From Rabbi Perets Auerbach’s “The Science, Art and Heart of Hitbodedut.” 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 excerpts from his writings here. All notes were omitted for this online version, except one explanation that was too important to leave out.
Although this excerpt begins by discussing prayer in general, it is especially relevant to Rabbi Nachman’s practice of hitbodedut.
The Wings of Prayer
“Take these broken wings and learn to fly again.” The Zohar teaches that love and fear are the two wings with which tefilah and all mitzvot can soar above. The soul sitting in rapture, in love and fear of God, is lifted out of her limitations to fly to supernal realms.
“And in order to tell of My praise throughout the whole world” (Exodus 9:16). The whole world was made to thank and praise God. “Give thanks to God for He is good—for His lovingkindness is forever” (Psalms 136:1, et al.). Psalm 136 counts off thirty-two blessings/salvations/miracles to give thanks for. It is not enough to appreciate in a general way all the great things that happened so that we have made it to this moment; it is necessary to give thanks for each step by itself.
Moreover, it is necessary to appreciate that each step is a complete deliverance unto itself. “If He took us out of Egypt, but did not split for us the sea—dayenu, it would be enough. If He split for us the sea but did not give us the Shabbat—dayenu, it would be enough. If he had given us the Shabbat but did not give us the Torah—dayenu, it would be enough...” We might wonder: The Midrash states that the world was created for the sake of the Torah (Bereishit Rabbah 1,6; 12,2; et al.). How could it have been considered “enough” if the Jewish people had not received it? Nonetheless, the Haggadah teaches us that even if (for whatever reason) things had been left lacking in the overall picture, each rung of goodness is so precious that the whole world was worth creating just to reach it!
Each person should make his own set of “for His lovingkindness is forever's and “it would be enough”s. Go through your life and count your blessings in detail before God. Appreciate how each stage is an eternal goodness unto itself.
Giving thanks is the main thing that we will do in the world-to-come (Likkutei Moharan II, 5; cf. Osiyot de-Rabbi Akiva). The Gemara teaches that the Shemoneh Esreh, the highest formal prayer, begins with praise. Then come requests, and then the conclusion is again with praise (Berakhot 34a). This comes to teach a prayer principle that in general should always be utilized: one should begin the hitbodedut session by counting his blessings—very specifically. Thank God for the air, the water, the meals that you eat. Don’t forget the roof over your head, your bed, pillow, and blanket. These are types of things that hopefully a person has on a regular basis—but just because they are constant, they should not be taken for granted. Then there are every day particular yeshu’ot (salvations) that every person has, which also should not be taken for granted. To express appreciation and gratitude before God for them is most important. Not because God needs to hear it—we need to say it. “Who is the sage that will guard these [ideas—to always give thanks] and who will think deeply into the loving-kindnesses of God” (Psalms 107:43).
This touches upon the essence of prayer. Tefilah means connection, as in “naftulai niftalti [I was connected, certainly connected] with my sister...” (Genesis 30:8) (see Likkutei Moharan II, 84, and end note below). The point of praying is not to be answered. The point is to plug into God. This itself is the real answer to everything and anything, the main “savior of all saviors.” When someone recognizes that God is the Source of All, and not only that individual, but the entire universe is constantly dependent upon Him—this awareness itself is one major step of liberation.
This idea underlies Rabbi Nachman’s teaching (ibid.) that tefilah depends upon yirah (fear); as it is written, “A woman who fears God—she shall praise” (Proverbs 31:30). The Maharal (Netivot Olam) tells us that the essence of yirah is for the effect to know that it comes from its cause: to look at oneself and all of existence and to acknowledge that the whole thing comes from the “Cause of All Causes.” This yirah is the foundation of being able to get up and praise and pray to the Source of All. This links with the idea that yirah is a motion in the soul of constriction, contraction, and nullification. The yeshut (‘somethingness’) of the nefesh ha-behamit (animalistic soul) and the world at large separate the self from God-awareness. Yirah comes and cuts through the “somethingness,” removes blocks, silences the static—affording the nefesh Elokit (Divine soul) the opportunity to connect above, unhindered. In simple terms, the “chattering monkey”/internal dialogue/ego divert the self, and keep it preoccupied and in a drunken stupor, which separates it from its Creator. Yirah comes to the rescue and save us from all this.
This is why it is necessary to precede the speech part of hitbodedut with meditation (Sichot HaRan 232). “A woman who fears God [first—then she is ready] to praise” (Proverbs 31:30). A simple contemplation of the existence of God, being in His Presence and realizing that all comes from Him, opens the heart to be able to express thanks and ask about all the necessary details. The more true awareness one has that God is the Source, Provider, and Giver of all, the deeper the effect the ensuing engagement in tefilah will have. “You prepare their heart [to pray]—Your ears [then] hear” (Psalms 10:17). The effort to get ready before tefilah draws Divine assistance.
Coming into hitbodedut from this awareness saves from what the Gemara calls “heartache”–“iyyun tefilah” (Shabbat 127a). Iyyun tefilah means constantly waiting to be answered, looking for concrete results of one’s prayer, and openly revealed deliverance from one’s troubles. However, the test of this world requires that there always be free will. This means that, to varying degrees, there is always a cloak over what is really going on. One of the main ways that this takes shape is that prayer does not always seem to be answered, or even heard. In general, Rabbi Nachman warns against being stubborn (Likkutei Moharan I, 196). The main thing is always to present one’s requests with the honor of God in mind. But when it comes to prayer, one must be stubborn in the sense of not giving up. As Rabbi Nachman says, it may seem as though heaven is not paying any attention to you. They may seem to be pushing you away. Therefore, you must argue with God that it is fitting for Him to bring you close to Him, even to the extent of respectfully complaining about this. You may try to serve God in truth for years, without seeing any improvement. Nevertheless, you have to do your part and continually pray, supplicate and beg to come close to Him (ibid. II, 48).
“Naftulai niftalti…” (Genesis 30:8). This verse speaks of the holy jealousy that Rachel had of her sister Leah, because Leah had children, which Rachel had not yet merited. Rachel is Malkhut/Kingship, the lower realm; Leah is Binah/Understanding, the upper realm (Zohar I, Vayeitzei). The lower world is jealous of the superior connection, illumination, and results that the upper realm seems to have over it. Yet we find “And Ya’akov loved Rachel” (Genesis 29:18). “Rachel [mentioned first] and Leah, that they both built the house of Israel” (Ruth 4:11). The verse speaks of “the children of Rachel, the wife of Ya’akov” (Genesis 46:19), whereas of Leah it just says, “These are the children of Leah” (ibid. 46:15). This reflects the principle that “the Holy One blessed be He wanted a dwelling in the lower realms” (Tanchumah, Naso 7:1). The main concern is to bring the light, revelation, and shefa (flow) to the lower realm. On the surface, it would seem that Leah is higher because she comes from a higher source. But the tikkun of Rachel is, in general, more important for us to focus on, because the whole point of creation is to elevate what is low. So one must seek in hitbodedut to attain the highest levels. But one must be happy with the simple delight of relating to God, even about asking Him to have a button sown on one’s coat. The Rachel/Leah themes are united when a person prays for simple things from an expanded state of consciousness—and when one understands the Divinity enclothed in the world all around.