"And Isaac went out to meditate in the field towards evening" (Genesis 24:63)
Being bound on the altar was such a formative experience for Isaac that he went back to the site again and again. It was here that his wife-to-be Rebecca first caught sight of him as she neared the end of her camelback journey from her native Padan Aram to the Land of Israel in order to marry Isaac.
Isaac had come out in the cool of the late afternoon to meditate and pray. The grammatical form of the Hebrew verb Vayetze, "he went out", indicates that he used to do this regularly. He had chosen this "field" as his place of meditation and prayer.
For Abraham it had been a Mountain, the site of the supreme test of his life. But Isaac turned it into a Field, a place of regular labor: cultivation of the soul. For the only way to attain the high spiritual peaks to which we aspire is through regular, disciplined work.
The mountain symbolizes the summit or end-goal of human spiritual achievement, which is to attain such perfect humility and self-effacement that one becomes totally merged with God. This level is the crown of all levels (Keter). It is even higher than that of knowing God (Daat). For the concept of "knowing God" implies a separation between the knower -- the human being -- and God, the "object" of the knowledge. But God is not an "object". God is in truth the ultimate "subject". Ultimately there is only God: only God can truly say "I". It is the human sense of selfhood, separation and independence that is the illusion. To attain the ultimate connection with God, the seeker must surrender all sense of selfhood, self-interest and separate identity to the point that he is lifted beyond all limits to a state of total mystical union with the One God.
It is not possible for human beings in their bodily existence on earth to remain permanently in such states of mystic union with God. Normally these are attained fleetingly, perhaps at the climax of intense meditation, prayer and devotion, or sometimes quite unexpectedly and serendipitously. Even then they usually come only after considerable spiritual work and effort.
The question is how to attain the goal?
You cannot leap to the top of a mountain in one jump. You have to climb up step by step, starting from wherever you are now. This may often seem like the long way to go, but those who try to take short-cuts usually end up having to go the long way anyway. Taking things step by step one at a time is actually the simplest and easiest way.
Rebbe Nachman illustrated the point with a parable:
|A king once sent his son away to study. Finally the son returned home fully versed in all the arts and sciences. One day the king ordered his son to bring an enormous stone up to the top floor of the palace. The stone was so big and heavy, the prince couldn't shift it at all. It made him very depressed.
At last the king said to his son: "Did you really imagine I would tell you to do the impossible? Would I tell you to try to carry this stone up just as it is? Even with all your learning, how would you be able to do that? What you should do is take a hammer and break the stone into little pieces! This way you'll be able to carry them up one by one until you get the whole stone up to the top floor."
Sometimes our personalities are like a heavy stone weighing us down and keeping us from God. We are asked to lift up our hearts and bring Godly awareness into every aspect of our being: "Know today and take to your heart that HaVaYaH is the only God in heaven above and on the earth below" (Deuteronomy 4:39). But the heart is a "heart of stone" (Ezekiel 36:26). The only way to lift up the heart is by taking a hammer, as it were, and breaking our major goals, ambitions and projects into small, practicable tasks.
It is the same principle that applies in cultivating a field. The end goal is to have produce to eat, but this is achieved only after a whole series of preliminary steps: removing the stones from the soil, plowing the field, planting the seeds, watering, weeding, pruning, etc. Even after harvesting the produce, it is necessary to separate the edible portions from the unwanted stalks and other refuse, and then peel, grind, mix, knead, bake, cook or otherwise process the food until it is ready for eating.
It is through the application of Gevurah, the discipline and control exemplified in Isaac, Man of the Field, that ambitious goals of any kind are attained. Major end-goals as we initially conceive them with Chokhmah-vision in our mind's eye can rarely be accomplished through a single leap. It is necessary to apply Binah-intelligence in order to break down the goal down into its component parts and develop a strategy with which to tackle each part of the overall project step by step in a disciplined way. Binah-intelligence is an aspect of Gevurah, as are the determination, strength and courage needed to carry the project through.
