Don’t stop after step one

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Thank God Rebbe Nachman’s advice to practice hisbodedus daily is heeded by many people worldwide.  I don’t like to be a stickler but can I suggest that we’ve been missing a key part of the formula?

Let’s see the text (Tinyana 25):

“וְיִזָּהֵר מְאֹד לְהַרְגִּיל עַצְמוֹ לְהַתְמִיד בָּזֶה מִדֵּי יוֹם בְּיוֹם שָׁעָה מְיֻחֶדֶת כַּנַּ”ל. וּשְׁאָר כָּל הַיּוֹם יִהְיֶה בְּשִׂמְחָה”

“One should be very careful to accustom himself to practicing [hisbodedus] consistently, designating an hour every day for it. And the rest of the day he should be happy“.

What happened to the second part? “And the rest of the day he should be happy”. When we finish our daily session with Hashem, there’s nothing to worry about anymore. He’s got our back. We need to stop going around moaning and groaning still about how hard everything is. That’s (partly) what hisbodedus is for. Let it all out there and then after, feel the relief and trust that the boss will take care of His part.

The truth is, the Rebbe writes that one can actually determine if he truly let go and opened his heart to Hashem based on his feelings afterwards. If he doesn’t feel happy, maybe his broken heart wasn’t what he thought it was? (Sichos Haran 45)

.אחר לב נשבר בא שמחה, וזה סימן, אם היה לו לב נשבר כשבא אחר כך לשמחה

There are so many benefits to practicing this type of unique prayer, but what could be better than feeling happy all the time? It’s like everything else in life, the more we believe it, the more it affects us. If we truly believed that we just finished entreating the most loving King of the Universe, who wants nothing else but to help us grow and succeed, then we must follow through after it with a real feeling of comfort, ease and simple happiness.

 

Hashem, help us make the time to talk real to You. Put the rights words in our mouth and open up our hearts of stone. Lead us deeper and deeper into our minds and souls, so we can tear through our fakeness and shallowness. We’re sitting here anyways, help us be real! Help us believe in You all the way. Help us believe that You truly hear our voices calling You. Let us break down and cry to You, like a child to their father. Then lift us up and help us trust that You will take care of the rest. All we can do is call out, so help us talk the truth. We know that if we can do it, nothing feels better. You got this! There’s nothing left for us to do, but sing and dance all day long!

 

Back to the basics

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There is a popular Breslov book called השתפכות הנפש. It’s a collection of teachings from the writings of Rebbe Nachman and Reb Nosson on the topic of prayer, authored by Alter Tepliker, a fourth generation Breslover chassid.

The book starts off with a rather lengthy introduction in which he demonstrates how prayer, specifically hisbodedus (the practice of setting aside time for improvisational personal prayer in our mother tongue) was a foundational practice used by all of our forefathers and ancestry throughout Jewish history.

I found it interesting that, after the introduction, the author starts off the body of the book with the following piece from Tinyana 73:

“Whoever wants to be worthy of תשובה (coming back to Hashem), should recite Psalms frequently, because reciting Psalms is מסוגל (propitious) for returning to Hashem”. 

In that piece Rebbe Nachman teaches how King David prophetically embedded Psalms  to the 49 gates of תשובה, so that all the 12 tribes, whose names total 49 letters, can enter the proper gate to return to Hashem.

But why start with this lesson? If I wanted to teach about hisbodedus, surely I would find a better lesson to begin with and inspire my readers. Namely, the second lesson he quotes, “Hisbodedus is a great virtue and higher than everything”! Why begin with a lesson about the importance of reciting Psalms?

I think there is a very profound, and layered message that the author might be hinting at by using this lesson as a starting point. Many people think that hisbodedus and personal prayer is some immensely inspiring practice. When we go out to the woods or enter another place of seclusion and talk to Hashem we want it to be esoteric and life changing. We’re always seeking inspiration to sweep us off our feet and give us wings to fly. But it doesn’t always happen. Anyone who practices personal prayer consistently will tell you that it doesn’t always flow and you don’t feel significantly different after every session.

