A Nation That Will Dwell in Solitude

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On the Necessity of Hitbodedut

In the past two issues, we wrote about the importance of waking up and getting out of bed at midnight. We focused on two tasks and their accompanying benefits: (1) by learning Torah after midnight, we draw down a thread of chesed throughout the day, and (2) by reciting Tikkun Chatzot, we help raise the Shechinah from the dirt, helping to merit in the rebuilding of the Holy Temple and ushering in the final redemption. In this issue, we will add a third important reason why we should wake up and get out of bed while it is still night.

We are all familiar with the story of Balak hiring the prophet Bilaam to curse the Nation of Yisrael. But every time Bilaam opened his mouth, he praised them instead of cursing them, for example (Bemidbar 23:9): כִּי־מֵרֹאשׁ צֻרִים אֶרְאֶנּוּ וּמִגְּבָעוֹת אֲשׁוּרֶנּוּ הֶן־עָם לְבָדָד יִשְׁכֹּן וּבַגּוֹיִם לֹא יִתְחַשָּׁב (For I see it from the top of the rocks, and from the hills I observe it. Behold! It is a nation that will dwell in solitude, and it will not be considered among the [other] nations). What is the meaning of ‘a nation that will dwell in solitude’? And why is this statement one of praise? Although introverts readily appreciate the benefit of being alone, a highly extroverted individual might actually dread it! So how is being alone something praiseworthy for everyone, for the entire nation?

Lamenting why so much suffering and tragedies befall the Jewish People, the Chofetz Chaim writes (Likutei Amarim 10): ולא יסתפק אדם במה שמתפלל השמונה-עשרה שלש פעמים בכל יום, אלא כמה פעמים ביום צריך לשפוך תפילות ובקשות בינו לבין עצמו כשהוא בביתו מעומקא דליבא .כי השלש תפילות הן אצלו כבר שגורות בפיו ואינו נותן לב להם כל כך; מה שאי כן אם יתבונן כל אדם בינו לבין עצמו ויעשה חשבון נפש על מצבו ומעמדו (A person should not be satisfied with the three times he prays the Shemoneh Esrei each day; rather, many times throughout the day he needs to pour out his prayers and requests, privately, by himself, when [for example] he’s in his house, from the depth of his heart, because his mouth is already accustomed to saying the three [formal] prayers, and as a result, he doesn’t pay attention to them all that much. But that’s not the case if everyone were to be introspective and do a cheshbon nefesh [personal examination] on his situation and his standing in life). He continues to explain that we are not answered in our three regular daily prayers because we don’t pour out of heart to Hashem when we pray. Instead, we’re praying like a machine. Plug it in, set the speed dial to ‘rapid’, push the ‘start’ button and away it goes. If we spoke to our friend or spouse that way, do you think they would be particularly interested in listening to what we had to say? Likewise, do you really think Hashem is any different in this regard?

The Chofetz Chaim is speaking about the need for everyone to spend time each day—even throughout the day—praying to Hashem in one’s own words, a practice known as hitbodedut [private, secluded prayer].

R’ Nachman taught (Likutei Moharan II:25): הַהִתְבּוֹדְדוּת הוּא מַעֲלָה עֶלְיוֹנָה וּגְדוֹלָה מִן הַכֹּל דְּהַיְנוּ לִקְבֹּעַ לוֹ עַל־כָּל־פָּנִים שָׁעָה אוֹ יוֹתֵר לְהִתְבּוֹדֵד לְבַדּוֹ בְּאֵיזֶה חֶדֶר אוֹ בַּשָּׂדֶה וּלְפָרֵשׁ שִׂיחָתוֹ בֵּינוֹ לְבֵין קוֹנוֹ…שֶׁיְּקָרְבוֹ אֵלָיו לַעֲבוֹדָתוֹ בֶּאֱמֶת (The practice of doing hitbodedut is very exalted and greater than everything, i.e. to fix a time for oneself, at least one hour or more, to seclude oneself alone in some room or in the field, to lay out one’s conversation in private with one’s Creator…that he would be able to draw closer to Him and serve Him in truth). It doesn’t make any difference if we feel that we are already close to Hashem or if we feel that we are too far from Him to be of importance or if we can’t even open up our mouths to say anything, the main point is to spend time in solitude knowing that you’re sitting with Hashem. This in and of itself is very, very good. In fact, there is nothing greater than this.

