Shiur #14: Ethical Ascent Through Prayer (Part 1)

  • Rav Elyakim Krumbein
The object of our inquiry is how to make good the apparent shortfall which intellectual study leaves - the gap between knowing and being.  Rav Nachman of Braslav takes a unique position in our field of study.  He believed that little is to be expected from our efforts to change ourselves through rational human effort.  Actual progress is made exclusively on the basis of an activity which is an exercise of will and emotion - namely, prayer. 
The source in Chazal which furnishes the basis for Rav Nachman's approach is the following gemara (Avoda Zara 5b):
The Rabbis taught [on the verse], "Who would grant that this heart of theirs be with them, to fear me and keep all My commandments all the days" (Devarim 5:26).  Moshe said to Israel: Ungrateful sons of ungrateful fathers! When the Holy One said to Israel, "Who would grant that this heart of theirs be with them," they ought to have said, "You grant it"...
This gemara is cited in the introduction to "Hishtapkhut Ha-nefesh" ("The Outpouring of the Soul," an anthology of Rav Nachman's sayings relevant to our topic)[1], and is followed there by the comment of Maharsha -
Even though Chazal said, "Everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of Heaven," it is nevertheless obvious that the Holy One can tilt the heart of men for the better, for many verses prove this.
Rav Nachman went on from this interesting midrash to propagate the practice of what he called "hitbodedut" (loosely translated aloneness or seclusion).  We immediately notice the similarity in sound between this and "hibonenut," but the difference is crucial.  Hitbodedut is devoid of any intellectual connotation.  The meaning of the word has to do with isolation of the prayer-setting, as well as the uniqueness and personal-ness of the prayer itself (as in "a nation that dwells 'badad' [= alone]" - Bamidbar 23:9).  As Hishtapkhut Ha-nefesh continues:
From all this it is clear to the eye to what extent Chazal encouraged hitbodedut, that is - expression in speech before God, blessed be He, and beseeching Him that He give us fear of Heaven so that we do not sin, even though "all is in the hands of Heaven except for fear of heaven," still - everything is in His hand.  One must pray to God Himself for this, as it says explicitly in this gemara, that Moshe criticized them severely and called them "ungrateful" because they didn't say to God, "You give us," i.e. that God give them fear of Heaven...
Rav Nachman, then, requires us to ask for Divine intervention to make us better.  He is aware that this conflicts with the saying of Chazal that the "fear of Heaven is not in the hands of Heaven."  That aphorism is the popular rendition of the principle of free will and choice, which is one of the touchstones of the traditional Jewish outlook, and without which reward and punishment would be impossible.  Rav Nachman maintains that "still - everything is in His hand" including fear of Heaven. 
Exactly how this squares with the above saying of Chazal is something that remains to be seen.  But we should at the same time concede the truth of the Maharsha's statement, namely, that there is evidence in Scripture for the thesis that God's intervention in the state of human ethics is indeed possible.  We use many of these Scriptural references in our standard selichot prayers, when we ask God, for example, to "circumcise our hearts so that we may love His name."  God's hardening of Pharaoh's heart is a famous example of human depravity which the Torah imputes to Divine influence (this case, in fact, troubled the Rambam and other rishonim).  Another instance, from Yechezkel (36:27): "And I will put my spirit within you, and I will make it so that you will walk in My statutes." There are several ways of explaining these verses so that they do not pose an assault on free choice, but Rav Nachman cannot be accused of deviating from their spirit when taking them literally.
To gain perspective on this point, it is worthwhile to consider the opinion of the Gaon of Vilna.  He too realizes the necessity of Divine help in overcoming the evil inclination.  However, he doesn't draw the conclusion that man's main effort should be directed towards appealing for assistance from above.  Quite the opposite - man must exercise his autonomy to the greatest extent possible, and only then can he expect help.
Even though the Creator has given man the power to subdue his inclination by means of the spirit within him, but the task cannot be completed by man, for it is very difficult for man to finish it.  It is within his power only to begin the task and do whatever he can, whereas the completion of the work is through Divine assistance ... Now God is the judge of what is within man's heart, and He knows at what point a person has done whatever he can, and when He sees that someone has done what was in his power, and he can do no more though he strongly desires only good, then does Divine assistance accompany him from on high ... because he has come to the absolute limit of what he can do with his own action and it is impossible for him to do more ... But if he still can do more than what he has done and he does not do it, God will not help him either. (Kol Eliyahu, Sukka 52b)
Why does the Braslaver shun rational efforts to raise one's spiritual level? And how does he handle Chazal's insistence on free choice?
            Both of these questions are addressed in the following passage.  The theory is kabbalistic, but we will see what can be deduced from it in simpler terms.  (All of our citations from Rav Nachman will be from Hishtapkhut Ha-nefesh, by number of paragraph.  What follows is from paragraph 93.)