To too many people, reciting Psalms is a chore. “I can’t connect”, “I don’t understand what I’m saying”, or “What does saying these old texts really do for me?” I very much relate to Psalms and I think the main reason why most people don’t relate to them is because there’s this bizarre pressure to recite many of them. It’s like we don’t feel that we’ve accomplished anything if we didn’t finish our quota, or a significant amount. We need to reframe and put our utmost attention into the few lines we say. Every word is stuffed with holiness, like an overpacked suitcase. If we don’t understand the words, there are available translations in every language possible. Stop trying to finish Psalms and allow yourself to relate in the most simple way to the deepest and simplest words of prayer ever written. Maybe it’s not the most glorious thing to do, maybe it’s hard to focus on but we must slow it down significantly and get real with it. Tehillim is infused with opportunities for תשובה. King David, in his unfathomable greatness, had every one of us in mind when he drew these words down from Heaven, and his ultimate purpose was to draw us back to Heaven.

Try it again…Slow down…Wake yourself up and come back to Him. He’s waiting for you to call…

 

Go with the flow

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It’s very fashionable to speak about the energy of the universe. Religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, or practices such as meditation and yoga glorify a certain mental state which lacks drive and attains personal and universal energy.

Of course, any truth can be traced back to our Torah, and the same is true here. Rebbe Nachman (Torah 52) says that the only way to attach ourselves to our deepest root-soul, and become etched in the universe, is via self-nullification (ביטול). What does that mean? Are we supposed to be ascetics and reject any pleasure the world has to offer? Of course not, our sages say that Heaven will hold us accountable for not partaking in the enjoyments our beautiful world has to offer. What it means is that we need to negate our lower self (the נפש), which is always craving to satiate itself, even at the expense of itself and others. It’s ok to enjoy this world, but when we interface with the world via the נפש, we aren’t aligned with the universe, because the self is so inflated.

How do we attain this ביטול? With hisbodedus (setting aside time to be alone and speak to Hashem in our mother tongue). It’s a bit ironic! By closeting ourselves from the world (ideally late at night and in an uninhabited place), we can actually connect most to the world. We need to stand, sit or walk alone with Hashem, asking in detail to be freed from each and every aspect of our lower self. He will respond by releasing us from the burden of those unquenchable desires which deny us the vision to see beyond ourselves and connect with the universe. It’s not so complicated. We just need to practice it. We’ll be shocked at first to see the results. Because once we can quiet that ego-state, we will start to hear our neshama (soul) talking. Then we can follow our personal truth and unify with the ultimate truth. Try it. Go with the flow!

 

Put it down

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A recent Jewish media outlet shared an anecdote about a newly married couple in their yichud room. The yichud room is a place where the couple goes immediately after the ceremony to be alone. Halacha requires that they remain completely alone for a specified amount of time to consummate the marriage. The yichud room is one of the holiest places in the world, especially for an ultra-orthodox couple that purposely has never been 100% alone before with the opposite sex. It’s customary in some circles that, while alone, the groom presents the bride with a gift. In this case, the groom gave his new bride a piece of jewelry. How special! Do you know what she did? She put it on, took out her cell phone, took a selfie and sent it to all of her friends.

I personally find this anecdote sickening! On their wedding night, the first time ever alone, she’s taking selfies? What has become of us? Is there nothing sacred anymore? I often (very often) mourn our society’s state of being with these intrusive cell phones. My kids don’t wanna hear my rants anymore, and they’re upset that I don’t let them have one, but this story reminds me why I don’t.

Don’t read this and pat yourself on the back, saying I would never do something so horrible. I guarantee that, myself included, we have all whipped out our cell phones in places and times where it’s rude and downright pathetic.

We have a problem. A very big problem. What are we going to do about it?