Regarding the best time and place for hitbodedut, we read in Likutei Eitzot, Hitbodedut 7: עִקַּר הַהִתְבּוֹדְדוּת הוּא בַּלַּיְלָה שֶׁאָז הַכֹּל יְשֵׁנִים וְגַם טוֹב שֶׁיִּהְיֶה הַמָּקוֹם חוּץ מֵהָעִיר שֶׁיֵּלֵךְ בְּדֶרֶךְ יְחִידִי דְּהַיְנוּ בְּמָקוֹם שֶׁאֵין בְּנֵי אָדָם הוֹלְכִים שָׁם אֲפִלּוּ בַּיּוֹם (The essence of hitbodedut is at night because then everyone is asleep, and it is also good that he should be in a place outside the city, that he walk to a solitary place, i.e. a place where even by day people don’t go). The reasons for this are because the quietness of night is the best time for obtaining clarity about oneself because the cares of the world are decreased. Although these parameters are optimal if one is able to fulfill them, they should never prevent someone from spending his hour of hitbodedut during the day in a room of his house if that works for him. The main point is to spend one interrupted hour alone with Hashem, each and every day. Once you get used to this hour, it should become the best hour of your day.

But what is the real purpose of hitbodedut? Is it to tell Hashem all the things we need or want in life, to make our requests known to Him—“I need a good spouse. I need a nice apartment. I need a high paying job. I need…”? No. That’s the purpose (in part) of the Shemoneh Esrei. The purpose of hitbodedut is something completely different. Simply put, it is to work on oneself, to fix one’s deficiencies and faults, to achieve self-nullification, thus becoming part of the necessary reality. Let’s explain.

Two kinds of realities exist: necessary reality and dependent reality. Hashem, of course, is the ultimate and only necessary reality. Everything created in all the worlds is just a dependent reality. None of it must exist. All of it came into existence by the Creator who spoke it into existence, as it is written (Tehillim 33:6, 9): בִּדְבַר יְיָ שָׁמַיִם נַעֲשׂוּ וּבְרוּחַ פִּיו כׇּל־צְבָאָם…כִּי הוּא אָמַר וַיֶּהִי הוּא־צִוָּה וַיַּעֲמֹד (By the word of Hashem heaven was made, and by the breath of His mouth, all of their host…He spoke and it was, He commanded and it stands). The moment Hashem created the soul of Adam ha-Rishon to have free will to choose and to do His will, reality changed. All of the created worlds acquired a certain aspect of the necessary reality, i.e. all the upper and lower worlds need to exist in order for Hashem’s purpose to be fulfilled. And what is that purpose? It is to return and be encompassed in one’s Source, in the only true, independent necessary reality. This is all explained in detail by R’ Nachman in L.M. 52, but here’s a short summary: וְעַל־כֵּן אָז דַּיְקָא כְּשֶׁעוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ נִכְלָל הָעוֹלָם בִּבְחִינַת מְחֻיַּב הַמְּצִיאוּת כַּנַּ”ל כִּי כָּל מַה שֶּׁעוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ יוֹתֵר הֵם נִכְלָלִין בְּיוֹתֵר עִם כָּל הָעוֹלָמוֹת הַתְּלוּיִים בָּהֶם בְּחִיּוּב הַמְּצִיאוּת (Therefore, it is specifically then, when we [the inheritors of the mission and soul of Adam ha-Rishon, i.e. Yisrael] do His will, that the world is included in an aspect of the necessary reality, for the more we do His will, the more we are included together with the worlds which are dependent upon them, in the necessary reality).

