From Rabbi Perets Auerbach’s “The Science, Art and Heart of Hitbodedut.” Explanatory notes have been omitted from this online version. This work-in-progress may be purchased by contacting the author by email: email@example.com. We thank Rabbi Auerbach for permitting us to present this and other excerpts from his writings here.
Rabbi Nachman says, “Living in the upper storey of a house is good for serving God” (Sefer HaMidot, “Bayit,” II, 1). Maybe this relates to the idea of going outside of the city for hitbodedut. A place outside of it all allows one to come to bitul (self-nullification) more easily, so being off the ground also helps this. A plane ride, too, can be an excellent opportunity for hitbodedut. Mountains have both advantages. In order to find the Lost Princess in Rabbi Nachman’s story, the Viceroy went outside of civilization by taking a “path to the side.” The “side” can also be vertical. (The Lost Princess represents the soul’s source in the Shekhinah. As in the story, she is found through yearning for her during hitbodedut, whenever one has time.)
Looking down from a roof is a good analogy for the “makif,” or encompassing perspective of looking down on the activities of the world and seeing them as one. It can enable one to see life from this perspective. From the encompassing outlook, what seem to be separate, unrelated, diverse happenings suddenly merge into one holistic picture. Try to enumerate different occurrences, people, and loose ends of your life and pray for this head-set while practicing hitbodedut on the roof.
Every person has a “makif (surrounding) light” and a “pnimi (internal) light.” Things that are well understood are in a state of pnimi. Things that are a step beyond are makifim (Likkutei Moharan I, 22). A spiritual person is constantly seeking to learn more and bring the makifim within. There is a law that requires a fence to be built around a roof (Deuteronomy 22:8). This figuratively represents building a barrier around the mind to prevent it from reaching for makifim that are too high. Each person should only reach for the rung immediately above him. Trying for more can result in falling off the roof and dying—going “aroys funn di keilim (out of the vessels),” as the saying goes, and losing one’s mind. There are also makifim that are beyond time; all the time of this world would not be enough to explain them. They also need to be avoided (Likkutei Moharan II, 7:6, 8).
Roof-hitbodedut helps to internalize the makifim properly. They bring innovations—new ideas, outlooks, and feelings. Each makif is a fresh, never glimpsed before light.
In the Torah, the mitzvah of building a parapet or fence is juxtaposed to that of the “kan tzippor (bird’s nest)”—the law of sending away the mother bird when you want to take the chicks. The place where the Mashiach (Messiah) dwells in heaven is called the “Palace of the Kan Tzippor” (Sefer HaGilgulim, chap. 72; Arba Me’ot Shekel Kesef, 68b). This mitzvah is mentioned in the Tikkuney Zohar more than any other. It hints to the concept of the Shekhinah (Divine Presence, which is the source of all souls) being like a mother who goes with her child in exile to protect him. The Sefirah of Binah (Understanding) is the maternal aspect. Mashiach is related to this, and therefore frequents the place where this mitzvah is rooted above. Roof-hitbodedut helps one ponder the plight of the Jewish people in exile, together with the Shekhinah. One can come to feel this protective, soothing, comforting maternal divine energy accompanying him in all difficult places.
The Arizal teaches that the Mashiach will have the singular, unique, special privilege of reaching “yechidah she’b’yechidah”—“oneness of oneness,” the highest level of the soul (Arba Me’ot Shekel Kesef, 68b). Yet everyone possesses an aspect of Mashiach (Likkutei Moharan II, 32). This point lies dormant in one’s innermost recesses. Even though it only fully manifests in the actual Mashiach, each individual according to his spiritual efforts can access this inner point to some degree. It is a level of complete nullification to Eyn Sof, the Infinite One. Yechidah literally means “singular.” The self is swept away with only absolute yearning for God, to the exclusion of all other desires.
The roof is the Keter (Crown) aspect of the house. It draws from the highest makifim. It can serve as a good base for one to access his personal Mashiach-yechidah aspect. Thus we find that in the Mussar yeshivah of Novhardok, they would go on the roof and scream “Hashem (YHVH) Hu HaElokim (ELHYM)!” (I Kings, 18:39). (The Novhardokers were also known for going to the basement and spending the night in a coffin in order to get a sense of what it’s like to die.) Yom Kippur is the holiest day of the year. The entire day we spiritually ascend through the five prayer services. These five services correspond to the five levels of the soul, which we climb throughout the day. The grand climax is the end of the Ne’ilah prayer, corresponding to yechidah. We finish this prayer by declaring “YHVH is ELHYM!” (“Transcendent and Immanent are one!”) And the reshimu, or imprint, of this highest connection can be awakened daily by shouting it on the roof.
Rooftops are not only for barbeques (or for depressed people to jump off of, God forbid). One good thing about the city is that it is a gold mine of unharnessed natural resources: there are so many unused rooftops! Climb to the roof so that you can reach the heights of prayer.
PS: If you think raising your voice might upset the neighbors or distract the police from their appointed rounds, Rabbi Nachman’s advice about the “silent scream”—crying out to God in your imagination—also works very well!