I have a small solution. It’s not the answer but it’s a start.

Hisbodedus! Rebbe Nachman stressed the importance of taking time out daily to talk to Hashem in our own words. Because I practice daily hisbodedus, people often ask me a lot of questions about it. “How do you do it”? etc. I think that with our phone addictions, it is so important to shut the phone off and sit alone everyday. Forget talking to Hashem for now, just sit for a half hour or so and space out. Don’t look at your phone. Just relax. It’s not enough to unplug for Shabbos anymore, it has to be done daily. If you feel it’s weird or hard to talk to Hashem in hisbodedus, then don’t. But still go out to the field or find some quit place, shut off your stupid phone and start living again. I promise you it will make a big difference in your life. Do it!

 

Stay here!

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It was about 10 months since Reb Nosson met the Rebbe. He was on fire in his avodah, spending practically every minute of his time learning and davening. He was already accustomed to leaving the village alone at night and pouring out his heart to Hashem. His family’s anger with his new customs was somewhat subsiding, but they were urging him to make a living. He succumbed to their pressure and agreed to travel to Berditchev to buy some merchandise to sell. Of course, “on the way”, he stopped in Breslov to take leave of the Rebbe.

The Rebbe walked with Reb Nosson up the mountain overlooking the Bug River and they got into a long conversation.

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They started talking about some ideas, later recorded in Torah 52, how the philosophers are mistaken, thinking that the world must exist. But their error stems from an undeniable fact, in that Hashem must exist. So once Hashem created the Jewish people, who can literally unify themselves with Hashem, then Hashem was forced (so to speak) to create the world for them.

Asked Rebbe Nachman, how does one nullify himself to such an extent that he is one with the Creator? Through Hisbodedus. By means of personal prayer, we can neutralize one by one every single physical appetite and completely unite with Hashem. The Rebbe went on to teach that this is best done at night, alone and outside the city.

Recording this incident, Rav Avraham Chazzan writes that when Reb Nosson heard these words from the Rebbe, he totally lost all desire for this world and he yelled out, “Ahhaa! Gevalt! I’m gonna run through the streets of the city and marketplace and scream this out! What are they thinking!?” It seemed that Reb Nosson lost his mind and he was seriously about to run and scream it. Rebbe Nachman grabbed Reb Nosson’s coat and said “Stay here! It won’t work at all”!

There’s so much to say about this holy story, but I wanna share two ideas. The first from Rav Avraham Chazzan himself, and the second a personal one.

Reb Nosson had recently been engrossed in a world of hisbodedus. He realized on his own that the best way was late at night, outside the city. He had been living this reality for quite some time, so when he heard the Rebbe’s words, the validation pierced his soul with such deep truth that he couldn’t bear any other reality. Like it says, that when we recite the words of the sacrificial offerings, all the light and bounty of those offerings that were sacrificed throughout history are drawn down by our mere words. So too, all that avodah that Reb Nosson did over the past few months was drawn down into him by the Rebbe’s words and he literally lost his mind!

I sometimes feel like Reb Nosson. I want to go out in the streets and scream out, “Don’t you see it? Don’t you realize what’s happening?” But more often I feel hopeless and helpless. How am I gonna make a difference? There’s so much corruption and uniformity on so many levels that I just want to give up and crawl into my little box and be left alone.

How I long for a rebbe who could grab me, shake me out of my insanity and say “Stay here! Stay here!”

 

Letting go

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So how was my Tisha Bav? you ask. Well, not great. Aside from the natural gloominess of the day coupled with fasting, I was suffering from something else too: My own mind games.

