March 16, 2009


From Rabbi Ozer Bergman, “Where Earth and Heaven Kiss: A Guide to Rebbe Nachman’s Path of Meditation” (Breslov Research Institute), pp. 229-235. Footnotes have been omitted. In this chapter, Rabbi Bergman discusses silence in relation to Rebbe Nachman’s practice of hitbodedut-meditation, which otherwise places so much emphasis on speech. (By “room,” he means a state of consciousness.)

Four Kinds of Silence

You might well expect that a room called “NoPlace” must not have much to say about it. After all, what more can you say that hasn't already been said--if you can say anything? In truth, the enormity of NoPlace is such that nothing can be said about it, other than that it exists. And it is because this dimensionless realm exists that it must be talked about. We want to enter it, even though our visit will perforce be extremely brief.

The NoPlace is an Ocean of Awareness. It is a state in which you experience with total clarity the truth and existence of God. In that state, God has no name by which He can be called, and there is no word or words with which He can be described. There aren't even letters to help you begin to approach Him! In the NoPlace, only God exists. There is no need to name Him, to distinguish Him from some other. There is no “other” there to call to Him or to praise Him.

It is the languagelessness of the NoPlace that renders clear communication about it impossible, even with yourself. Only upon your return can you begin to formulate--somehow, somewhat what you experienced. Even then, the best you can do is to point towards the NoPlace.

There are many ways we describe silence. It can be ghastly, peaceful, eerie, friendly, deadly, respectful, meditative or deafening. We speak about “a wall of silence,” “a companionable silence” and the silence of dumb animals.

The ticket to the NoPlace is silence, and it comes in four flavors. I know, I know. Earlier we said that hitbodedut is about words. At the same time, though, we also said that hitbodedut is not about words at all. Hitbodedut is not only about words because words are only a tool, and sometimes not the most effective one. There is definitely a silent side to hitbodedut.

We must also define a word that comes up often on the way to the NoPlace: bitul. Bitul refers to the state of nothingness, to coming to that state and to remaining in that state. It is used not only in relation to its mystical aspects (as here), but also in halakhah, vis a vis kashrut and finance.

Stopping the Pain

When the going gets tough, the tough get smart--they make themselves vanish. This is the first vehicle of silence which Rebbe Nachman described to Reb Noson:

Rebbe Nachman once told me, “If things get very bad, one has to make himself into nothing.” I asked him, “How does one make himself into nothing?” The Rebbe replied, “Close your mouth and your eyes - bitul! “

Sometimes you just can't win. The pressures are too great; too many people are asking you for more than you can give. God wants something from you, you want something from yourself, and let's not forget our constant companion, the evil inclination.

Reb Noson continues:

Sometimes you may feel overwhelmed by the evil inclination. You are confused by evil thoughts and are otherwise very bewildered, finding it impossible to overcome your evil urge. You must then make yourself vanish.

Your goal, as always, is to improve your Jewishness. But this time you're backed into a corner, conflicted, torn between Yotzer (the Creator) and yetzer (the evil inclination). You can no longer withstand the stress and are about ready to commit treason and go over to the other side. WAIT! Remember what you are here for, what destiny truly has in store for you, and disappear.

By closing your mouth and eyes, you temporarily give up your identity and place your soul into the Ohr Ein Sof, the Infinite Light, the NoPlace. It is from here that you begin to understand that all suffering, even spiritual suffering, is ultimately for the good. It is from here that the Torah originates, from here that you may able to gain the strength necessary to overcome your challenges.

Again, Reb Noson:

By closing your mouth and your eyes, every thought is banished. Your mind ceases to exist. You have nullified yourself completely before God.

Rebbe Nachman teaches that anyone can do this, at least sometimes, if he genuinely wants to. You may think (and rightfully so) that you are not yet spiritually strong enough to let go of your identity and self forever. Nonetheless, you can do so, at least momentarily. The crux of the matter is: Do you want to? Are you willing to let go of your most precious possession, your self, to be loyal to God and do His bidding? For no matter how little you are physically capable of doing or resisting, you can always want to align your will with the Divine Will. When you vanish and only God is here, His Will certainly will be carried out.

While this silent hitbodedut is definitely meant to be used for sudden emergencies, you don't have to wait for the last moment to practice it. If the forecast calls for storm winds and high waves, you can spend at least some of your regularly-scheduled hitbodedut time on this flavor of silence and bitul.

The voice of the shofar is a silence, a wordlessness, because you have no words with which to defend yourself - nolo contendre.