When a person wants to purify himself so as to open himself to spirituality and God-awareness, it is necessary to seek understanding of the various different aspects of his personality and how they function together (or conflict with one another) whether to bring him nearer to his goal or to hold him back. As he comes to understand the various ways in which his negative traits are holding him back, he must work on them steadily one by one. Spiritual work rarely proceeds in a strictly orderly way. Even so, without developing a general strategy and making an effort to follow it, the work will not proceed at all.
There are many avenues of spiritual growth that can be followed by people working together in pairs or larger groups, as long as those seeking together love each other dearly and feel able to be very honest and open with one another.
However, hitbodedut -- the secluded meditation and prayer that lead to self-transcendence and communion with God -- is by definition a solitary practice.
Rebbe Nachman defined the goal and method of hitbodedut in the following teaching:
|The only way to return to the roots of one's being and merge in the unity of God is through nullifying the self. One has to efface the self completely until one becomes wholly merged in God's unity. The only way to achieve this state of self-transcendence is through hitbodedut. By secluding oneself and giving voice to one's inner thoughts in the form of personal prayers to God, one is able to remove all negative traits and cravings to the point that one nullifies all materialism in oneself. Then one is able to become merged in the Source.
True hitbodedut is practiced in the depths of night, at an hour when everyone is free from their toil in the material world. During the day people are so busy chasing after the material world that it distracts the spiritual seeker from attaching himself to God. Even if he personally is quite detached from the material world, the mere fact that everyone else is then busy chasing after the vanity of the world makes it very difficult to attain self-transcendence at such a time.
Hitbodedut must also be practiced in a special place outside the city on a "solitary path" (Avot 3:5) in a place where no-one goes. For in a place where in the daytime hours people are busy chasing after the vanity of the world, even though they may not be there at this hour, it is still a distraction from hitbodedut, making it impossible for the spiritual seeker to attain the state of total communion with God.
For this reason it is necessary to go alone at night on a solitary path to a place where no one goes even by day. There one should seclude oneself and empty one's heart and mind of all worldly involvements until one attains the state of true self-transcendence and communion.
This is a step-by-step process. First the person should devote this solitary night-time hitbodedut to talking and praying to God at length until he succeeds in nullifying one negative trait or desire. Next he should devote his hitbodedut to working on nullifying a second trait or desire. He should go on like this night after night in this solitary spot until he nullifies everything.
Even then, something is still left of him, namely some residue of human pride and arrogance. He still considers himself to be something. He must persist with hitbodedut and carry on working hard until he nullifies this too, until nothing whatever is left of him and he is in a state of true self-transcendence. Then, when he attains true nothingness, his soul becomes merged in its root, namely in God.
Likutey Moharan I, 52
For many people it may not be easy or practicable to rise regularly in the small hours of the night and go to a deserted spot for hitbodedut. Nevertheless, Rebbe Nachman's explanation of this practice brings out the extreme privacy and seclusion from the distractions of the world that are desirable in order to succeed in this most intimate and transformative of all spiritual practices.
In its simplest form -- meditation and direct talking to God -- Rebbe Nachman advocated hitbodedut for everyone. There is no need to feel that it may only be practiced at night in some remote spot. Hitbodedut can be practiced by anyone anywhere. Rebbe Nachman especially advocated meadows and fields as the place for hitbodedut.
|The best place to go to seclude yourself and meditate is in the meadows outside the city. Go to a grassy field, for the grass will awaken your heart.
Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #227
Fields and meadows were Rebbe Nachman's preferred place for his own hitbodedut. His closest student, Rabbi Noson Sternhertz of Breslov, writes:
|He would often walk in the woods and fields and seclude himself in prayer. I once walked with the Rebbe through Medvedevka, where he lived earlier. We strolled all through the fields and hills. The Rebbe gestured toward the hills and meadows and said, "See all these fields and hills around the city. See all the other places near the town. I've been in all of those places. I've been to each one of them many times and secluded myself in prayer."
The method of hitbodedut is simply to talk out all the issues in one's life with God one by one, using one's own words in one's own unique personal way.