At first glance, one can raise a difficulty regarding the practice of hitbodedut and conversation with one's Maker ... and also regarding the fact that all the righteous ones of old did this and composed numerous prayers in order to merit being saved from the yezter ha-ra and to merit becoming close to God ... Now Chazal said that "Everything is in the hands of Heaven except the fear of Heaven."  If so, how is it possible to pray for this, since God has given the choice over to us exclusively? But the truth is that this itself is the main choice of man, because it is impossible for one to merit wholeness and to loathe evil and choose good and attain what one is supposed to attain in this world simply by using one's choice, but only by multiplying prayers and entreaties ... so that the multitude of evil waters - the evil desires of this world that are constantly raging - should not wash him away ... For even though man has free choice, the main thing is to pray and beseech God about this, because choice - the power to choose good and despise evil - is in the mind, but the human mind only has the power to subdue lusts and kelipot (= spiritual sources of defilement) which come from that aspect of heresy that results from the "breaking of the vessels," which hold sparks of holiness that are sparks of intelligence ... But there are confusions and "other sides" (= euphemism for yetzer ha-ra) and obstacles to holiness that come from the aspect of "the empty space," where His Divinity cannot be found through any intelligence or wisdom, BUT ONLY BY FAITH ALONE, and this is the aspect of prayer, entreaties and cries to God, that He save us from the kelipot and the yetzer ha-ra that come from there ... For in no way can one be saved from the yetzer ha-ra that comes from the "empty space" with free choice and mind alone, but only with Divine assistance ... because there intelligence is of no avail, but on the contrary, there intelligence and wisdom can cause one to sink even more, God forbid.
Rav Nachman (like the Rav of Novhardok, you will recall), develops a theory to explain the limitations of mind.  Why don't we behave the way we know we ought to? Why, at times, does our mind even lead us astray? His answer is that, metaphysically speaking, evil comes in two formats.  One of them is "broken vessels" which hold "sparks of intelligence" in captivity.  When the mind is imprisoned, the theoretical possibility exists of setting it free.  Clear, objective thinking liberates the person from the hold of the "broken vessels."  This struggle can be won with free choice, and this is the realm wherein Chazal said that "it is up to man." 
But Rav Nachman thinks that this source of evil is not the main problem.  There are moral defects in the world which do not stem from lack of proper thinking, but from lack of faith.  All of the great thinkers who arrived at conclusions with negative - even disastrous - moral repercussions, were not guilty of faulty argumentation.  They merely demonstrated that in the "empty space" - the realm where the evil comes about because of the "lack" (so to speak) of Divinity - intelligence can make matters worse, by weakening faith.  Rav Nachman here makes a daring statement about the fundamental inability of intelligence to find truth (as opposed to the approach of Novhardok, which saw mind as an inappropriate instrument for dealing with trying situations).
This passage also illuminates the nature of the prayer-effort that is Rav Nachman's main prescription.  He is not saying that, since man is incapable of helping himself by using his intelligence, he must therefore take a basically passive stance, awaiting the mercy of God, shrugging off responsibility with an assertion that "I believe" (an idea found in the non-Jewish world).  Faith is rather a weapon to be used against the confusion generated by the evil of the "empty space."  The prayer-effort is an expression and a deepening of faith, and Rav Nachman requires this effort to be an ongoing one.  The resulting spiritual ascent, when it comes, is the answer to a prayer.  Therefore it is the result of free Divine intervention, but on the other hand - of human striving as well.
            The Braslaver's lack of confidence in intellectual study led him to devise a formula which gives knowledge an existential turn (paragraph 2):
Also it is good to make a prayer out of the Torah.  That is, when one learns or hears a sermon of Torah from a true tzaddik, then he should make a prayer out of it.  In other words, to ask and beseech God for all [the spiritual levels] that are discussed in that sermon, when will he merit that he too should attain all of this, and how far-removed he is from this, and he should ask God to grant that he attain whatever is discussed in that sermon...
The term "Torah" here refers to an ethical or spiritual teaching of a "tzaddik" - a Chasidic master (primarily Rav Nachman himself).  Intellectual knowledge of the teaching is virtually trivial; the daunting task is to carry it out, to actually achieve the coveted spiritual level described in the "Torah."  Rather than struggle to apply the teaching in daily life, the major effort should be invested in turning to God for specific help in reaching the desired goal.
Rav Nachman is talking about spontaneous prayer.  He frequently uses the term "sicha," which Chazal sometimes used in the context of prayer, but which more frequently means "speech" or "conversation."