I guess I felt some pressure to feel bad and cry about the state of our exiled people, how we miss our Temple and our communal and individual suffering, which I do admit stems from the shechina’s absence in our life. But I didn’t cry. I had a hard time connecting to the pain of any of those things. I hosted a meaningful get-together in my home where we read Eicha and hauntingly hushed songs about Jerusalem. I got up the next morning and went to hear my dear friend Rabbi Shlomo Katz of Efrat elucidate the Kinnos very beautifully. I mean, it seemed that I had all the right ingredients to awaken my sleepy soul, but in-a-sense that just mounted the pressure. “What’s wrong with me?” I was thinking. Can’t I cry, for God’s sake? Am I serious about my Judaism or not?

I started talking to Hashem and I remembered Rebbe Nachman’s timeless advice to be a תם, a simpleton. In Tinyana 44, the Rebbe says that we should “stay far away from the sophisticated ideas that we entertain, even in our avodas Hashem. Like those times when we over-think and over-analyze if we fulfilled our obligations correctly. That type of sophistication is just disconcerting, illusionary nonsense that trips us up in our avoda [and brings us farther from our goal]. Those scrutinizing thoughts lead us to sadness”.

It’s so important to step back and recognize when our thoughts are wreaking havoc on our equilibrium. They’re just silly thoughts; here now and gone later. Serving Hashem with תמימות, simplicity, empowers us to let go of those heavy, pressure-packed, hogwash thoughts and just follow our healthy state of mind in pursuit of our ambitions.

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The sweet moments count

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I was sitting alone in the field earlier today when the sweetest thing happened. In  finishing a private conversation with Hashem, I said the following: “Ribbono Shel Olam, (Master of the World), I don’t know if this was a good session or not, but I want You to know that the main reason I come out here all the time is because I love You and I want this relationship. I hope You feel the same way about me and that these sessions are making a difference in our relationship”. As I’m about to get up, all of a sudden, a red, heart-shaped helium balloon rushes into the field and starts flying up over the trees behind me. I tried to snap a picture of it, but I couldn’t get out my phone in time. (The above pic is just a symbolic memory). I sat back down elated, with a grin from ear to ear.

In Torah 2Rebbe Nachman says that Joseph merited the right of the firstborn because he embodies a certain aspect of prayer. The Rebbe never explained the connection between prayer and the firstborn. In Nachalos 4, Reb Nosson says that just like the first born legally inherits a double portion from his father, so too there is a double aspect of prayer, first praising Hashem and then asking Him for our needs.

But then Reb Nosson adds something special. He says the reason why the firstborn gets a double portion is since they were the first, in a certain sense, they enabled the parents to give birth to more children. The first is the hardest and once the parents get over that hump and have their first child, any future children owe the oldest child a debt of gratitude for ‘breaking the ice’. So too it is, says Reb Nosson, with prayer. When a person recognizes for the first time that his prayers are being answered, it enables him the next time to pray again with more enthusiasm and belief in his prayers. We all have had our prayers openly answered in the past, and those moments of clarity help us develop our prayers over time. That little red balloon was no small thing. It’s reason for me to go back out next time believing – even more – that my prayers truly make a difference.

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Manning up

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At least twice in my life I got super-inspired spiritually and strengthened my Avodas Hashem with intense focus. The first time was in my junior year of high school. I attended a modern-orthodox yeshiva and was feeling extremely unfulfilled. By the grace of God things turned around very quickly for me and I found myself in a Beis Medrash yeshiva, where I became enthralled with learning the Talmud day and night. It would not be an exaggeration to say that I went from lax mitzvah observance to strong mitzvah observance in a matter of a few weeks. A second time was more recently. My learning and prayers felt forced and one-dimensional. The void was consuming me. Again, Hashem led me to Uman for Rosh Hashana. After that experience in 2016, I felt totally reborn and passionately re-dedicated myself to my mitzvah observance.

The common denominator of those two stages in my life is that both times the enlightenment surfaced after reeling from a severe lack.

Having sort-of an extreme personality, I often experience acute highs and lows. In fact, some people who know me define me that way. “Davy’s being Davy again. What’s he up to now?”