This is really an amazing and awesome truth! Even though the world and everything in it, including ourselves ‘start off’ as a dependent reality in that everything is created by Hashem and has no independent existence in and of itself, when the object and purpose of His creation actually perform the will of its Creator, then not only do all the worlds acquire a certain aspect of the necessary reality but, more importantly, the people who perform His will also acquire a certain aspect of the necessary reality. And it is a matter of degree. The more we do Hashem’s will, the more we are encompassed in His Oneness, and the more the world and everything in it, including ourselves, become part of this same necessary reality.

Now the logical question is: How do we actually achieve becoming encompassed in one’s Source so that we move from being a dependent reality to being a part of the necessary reality? R’ Nachman explains (L.M. 52): אַךְ לִזְכּוֹת לָזֶה לְהִכָּלֵל בְּשָׁרְשׁוֹ דְּהַיְנוּ לַחֲזֹר וּלְהִכָּלֵל בְּאַחְדוּת הַשֵּׁם יִתְבָּרַךְ שֶׁהוּא מְחֻיַּב הַמְּצִיאוּת זֶה אִי אֶפְשָׁר לִזְכּוֹת כִּי־אִם עַל־יְדֵי בִּטּוּל שֶׁיְּבַטֵּל עַצְמוֹ לְגַמְרֵי עַד שֶׁיִּהְיֶה נִכְלָל בְּאַחְדוּתוֹ יִתְבָּרַךְ (However, to merit this, to be encompassed in one’s Source, i.e. to return and be encompassed in the Oneness of Hashem, may He be blessed, who is the necessary reality, is possible only through bitul [self-nullification]. A person needs to nullify himself completely to the point that he becomes encompassed in His Oneness, may He be blessed).

Self-nullification? That seems a bit drastic, if not kind of weird. What does it really mean? Bitul means to negate all of one’s negative character traits and all of one’s physical desires and lusts—anger, impatience, theft, stinginess, harboring grudges, jealousy, laziness, selfishness, stubbornness, ungratefulness, speaking negatively about others, self-justification, lying, lusting after food and drink, lewdness, feasting one’s eyes on that which is forbidden to look at, immodesty, desire for honor and prestige, love of money, arrogance, lack of emunah and bitachon, etc. But isn’t that impossible? R’ Nachman assures us that it is very achievable, not just by the tzaddikim, butby all of us. How so? These are his holy words (L.M. 52): וְאִי אֶפְשָׁר לָבוֹא לִידֵי בִּטּוּל כִּי־אִם עַל־יְדֵי הִתְבּוֹדְדוּת (It is impossible to achieve bitul except through hitbodedut). This is the real reason for hitbodedut. It is the most powerful tool available for fixing ourselves. Reading self-help books, listening to lectures and inspirational talks, reading articles (like this one), or even talking to therapists may be fine and dandy, but that will not get us to the goal of our lives, which is to return to our Source and become encompassed in the Infinite for eternity.

But it seems so overwhelming! Perhaps, but that’s why we were given life in the first place, to achieve that which seems so impossible. After all, is anything truly impossible with G-d? Can He not help us achieve the impossible if we really want it? But we have to be honest. We can’t go into hitbodedut and pretend. The moment we walk out into that field or close that door, we have to be real. We have to speak only truth. Nothing gets fixed without truth. We start with one negative trait and we keep talking to Hashem about it night after night until we negate it. It may take years of concerted effort, but all sincere effort will be rewarded. And when we nullify one negative trait, we move onto the next one, and so on, until we nullify them all. At that point there will be nothing left of us. We will have achieved complete bitul and become nothing, i.e. no-thing—even as Hashem is ‘No-thing’. This is how we prepare for becoming merged into the Eternal Infinite, to be fully encompassed in the necessary reality even as Hashem is the necessary reality.

May G-d give us strength to be what we were destined to be, a nation that dwells in solitude (not because of government coercion, but voluntarily), each one of us becoming an expert at hitbodedut and achieving his true mission in life.

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