October 14, 2009


Reprinted with permission from Daf Yomi Review:

The Vast Desert of Solitude
by Yosef Peretz

Oh that I had wings like a dove! then would I fly away, and be at rest. Lo, then would I wander far off, I would dwell in the wilderness forever. (Tehilim 55:7)

When Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman - later known as the Ponivezher Rav, who raised the banner of Torah in Israel, was returning home to his parents he passed by the the town of Radin (in Poland pre-WWII). He later recounted:

"As I was passing by Radin, I asked myself how could I pass by the 'holy sanctuary' of the Chafetz Chaim without stopping there? I took a shortcut and arrived in Radin late in the afternoon. The Chafetz Chaim's house was dark.

"I entered and found no one there. I sat down on a bench and wondered what the Chafetz Chaim looked like and whether I would merit to see him. As I meditated, the Rebetzin entered and asked me what I wanted. I told her that I wished to see the Chafetz Chaim. She told me to wait awhile until he arrives. While waiting for the Chafetz Chaim, I heard a piercing cry from the upper floor, a cry that bespoke terrible pain. Seeing that I had become frightened, the Rebbetzin approached me and said: 'Sir don't be frightened. That's my husband praying for a woman in labor who is giving birth right now.' I immediately said to myself: 'Yoshe, how can you leave such a place in which dwells a man who is capable of such heartrending crying on behalf of others?!' So I decided to stay in Radin and study under him."

Compared to the previous generations, the service of prayer has almost completely disappeared. Many of the gedolim (leaders) of previous generations would regularly spend time in solitude and pour out their hearts to G-d.

The technological revolution has disconnected us with nature, and as a result, with ourselves and with G-d. The constant chatter of crowds of people, the endless noise of machines and electronic gadgets has barraged and cluttered our minds. Technology has also brought with it long work weeks at meaningless jobs, doing meaningless work resulting in millions of people with unprecedented dissatisfaction and mental illnesses.

To develop a proper awareness of G-d's presence (yira shamayim), a person needs to spend time alone. As long as he is with other people, or involved in activities, he can put the reality of G-d's presence aside so to speak. But when he finds himself alone, especially in raw nature, untouched by the hands of man, "the awesome presence of the King falls on him and his heart breaks (Talmud Berachos 34b, Rashi: 'dmatzli')." This is why the Talmud says (Berachos 5b) one should try to pray at the front of the synagogue with no separation between oneself and the wall. As long as there are other people in front of you who can see your face, you're not mentally alone and cannot turn to G-d properly (covering one's face with a tallis helps in this regard).

Of course, G-d is here with you always. He's here in this room right now. And one should pause and think for a moment about this. My teacher, Rabbi Moshe Lazerus, shlita (a Rosh Yeshiva and close student of Rav Avigdor Miller zt''l), taught us that it is crucial to spend ten minutes a day in seclusion and privacy in order to talk to Hashem. He used to tell us (to the effect of) "I don't know how you can daven (pray) or be religious for that matter, without having a personal relationship with Hashem. Who are you praying to? A concept? I empathize with you. Without a relationship with Him, prayer must be torture. Doing this makes Him real. G-d becomes real. The Torah becomes real, it comes alive. The Avos are suddenly real people that lived and not just stories. They're your relatives, your great-grandparents."

By the way, the procedure he recommended for this, is to lock yourself in a room every day for 5 or 10 minutes and talk to Him (no phones, etc., if possible put a "do not disturb" sign). As you talk to Him, imagine what you think He would say to you.

For example, thank Him for what you are grateful for, like health, food, good parents, etc. Then tell Him what you think He owes you ... Basically, to develop a personal relationship with Him in the tradition of the great baalei mussar.

I would also suggest returning to nature once a month for a few hours. Send the crowds away, go to the forests or to the mountains, and seek Him in receptive silence. Many of the great baalei mussar did this on a daily basis (the really great ones hid away for years). Observe the trees and flowers and animals and birds, the sea and clouds and sky and stars. It's a tremendous way to reconnect with Him. Hopefully, the barriers will drop, and you will see, you will make contact. You will feel the King's awesome presence and the infinite wisdom in His creation. That is the cure for loneliness. Generally, we seek to cure our loneliness through emotional dependence on people, through gregariousness and noise. That is no cure. Get back to things, get back to reality. Then you will know that your heart has brought you to the vast desert of solitude, there is noone there at your side, absolutely no one.

The truth is eventually you will lose every single person in your life, never to see them again. You will lose your parents, your wife, your siblings, your children, your friends - everybody. And you will be utterly alone.

Alone that is, except for the Almighty. Now's the time to build the relationship with Him.

The Chafetz Chaim once saw a very happy student in his yeshiva come to bid him farewell before returning to his parents for the festivals. The Chafetz Chaim turned to his disciples around him and said "See how happy this talmid is to be going back to his father's house. Is this not the way a Jew should feel when he is about to die and return to his Father in Heaven?" (Sparks of Mussar, p.218).