From Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn of Lubavitch, Likkutei Dibburim (“An Anthology of Talks”) (Kehot) Vol. I, sec. 26-30 translated by Rabbi Uri Kaploun. (Footnotes have either been incorporated into the text or omitted. We took the liberty of creating our own subtitles for this online version.)
Solitude and the Acquisition of Intellect
The Alter Rebbe explains the statement that "The Patriarchs themselves constitute the Chariot” (Bereishis Rabbah 47:6, as explained in Tanya, chap. 23) by saying that all their organs were holy and detached from mundane matters. A chariot is subjugated to its driver. Because the Patriarchs were separated from matters of This World, their body was subjugated to their neshamah, to their divine soul.
Being holy and detached from mundane matters entails relinquishing one's hold on This World -- not desiring it, and taking such steps as will distance oneself from it. Such was the path in divine service of the fathers of the Tribes, who chose solitude for themselves so that worldly considerations should not distract them.
This path, to be sure, is a lofty one. The ability to resign oneself from This World and to make every endeavor to shake oneself loose from mundane affairs certainly indicates a high level of attainment. Those who practice this may accordingly be termed baalei madregah, and through this avodah they become baalei tzurah, i.e., baalei nefesh (“masters of their souls”) in a high degree.
Now everything in the world has its own way of being set up -- the handles, so to speak, by which it may be approached. A vessel, for example, has a handle by which it can be grasped. So, too, a concept has its "handles," through which it may be grasped. And solitude is one -- and only one -- of the several "handles" of intellect. These follow a certain order, and solitude, though not the first in importance, is chronologically the first, because it paves the way for the other -- and more important -- "handles" of intellect.
I once heard from a chassid called R. Yisrael Nachman HaKohen the Meshares (synagogue attendant) that when he was a zitzer (full-time student) in the yeshivah of the tzaddik R. Hillel, the latter was asked a certain question at a farbrengen (chassidic gathering) by an elder chassid whom he particularly respected, and who was known as R. Avraham Yosef the Silent. The question was, why did R. Hillel use a dipper with three handles when washing his hands for netilas yadayim (the ritual ablution), and R. Hillel had answered: "As is known, the concept on which one should concentrate during netilas yadayim is the drawing down of the light of intellectual perception (mochin) into one's emotive attributes (middos). Water represents chochmah (wisdom), and I once heard from the [Mitteler] Rebbe [Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch] that grasping the initial flash (or consciousness) of intellect takes place by means of three "handles": hisbodedus (solitude), iyyun (profound contemplation), and his’akvus (deliberateness); and this flash is invested in the intellect in three stages: first it appears as a nekudah (tiny point), then it radiates ohr (light), and then it gives chiyus (life)."
Indeed, we see this in our own experience. In order to approach intellect and to grasp a concept, one requisite handle is solitude, for intellect by definition resides only in a domain that is exclusively its own. As to the vessel itself, however, the real vessel for intellect is bittul, self-effacement. And bittul entails not only forgoing things of This World, but in addition forgoing one's owns attaining a level at which the intellect becomes one's self.
This, then, is the direction to be taken in avodah, even if one seeks to attain no more than the comprehension of a mortal concept. That is to say, that if one seeks to secure the comprehension of a mortal concept, this too is possible only if one surrenders oneself to it, for thinking demands complete possession, that all of one's faculties and senses be subject to it.
This utter devotion of the faculties and the senses to the grasping of a particular concept has two sides to it. On the one hand, those faculties that advance this goal each need to fulfill their function; on the other hand, those faculties and senses whose function is unconnected with the attainment of this goal need to be as dormant as if they were nonexistent, in order that they should not distract. And this is where solitude comes in, for it facilitates both the eclipse of the faculties that need to be absent, and the revelation of those faculties and senses that promote the comprehension of the desired concept.