March 19, 2009


Originally posted on A Simple Jew and modified slightly for “Solitude.”

Rabbi Nachman On Speech And Silence

Rabbi Dovid Sears

Since we are going to talk about silence – an undertaking which some might argue is self-contradictory – we must begin by appreciating the great value of speech. Both Jewish philosophers and kabbalists define man as medaber, the “speaking being.” Speech endows us with one of our most precious assets. And one of the first things the Torah tells us is that God created the universe through the Asarah Ma’amaros, Ten Divine Sayings, which are the very essence of speech. So when we speak – if we speak in a holy manner, words of Torah and tefillah, words of truth and compassion and faith – we become attuned to something deeply rooted in our own nature and in creation.

Speech in Avodas Hashem / Divine Service

In propounding his path of self-realization through hisbodedus (secluded meditation and prayer), Reb Nachman tells us to speak to God in our own language at length, without holding anything back (Likkutei Moharan I, 52; ibid. II, 25, et al.). The efficacy of this practice is due to the sanctity and power of speech. He also states, “Holy words are the Shechinah, the Divine Presence . . . God’s Kingship and the truth of His existence are revealed through them” (Likkutei Moharan I, 78).

Words of Torah and prayer are vessels for divine illumination, both for those who hear and those who speak. As the Rebbe explains, “Speech is the medium through which we receive the flow of blessing (shefa); as it is written, ‘May [God] bless you according to what He has spoken of you’ (Deuteronomy 1:11) – that is, the flow of blessing corresponds to the speech. One who attains perfection in his power of speech receives abundant blessings by means of the vessels formed by his words” (Likkutei Moharan I, 34:3). (This, too, is why we must recite our prayers verbally, and not only in thought; see Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chayim 101:2. However, the “silent” Shemoneh Esreh prayer should be recited barely audibly and should not be heard by anyone worshipping nearby; see Be’er Heitiv and especially Shaarei Teshuvah, ad loc. , at length.)

Just as the Shekhinah or Divine Presence is the intermediary which unites Creator and creation, speech unites self and other, as well as the inner and outer aspects of each human being. Both intermediaries are luminous, radiating wisdom. In fact, the Zohar states that the Shekhinah and speech are part and parcel of one another (Zohar III, 230a, 291b).

In the works of the Baal Shem Tov, a key mystical practice is binding one’s thoughts to the letters of Torah and prayer, thus to perceive what he describes as the “lights within the letters” (for example, see Rabbi Yaakov Yosef of Polonoye, Toldos Yakov Yosef, Vayeitzei, cited in Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Va’eschanan, no. 36; also Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Bo, no. 5). This concept appears in Breslov works, as well (e.g., Likkutei Moharan I, 94, which is an important discussion of the nature of holy speech in general).

However, just as letters require the white space that surrounds them in order to be recognizable, so speech goes together with silence. This is especially true in spiritual practice. Thus, not only speech but silence, too, is part of Reb Nachman’s path of hisbodedus (secluded meditation) and deveykus (cleaving to God).

Silence and Self-Nullification

Silence is associated with the sefirah of Keser / Crown, which transcends creation. This is the kabbalistic meaning of the Mishnah, “Silence is a fence for wisdom” (Avos 3:13). Like a fence, Keser / Crown “surrounds” the sefirah of Chokhmah / Wisdom from which the rest of the array of sefiros devolve (Likkutei Moharan 6:5, 15). Thus, through silence one can connect to the level of Keser / Crown, which is beyond all form and division – and beyond words.

In Sichos HaRan 279, the Rebbe describes to his disciple, Reb Noson, the practice of self-nullification, which entails making oneself silent. Reb Noson recalls how this conversation came about:

“Once Rebbe Nachman told me, ‘When things are very bad, nullify yourself completely.’

“I asked him, ‘How can one nullify oneself?’

“He answered, ‘Close your mouth and close your eyes – this is nullification!’

“From this we can learn practical advice: When the Evil One overwhelms us and disturbs us with all sorts of evil thoughts and confusions that we cannot seem to overcome – that is when we should nullify ourselves.

“Everyone can accomplish this, at least from time to time. Simply close your mouth and your eyes and clear away your thoughts, as if you possess no intellect or reason, and nullify yourself completely before God” (translation from The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, p. 15).

A similar although not quite identical teaching appears in Likkutei Moharan II, 5, which speaks of a technique called “Unification of the Merkavah / Divine Chariot.” There, the Rebbe states that one can transcend suffering and inner conflict by intensely focusing the mind on one point. Reb Noson elaborates on this subject in Likkutei Halakhos, Rosh Chodesh 6:20. Again, to cite The Tree That Stands Beyond Space (p. 68):

“Sometimes a person may experience a spiritual decline so great that his only tikkun (spiritual reparation) is through the ‘unification of the Merkavah.’ Each person may accomplish the unification of the Merkavah by focusing his power of thought on one place. One’s consciousness should not be scattered, but attuned and intensely bound to God. The unification of the Merkavah is brought about by the tikkun of the mind. Evil thoughts correspond to the ritually impure animals, whereas pure thoughts correspond to the animals depicted in the Merkavah vision – the lion, ox, and eagle – and man rides upon them all. [Note: In one sense, the human form on the Merkavah alludes to God; in another sense, it alludes to the tzaddik; and in still another sense, it alludes to the mind or essence of the mind; see also Likkutei Moharan I, 13:6. Here, the Rebbe seems to be interpreting the symbol in the third sense.]