It happens with every first step you take. When you take your first step to approaching God--not just your initial commitment to observe Shabbat, for example, but your next step closer, your umpteenth first step--your misdeeds, recent and of long ago, raise a hue and cry: “Away with him! He does not deserve to approach!”

You are struck dumb, left muttering and stuttering, because the impurity of your heart impedes it from sending words to the mouth.

At such Rosh HaShanah-like times, when your past self is doing the talking and is hurling accusations at you, silence is the necessary choice. Do not mention your sins! Let loose a shofar-like scream from the depths of your heart! Let your voice carry up your yearning for closeness.

This scream may never pass your lips, but it bums with the fire of shame and awe/fear. This scream can carry you to complete teshuvah, to Keter, the higher-than-speech silence.

Opening the Heart's Gates

It is impossible for anyone to tell you what the shine of NoPlace is like or feels like. The reason is given by the holy Zohar's explanation of the verse, “Her husband is known in the gates” (Proverbs 31:23). Each person's awareness of God (the “Husband” of our souls) is unique, proportionate to the gates of his own heart. If, when, how often and how long you enter the NoPlace will depend on the gates of entry you make in order to allow God to enter your heart.

Don't think that your heart is so stuffed or thick or stony or shallow that a gate opening into it would be meaningless. Everyone has within his heart the capacity to house God. Much of the work you do in the other rooms of hitbodedut will free and expand that capacity, directly or indirectly. Actually accessing that space and expanding it requires the powerful, second vehicle of silence--of contemplating God's greatness.

How large a gate? Does it have to be the size of a hangar door? No--in our day and age even a pinhole will suffice. Make it and God will rush in, as if you had made the most humongous gate in the world.

You certainly know that God cannot be seen with the physical eye. Nor can He be seen with even the most intellectual of eyes. God can only be “seen” with the heart.

Even prophetically, God cannot be seen! Even Moshe, the greatest of our prophets who spoke to God “face to face” (Numbers 12:8), could not see God (Exodus 33:20). He could only hear God's voice.” This is true of all the other great prophets and sages-and of ourselves as well. Hearing implies the silence that facilitates hearing. Our Sages teach that hearing depends on the heart's desire to listen. So some of your hitbodedut must occur silently in your heart.

You can only know God by His actions, not by what He actually is. Sometimes your focus may be the wonder of concrete experience. Other times it may be the wonder of transcendental mystery. How much and how carefully you think about His acts--towards you, your people and the world, currently and through history, balancing the kindness that He gives and wants to give with the justice and limitations that He metes out--will determine how well you know Him.82 This God-consciousness comes only from meditating on His greatness--“her Husband is known in the gates.” “May ... the thoughts of my heart be favorable to You...” (Psalms 19:15).

Another reason why you can't speak about the NoPlace is that while you are “there,” you are unaware of yourself. In the NoPlace, a person is cognizant only of God. Though a person cannot express it at the time, upon returning from the NoPlace he understands that he has realized that God is good. In the NoPlace, one is like a “child” of God, gaining an awareness and realization of the Divine that cannot possibly be expressed in words. For the NoPlace is not only a realm that exists prior to space; it is a realm that exists before words and before letters. It is languageless.

Thus, anything said about the NoPlace is said only in “return” mode. Whatever words of praise you may speak are only an approximation of what is felt and left in your heart.

The great ocean of expressible God-awareness contains “hands”--clues and allusions to something far greater than that which rational thought can comprehend. That “something” can only be hinted at. If one's teacher is a tzaddik, or a student of a tzaddik, there will be many lessons that he teaches and transmits by the merest indications and cues. Watching the way a tzaddik speaks, gestures and conducts himself can infuse you with awareness of that which is beyond words. That knowledge will save you from wrongdoing, so that you may come to bitul.

Even after reminding yourself of the goal of growing your Jewishness and being aware of God, and even if you have tasted bitul many times, there are no guarantees that the taste will remain. The challenges have not disappeared and one may forget the taste or even deny the reality of what he experienced. Therefore, one needs to return again and again to the NoPlace. One setting that is conducive to entering a state of bitul is Shabbat. The quiet of Shabbat, provided by refraining from the forbidden activities' and ceasing to think of weekday concerns, together with the additional prayers that focus on the greatness of God's work, produces a great calm and yishuv hadaat. And Shabbat comes every week.

“The entire world is filled with His glory” (Isaiah 6:3). The more the light of bitul is opened for you and shines into your heart's gates, the more you are able to shine to others to let them know of God's greatness. One who knows, and knows how, needs to speak--to inform, instruct and share with others that God's glory is everywhere and is available to anyone who sincerely seeks it. Even if you cannot say the words, your aware presence is itself a lesson for anyone seeking to learn.