After coming back from that first Rosh Hashana experience I was so intrigued, and determined to uncover what Breslov is all about. I hit the books full-force and jetted forward from that moment, connecting my mind and soul to the Rebbe’s, for (at least) a year without flinching. It was one of the greatest years of my life. But as Newton said, what goes up must come down. So I eventually came back down. But something about my descent changed. The low wasn’t that low. I also noticed that, while feeling low, I didn’t have a strong desire to shake things up, like I’ve done in the past. I was much more comfortable feeling low than ever before. It didn’t phase me as much, and eventually I got another burst of inspiration that helped me glide forward. This pattern repeated itself.

It’s likely that I’m simply more mature than I was in the past, and not willing to turn my life upside down from a mood slump. But I think it’s more than that. To tell you the truth, I think it’s because I consistently do hisbodedus. I take time every day to talk to Hashem in my own personal words. I like to think of it as manning-up. Every day, no matter what, I come clean, express myself and ask Hashem for help. I always have to show my face and I always talk real. Of course, just like anything else, some sessions are better than others but I’ve never had a day where I didn’t say at least a few real words. Maybe you’re the type of guy who can experience this relationship within the organized daily prayers at synagogue? Unfortunately for me, I can’t relate to Hashem in my own unique way often enough within that structure. (In fact, I find the structured prayers somewhat more fulfilling now that I pray outside of communal prayers, because the pressure of connecting creatively is off. If I can connect that day, then great, but if not, I understand that it’s service, similar to the service in the Temple. There are technicals and obligations I meet – many times happily – in the organized prayer, but it’s a different type of prayer entirely).

Consistent personal prayer is an equalizer. I’m always noticing new benefits to this practice. But one thing that I’m experiencing recently is the equilibrium that it brings. You can’t lose your sense of balance the same way when you have to show your face and explain yourself everyday. It kind of always brings you back to reality.

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Love needs no words

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Sometimes I go out to pray in the fields and I can’t find the words. Anybody who practices personal prayer will have experienced this phenomenon. You might have a lot on your mind or you might even be at ease, but there are no words. Even if you try to talk, after sometime you’ll realize that you’re just rambling but you’re not expressing your true feelings because right now you just can’t. There are no words.

So what do you do? Are you really praying at all?

Sit there quietly. Listen. Breath. Just bringing yourself to that place and experiencing that quiet is such a deep prayer. And don’t think that it’s an inferior prayer, oh no! It might be a superior prayer. It’s a prayer that can’t be bound to words. Even if you think it’s laziness that’s holding you back, I wouldn’t be so sure about that. You’ve been sluggish before and you were able to speak your mind. It’s deeper than that. It’s a quiet prayer. We don’t always have the answers. Let your eyes pray, let your breath pray. By coming out and sitting quietly with Hashem, it’s asserting that you want to be there. It’s affirming that you believe in Hashem and that you believe in Divine Providence. You might be busy all day surrounded by people wherever you go, but now you’re alone with Him. There are no people here. Now you’re part of Him. You might not know how to add to that experience with words but that’s ok. Words are for next time. But for now you’re professing His oneness by just being with Him. If you’re lucky enough to be out in nature, you might feel it more acutely, sitting quietly, maybe watching the butterflies chase each other up in a swirl. But even if you’re standing in Amida or lying in bed with the lights out, you could pray in silence. Now you’re experiencing the relationship, a love so real that there are no words.

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לעילוי נשמת הרב הקדוש מרופשיץ ר’ נפתלי צבי ב״ה מנחם מנדל הורוויץ זצ״ל

Simply satisfied

 

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Forrest Gump was right. Life is full of surprises. But the surprises aren’t always as conspicuous as they were in the movie. You might wake up in the morning and feel like the life was sucked out of you. For many people a grumpy morning can lead to a few bad days. For some, it might be the onset of depression. Recently I’ve been feeling very grouchy. This slump was building and I just couldn’t kick it. Because I do hisbodedus often, I had enough self-awareness to know that something was bugging me, but I was too engulfed in my own negative thinking and all the introspection wasn’t helping me. I’ve been trying to figure out what’s making me so irritable, but even with all the alone time I couldn’t crack the code. Thankfully I had the wherewithal to pray for help, and then help came in an unexpected way.