“Every Jew must become a Merkavah, a vehicle for the Divine Presence. As our Sages say, ‘The tzaddikim are the Merkavah.’ This is attained through sanctifying the mind, which is the essence of a person.(1) In this manner, one may be incorporated into the highest level of the Merkavah: the paradigm of the ‘man sitting upon the throne.’ When one focusses his thought on God, not allowing it to stray beyond the bounds of holiness, one accomplishes the unification of the Merkavah.

“However, it is extremely difficult to tame the mind. One can truly succeed only through the spiritual merit and power of the tzaddikim who attained these abilities through their perfect simplicity and their willingness to throw themselves into the mud of human confusion for the sake of God [see Chayei Moharan 41].”

So we see that intense concentration on God enables one to rise above all conflicts and difficulties and connect with the Shekhinah. This requires hiskashrus, or forging a spiritual bond with the tzaddikim, because they personify the goal for which we are striving; and given the devotion of the tzaddikim to elevate the world, they can enable us to actualize our potential.

In a related vein, in Likkutei Moharan I, 65:3, the Rebbe observes that when we are in pain, we close our eyes instinctively, as if squinting in order to see a faraway object. The “faraway object” we ultimately seek is the World to Come, which is the world of unity, beyond all conflict; closing the eyes entails bittul, self-nullification, the prerequisite to this perception. And when the ego is nullified, there is no suffering (at least not existential suffering).

The $64,000 Question

The $64,000 Question (I know I’m dating myself – Reb Ozer Bergman says that the price has now inflated to $1,000,000) is: Why are these solutions only b’dieved, measures to be taken when all else fails?

Possibly this reflects what we wrote in our comparison of Jewish mysticism and Buddhism on this blog, “HaNei’or BaLaylah / Awakening In The Night”: Judaism affirms this world as an opportunity for the performance of mitzvos and the spiritual repair of the cosmos -- even though this may compromise the higher degree of self-nulification and cleaving to God achieved in seclusion. Therefore, bittul as a means of transcending suffering must be a last resort. The Jewish ideal is somehow to participate in the world for its benefit – even if one must inevitably suffer, as all mortal beings suffer -- without being taken in by the world’s false blandishments. (Christians call this “to be in the world, but not of the world”; however, it is a very Jewish concept.) This requires overcoming worldly passions and cravings, so that one will remain indifferent to such allurements and never "bite the bait". One who succeeds in doing so lives in the “World to Come,” even here in this world (see Likkutei Moharan I, 33).

However, I confess that I’m not quite sure if this is the whole story.

“Think of Nothing”

We find an important exception to the rule in Likkutei Moharan II, 82. Although this teaching revolves around the problem of things going one’s way (ke-seder) or contrarily (shelo ke-seder), it does not present bittul as a last resort. To cite the translation in The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, p. 69:

“By manifesting the paradigm of mah (literally, “what”) – nullification of the ego – you draw Godliness upon yourself. Bind your mind to Godliness constantly. Through this, you will nullify all conflicts, all opposition. Thus, when Moses and Aaron were confronted by there opponents, Moses replied (Exodus 16:7), ‘What [mah] are we, that you oppose us?’ When one eliminates the factor of self-importance, there is no conflict.

“This lesson is implicit in the Hebrew word machashavah (thought). The letters may be rearranged to spell chashov mah – ‘think of nothing.’

Mah is one of God’s holy names [corresponding to YHVH on the plane of the World of Yetzirah / Formation]. Draw forth the Divine Name Mah into your thought, so that your consciousness will be imbued with Godliness.

“The letter mem equals 40; heh equals 5. The word mah (45) has the same numerical value as the word adam (man). When you make yourself as nothing, then you are a true human being.”

Another possibly anomalous case is Likkutei Moharan I, 234. This teaching address what the Rebbe calls “entering the World of Thought,” which I take to mean mochin de-gadlus / expanded consciousness – a realization of unity. The section germane to our discussion is:

“[T]o enter the World of Thought, you must be silent. Even if you were to utter a holy word, this would disturb your state of mind. For thought is extremely lofty, higher than speech.

“[Moses is the paradigm of da’as / higher consciousness. God showed Moses a future vision of the martyrdom of the saintly Rabbi Akiva at the hands of the Romans, which prompted Moses to ask, ‘This is the Torah, and this is its reward?] God answered, ‘Be silent! Thus it arose in thought…’ (Menachos 29b). That is, to ascend to the World of Thought, one must be silent.

