 years, the chevra kadisha will attend to our body and place it in the grave as a purified body. It will be a body not only clean from all bad traits, but also one that has acquired every good trait.
There is so much work to do on our character during our lifetime, especially during youth, since afterwards, it is much more difficult. A single hour of youth can be equal to many years of adulthood. Let’s quickly seize the moments we have and use them well, especially using hitbodedut to ask for the strength and possibility to achieve these traits.
Simple logic dictates that it goes against nature to conquer even a single negative trait, since it is inborn. In other words, it is above nature for a person to uproot a bad trait, much less acquire a good one. To give an extreme example, who would want to cut off a limb? Character traits are rooted in the physical body and in order to conquer a single trait, you would need to operate on every limb to uproot the influence of that particular trait. This is obviously not possible. No one could survive such a thing without an extraordinary amount of Divine assistance, nonetheless, only if we ask and show our seriousness and desire for it, will it be granted to us and we will see siyata d’shmaya, heavenly assistance. It depends very much upon us, particularly on our practice of hitbodedut.
You may be filled with excuses and reasons not to do it. There’s no time for yourself, you are too busy, you promised this or that to others, you race around the clock; afterwards, you need to rest and spend a little time with your family. Stop and take hold of yourself to establish an hour of hitbodedut (or even 20-30 minutes!) on a regular basis without compromise. Just as you need to eat, you will gradually begin to anticipate throughout your entire day the calm joy this hour gives you.
May HaShem enlighten our minds to understand the true greatness and opportunity of hitbodedut and may we be blessed with the siyata d’shmaya to actually carry it out on a daily basis without fail and achieve the highest levels possible. ♦
Translated and adapted from a shiur based on Likutei Moharan Tinyana 25.
1. Likutei Moharan Tinyana 25
2. Many say “I bind myself to all the tzaddikim, and especially Rebbe Nachman ben Faiga.” The idea of a tzaddik acting as an “intermediary” is commonly misunderstood as being rooted in a Christian concept. In fact, it is a concept found throughout the Chumash, Prophets, and the holy writings. Regardless of their spiritual level, tzaddikim are never considered as separate Divine beings in any way, shape or form, but rather as servants of HaShem working for the betterment of the Jewish people.