A few days ago I thought of re-reading one of Rebbe Nachman’s great stories called The Sophisticate and the Simpleton. I finally picked it up again today. If you havent read this tale yet, I recommend you do. (Click here).  It’s actually one of the Rebbe’s only stories that can also be understood straightforwardly. In short, the story tells of two childhood friends. One of them was very simple, limited in his education and abilities, while his friend, an intellectual and philosopher, was always looking to improve his situation with more education and training. The simpleton never feels he’s lacking and is always joyous, but his counterpart is perpetually miserable from his insatiable desire to increase his status. As it turns out the simpleton (like Forrest Gump) becomes very successful while the sophisticate, once a wealthy and distinguished craftsmen, loses everything in his quest to prove his shrewdness.

In reading about the simpleton’s innocence, I started to let go of my stubbornness to be the best. In thinking of his plainness, I was more forgiving of myself. I started to allow myself the space to be imperfect, easing the constant demands I place upon myself. When I read about the unfortunate sophisticate, I identified with his unrelenting drive to succeed and improve his situation, but I understood the endlessness and emptiness that more worldliness and overthinking brings with it.

I think what struck me the deepest was the following contrast: When the simpleton, a shoemaker by trade, would finish making a shoe, it was usually crooked. But he derived so much enjoyment from it that he would praise his handiwork saying, “My wife, what a beautiful, wonderful shoe this is”. Sometimes she would answer him asking, if it’s really so great, then why do other shoemakers get three coins for a shoe and you only get a coin and a half? He would answer her, “Why should I care about that? That’s his work and this is my work. Why must we speak about others”? From this we see the tremendous self-confidence of the simpleton. He believed in himself. He was totally unconcerned if other people did a better job than him. It’s precisely this belief in himself that keeps him from sophistication. He is satisfied with the way he sees things, regardless of what his colleagues achieve. The sophisticate, on the other hand, was exactly the opposite. After he became an accomplished physician, craftsman and philosopher, he decided to marry. “But he said to himself, ‘If I marry a woman here, who will know what I have accomplished? I must return home. Then they will see…[that] I left as a young lad, and now I have attained such greatness'”. Even though he had become so great, he still needed other people’s approval. In this line the Rebbe exposes the sophisticate’s deep insecurity. We’re left to assume that, to a large extent, his motivation for success was his lack of faith in himself.

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Rebbe Nachman encouraged his followers to serve Hashem with utter simplicity. In Pesach 9, Reb Nosson develops this theme and says that if a person becomes depressed because others are better than him, that isn’t humility but arrogance. He feels that it’s beneath his dignity to serve Hashem when he is so far from Him, while others are so near. Instead, we must emulate our patriarch Abraham, of whom it is written “Abraham was one” (Ezekiel 33). The Rebbe explains this to mean that he acted as if there was no one else in the world. Reb Nosson relates this concept to the counting of the Omer. The verse says, “וספרתם לכם, you must count for yourself”. No one can count for you. The Omer represents the spiritual progress that our people made when going from Egyptian slavery to the revelation at Sinai. Every person needs to make his own count, without paying any attention to his neighbor’s progress.

Nobody likes to admit that they compare themselves to others, because when we think about it, it’s a pretty shallow thing to do. But besides the comparisons we make, we over-complicate everything. We often are our own worst enemies with how we demand nothing less than perfection from ourselves. If nothing else, this type of perfectionism cheats us out of the joy in performing mitzvos. Just like the simpleton had joy from his triangular-looking shoe, we need to know that if Hashem has even some pleasure from our imperfect work, then it’s better than any treasure and worth a life time of devotion.

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