“Even if you remain still and do not speak, there may be distractions that disturb your state of mind. To remedy this, you must purify your consciousness. This is accomplished through the stories of the tzaddikim…” (The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, p. 55)

I said that this teaching was “possibly anomalous,” because the Rebbe does not overtly mention the issue of transcending suffering; however, as we see from the bracketed sentences, it is implicit in the Gemara he quotes.

Reb Noson also discusses silence and self-nullification in both contexts of escaping from conflict and pain and as an edifying practice in its own right. Several examples are Likkutei Halakhos, Shabbos 6:5, 8; ibid. Shabbos 7:43 (portions of which are translated in The Tree That Stands Beyond Space, pp. 70-73).

Whatever the verdict may be on whether the silence of transcendence is le-chat’chilah or b’di’eved, something one should strive for initially or only when life becomes too painful and difficult, we clearly see from that silence is also part of hisbodedus.

Many years ago, during the early 1990s, I asked my teacher, Rabbi Elazar Kenig of Tzefat, about how this works at the practical level. I had assembled a folder of perhaps 50-60 pages of photocopies of various Hebrew texts that discuss silent hisbodedus. These texts ranged from the works of Rabbi Avraham Maimonides to Rabbi Chaim Vital to the Piacetzna Rebbe, overlapping with and extending the material found in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s books. When Rav Kenig and his Rebbetzin came to Borough Park and stayed at Rabbi Yitzchak Eichenthal’s private hotel on 47th St., I presented this material to him.

One evening as the two of us sat alone in his room, I brought up the issue of silent meditation again. The Rav asked me what I found lacking in the Rebbe's hisbodedus (which is primarily verbal), and a little guiltily, I tried to state my case. When I finished, the Rav said (in Yiddish), “The silence we need is the silence of deveykus” - meaning, I assume, that he did not regard silence as a “meditative technique,” which might or might not have anything to do with God.

“This kind of silence…” he added. Rav Kenig then closed his eyes, and became perfectly still. Several minutes passed. Then he slowly opened his eyes again -- as if returning from another cosmos -- and sighed, gazing at me calmly but intensely. I thanked him, took several steps backward (as is customary), and left the room.

A Jungian Footnote

As a rule, I avoid mixing secular perspectives with those of the Torah, but in this case I can’t resist the temptation. According to Jungian psychology, our conscious ideas and attitudes reflect unconscious structures called “archetypes.” From this perspective, nullification as the ultimate goal of our avodah would be constellated by the “Great Mother” archetype: a force that in its negative aspect is regressive, anti-creation, seeking dissolution and reabsorption. If we are correct in ascribing a similar point of view to the Rebbe (and I have no proof other than “circumstantial evidence”), self-nullification would be b’dieved because God created the world and pronounced it “good’; the Jewish approach to the spiritual life is world-affirming and creative. (As the Rebbe’s English contemporary William Blake observed, “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”) Therefore, we should only come onto such a radical form of transcendence in extreme circumstances.

Yet Reb Nachman’s teachings are characteristically ironic and multi-leveled, and this is no exception. I think he actually combines these two opposite trends: transcendence and immanence, eternity and time, silence and speech, unity and diversity, space and form.

One example that comes to mind is the discussion in Likkutei Moharan I, 65 concerning how during prayer one must procede from one letter to the next while not “forgetting” what was said previously; rather one must make “echad / oneness” of the prayer. That is, the individual must consciously function on the temporal and eternal planes simultaneously -- an attainment reached by the tzaddikim. (Compare this concept to that of the Baal Shem Tov, cited by Rabbi Aharon of Zhelikhov in Ohr Ha-Gannuz Le-Tzaddikim, Mattos. There, the davenner is compared to a pearl-diver in the “Sea of Oneness” and is cautioned not to remain submerged in a state of bliss but to collect the “pearls,” which are the words of prayer.)

Perhaps this, too, is the meaning of the blessings and gifts conferred upon the bride and groom by the wondrous beggars in the Rebbe’s tale, “The Seven Beggars.” The beggars – who, according to Reb Noson, represent different aspects of the “true tzaddik” who has attained the ultimate goal -- function in the world, yet remain essentially bound to the transcendental realm. They are both “here” and “there.” Thus, for example, the Blind Beggar only appears to be blind; in fact, his greatest power is that of sight, which he uses exclusively to behold the sublime dimension. The Deaf Beggar only appears to be deaf; in fact, his greatest power is that of hearing, which he uses to hear the “sound” of wholeness and unity, rather than the deficient sounds of the fallen world; and thus with the other holy beggars. Most importantly, at the end of each sub-plot, the beggar in question confers his greatest power upon the bride and groom. With this we may infer that through the spiritual gifts of the tzaddikim, we are all destined to reach these wondrous levels, too.