Rebbe Nachman himself practiced this:
|The main way the Rebbe attained what he did was simply through prayer and supplication before God. He was very consistent in this. He would beg and plead in every way possible, asking God to be kind to him and bring him to genuine closeness and devotion. What helped him most were his prayers in his own native language, which was Yiddish. He would find a secluded place and spend time expressing all his thoughts to God. Speaking in his own language, he would beg and plead with God. He would use every kind of argument, pleading with God to draw him closer and help him in his devotions. He kept this up constantly, spending days and years engaged in such prayer.... All his prayers had one goal: that he should come closer to God.
Praises of Rabbi Nachman #10-11
Rebbe Nachman advised everyone to practice hitbodedut.
|The Rebbe once spoke to a young man encouraging him to seclude himself and talk to God in his own words. The Rebbe told him that this was how prayer began. Originally prayer was each person's individual expression to God of his own inner thoughts and feelings in his own words. Rambam (Maimonides) discusses this in his code of Jewish law at the beginning of the section on Prayer. He states that this was originally the main form of prayer prior to the formalization of the liturgy by the Men of the Great Assembly (3rd century B.C.E. -- Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefilah 1:2-4) It was only then that a formal order of prayer was introduced. Even today, according to the Law, the original form of prayer is still foremost. Even though we follow the order of prayer instituted by the Great Assembly, the original form is still most beneficial.
Make a habit of praying to God from the depths of your heart. Use whatever language you know best. Ask God to make you worthy of truly serving Him. This is the essence of prayer. This is how all the Tzaddikim attained their levels.
Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #229
Rabbi Nachman taught:
|You must pray for everything. If your garment is torn and has to be replaced, pray to God for a new one. Do this for everything. Make it a habit to pray for everything you need, large or small. Your main prayers should be for fundamentals: that God should help you in your devotion and that you should be worthy of coming close to Him. Still, you should also pray even for trivial things. God may give you food, clothing and everything else you need even though you do not ask for them. But then you are like an animal. God gives every living thing its bread without being asked. He can also give it to you this way. But if you do not draw your life through prayer, then your life is like that of a beast. For a man must draw all the necessities of life from God only through prayer.
Rabbi Nachman's Wisdom #233
The path of prayer is often difficult. Worst of all is the sense of discouragement that comes from praying repeatedly without seeing results.
Rebbe Nachman went through all this as well.
|Even so, it always seemed to the Rebbe that all his prayers were being disregarded. He was sure that he was not wanted at all, and that he was being pushed further and further from any true devotion. For he saw the days and years passing, and still he felt far from God. After all his prayers he felt he had not succeeded in coming close to God at all. It was as if his words were never heard and he had been totally ignored all this time. It seemed as if everything was being done to push him away from God.
But the Rebbe's resolve remained firm and he did not abandon his ground. It was not easy, for there were many things to discourage him. He prayed and pleaded before God, begging to be worthy of true devotion, and still he saw no results. He felt as if he was being totally ignored.
There were times when he became discouraged and let his conversations with God lapse for several days. But then he would remind himself that he should be ashamed for criticizing God's ways. He said to himself, "God is truly merciful and compassionate... He certainly wants to draw me near to Him." This was how the Rebbe was able to again strengthen his resolve. He would begin anew, speaking and pleading with God. This happened very many times.
Praises of Rabbi Nachman #12
The courage and determination with which Rebbe Nachman coped with the inevitable disappointments and difficulties along the path of prayer are a vital aspect of the Gevurah -- power and strength -- of the Man of the Field.
In Hebrew such courage and determination are called HitGaBRut -- "self-strengthening". The would be strongman (GiBoR) must be MitGaBeR: he must apply his strength to himself in the sense of bringing his own instinctive tendency towards impatience under control. For "Who is strong? He who controls his bad impulses, as it says (Proverbs 16:32): Better is the person who is patient than the mighty warrior and better is the person who controls his own spirit than the conqueror of a city" (Avot 4:1).
The tiller of the field must wait patiently until the effects of his own labors combined with the power of the earth, the sun, the rains, the winds and God's other blessing cause his fruits to ripen and mature. So too one who follows the path of prayer must wait with consummate patience, until his eyes will be opened and he will see that his field is all abloom with flowers and rich in abundant fruits.
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