This prayer and this speech should be in the spoken language, that is Yiddish (in our country), because in the holy tongue (Hebrew) it will be difficult for him to express whatever he wants to say, and also the heart will not flow after the words because he is not used to the language ... but in Yiddish he can express whatever he wants to say and whatever is on his heart he can say and talk about before Him, blessed be He, whether it be regret and penitence about the past or entreaties to merit actual nearness to Him from this day on...
The significance of rote, intentionless prayer is a question that may be examined from the halakhic or general religious perspective.  But such prayer can never be "hitbodedut."  The whole aim of this practice is to open the heart.  The peak of hitbodedut is this (para. 7):
Until he is very close to having his soul leave him, God forbid, until he almost dies, God forbid, until his soul remains connected to his body only with a thread, as a result of his great pain, yearning and pining for God.  As Chazal said (Ta'anit 8a), "No man's prayer is heard until he takes his soul in the palm of his hand"...
Rav Nachman once explained the superiority of spontaneous prayer in metaphysical terms (para. 5):
All the prosecuting angels and destroyers know all about the standard formulated prayers, and they lie in wait for them on the roads.  Metaphorically, it is like the well-paved road that everyone knows, where the murderers and thieves always lie in wait because they have known the road for a long time.  But when people go on a new road which no one knows yet, there they don't know where to lie in wait.  So it is in our matter, because the conversation that one has with his Maker is a new way and a new prayer which a person says anew from his heart.  That is why there are fewer prosecutors lying in wait.  But nevertheless, he (Rav Nachman) cautioned often regarding the saying of the other (i.e. standard) prayers as well...
The prayer which occurs in the context of hitbodedut is personal and spontaneous, and hence the "uniqueness" implied in the very term.  As I mentioned above, the term also refers to the solitude which is the setting of hitbodedut.  Why is such a setting necessary? For one thing, solitude is certainly conducive towards this type of prayer, giving one the feeling of being alone with the Creator. 
Rav Nachman went further, by advising prayer in a natural environment, among trees and grasses.  He said that this suggestion is alluded to in the term "sicha" (conversation-prayer), which is related to the word "siach" (bush).  Here is how he explains the effect of such surroundings (paras. 27-28):
The winter is a kind of gestation period, when all the grasses and plants are dead ... But when summer comes, it is like a rebirth, and all the grasses wake up and live, and then it is very good and beautiful to go out and pray in the field ("lasuach ba-sadeh"), [as Chazal said,] "Sicha is prayer" and entreaties and desire and yearning for God.  And then all the bushes of the field yearn, and are included in his prayer ... He (Rav Nachman) said that if only one were to merit to hear the songs and praises of the grasses, how each and every one sings to God without any self-interest or foreign thought, how beautiful and seemly it is to hear their singing.  Therefore it is very good to fear God in their midst, to be alone in the field among the plants of the earth and truly pour out one's prayer before God.
Putting it differently, the psychological undercurrent of hitbodedut is yearning for God.  Rav Nachman interprets the flowering of the springtime as the arousal of nature to reach out to God.  This is the root meaning of all birth, all life.  The trees and wild plants are doing what we long to do - discovering their ability to bloom and grow and sing to God, all of which are one and the same.  When alone in the field, one's prayer blends with the prayer of nature.
So far, we have examined the parameters of Rav Nachman's program, and its ideological basis.  But we have yet to touch on one crucial aspect of this technique - a problematic one.  In hitbodedut, one aims for prayer as an expression of faith, will, yearning.  "Lip-service" is nowhere near the mark.  We are therefore faced with the same problem which came up in the techniques previously studied.  How does one arouse earnestness?  If I don't have it, can I consciously bring it about?  Or to put it more specifically in the context of hitbodedut - what do I do when I find myself emotionally incapable of prayer, heart closed and soul dry?
Rav Nachman, as is well known, constantly emphasized that it is forbidden to despair.  He has the following words of encouragement (para. 2):
And even if sometimes his words are stopped up and he cannot open his mouth to speak before Him at all, this itself is very good ...
At present we don't yet understand what is so good about this situation, or if there is anything can be done to break out of it.  We will deal with this important question, be-ezrat Hashem, next week.  Doing so will give us a more profound understanding of the dynamic of hitbodedut.
By the way - shiur #16 (in two weeks) will be the final one in the present series.  After wrapping up our discussion of Rav Nachman next week, I plan in the final shiur to give some thought to our journey as a whole.  I suggest that subscribers begin to do so as well. 
  • Do you feel that the questions we raised were dealt with significantly?
  • Were the questions themselves the "right" ones?
  • What important issues - relevant to Mussar in the modern age - were not addressed?
  • Has your thinking about the place of Mussar for the modern religious person been influenced?
Considering these questions can help clarify and solidify what you have gained from participating in these shiurim. 

[1] For precision's sake - many of the sayings in this book are by Rav Nachman's foremost disciple, Rav Nossan of Nemirov.