If Water Can Wear Down A Stone

prayer-hitbodedutSet aside time each day to meditate and pray alone in a room or some meadow and express your innermost thoughts and feelings and personal prayers to God. Use every kind of appeal and argument. Use words that will endear you to God and win His favor. Plead with God to draw you closer and let you truly serve Him. This is Hitbodedut.

You should hold these conversations in whatever language you speak best. Our set prayers are said in Hebrew, but if this is not one’s native language, it is difficult to use it to give expression to all one’s innermost thoughts and feelings and the heart is less drawn after the words. It is easier to pour out your heart and say everything you need in your own language.

You should tell God everything you feel, be it contrition and longing to repent over the past or requests and supplications to come truly close to God from now on, each person according to his level.

Be very careful to get into the habit of spending time every day on your personal prayers and meditation. Fix a regular time for this and then be happy for the rest of the day!

-Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
Translated by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

Sunday before last, I was having my bi-monthly coffee encounter with my friend. We spoke of many things, including matters both painful and necessary to me, but one of the topics we briefly touched upon was hitbodeut. I should say that neither of us could remember the name, but this is what we were describing when discussing an encounter with God. To briefly quote from Wikipedia:

Hitbodedut refers to an unstructured, spontaneous and individualized form of prayer and meditation taught by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Through hitbodedut one may establish a close, personal relationship with God and gain a clearer understanding of one’s personal motives and aspirations. However, Rebbe Nachman states that the ultimate goal is to free oneself of all negative traits that obstruct the spiritually-transforming non-dual realization of the “Imperative Existent,” which is the Divinity inherent in all being.

Mystic aspects aside, why am I bothering to write about this? Those of you reading my blog who are aware of hitbodedut, probably know far more about the practice than I do, and those of you who don’t can simply reduce the concept down to a way to be alone and talk to God. What’s the big deal?

First off, I have been aware of hitbodedut off and on for a few years but mentally, I always manage to lose track of both the term and the practice. This is a sort of “bookmark” in my memory so if I lose my place again, I can just search my blog and find it. Beyond a reminder, there is also what we know about how Jesus prayed:

At about morning light he left and went to a desolate place.

Luke 4:42 (DHE Gospels)

But he departed to the wilderness areas and prayed.

Luke 5:16 (DHE Gospels)

As he was praying alone, his disciples were gathered to him.

Luke 9:18 (DHE Gospels)

Although we can’t draw a direct connection between these examples of Jesus praying from Luke and Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, we can say that both of them seemed to practice a similar manner of prayer, withdrawing to wilderness areas or other places to be alone in order to pray. Even in his most desperate hour, Jesus continued to seek his Father alone.

Afterward, Yeshua came with them to a courtyard that was called Gat Shamnei. He said to the disciples, “You remain here until I have gone over there and prayed.” He took Petros and the two sons of Zavdai with him, and he began to become distressed and disheartened. He said to them, “My soul is bitterly troubled to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Then he went a little bit away from them, fell on his face and prayed, saying “My Father, if it is possible to be so, let this cup pass from me, yet not according to my will, but according to your will.”

Matthew 26:36-39 (DHE Gospels)

I’ve often wondered if Jesus wanted to be alone, why he also took his closest companions with him. Maybe he wanted them to keep watch in case anyone might come who would disturb his prayers. Maybe he wanted them to pray for him in his hour of terror and hardship, before the betrayer came. What is he trying to say to us? Is it better to be alone with God than to pray in assembly?

But as for you, when you pray, go into your room, close your door behind you, and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees the secret things will {openly} be generous to you.

Matthew 6:6 (DHE Gospels)

Being alone with God can be a lonely or terrifying experience. It can be lonely if all you experience is the emptiness of your own words. It can be terrifying if God answers you.

Really? How can I say that? Sure, we all have experienced times in prayer when it seems as if God isn’t listening, as if He has taken a two-week vacation to some distant place, leaving us to fend for ourselves, but why would God answering prayer be terrifying?

Because it’s God. He’s not a “cosmic teddy bear” who allows us to hop on His comfortable lap as if He was Santa Claus. We are trying to be seriously alone with the creator of the entire universe, who can and has laid waste to the surface of the Earth. Do we…do I know what I’m asking for?

And how can Nachman of Breslov say, “and then be happy for the rest of the day?”

Hitbodedut is of the greatest value. It is the way to come closer to God, because it includes everything else. No matter what you lack in your service of God, even if you feel totally remote from His service, tell God everything and ask Him for all that you need.

If at times you find yourself unable to speak to God or even open your mouth, the very fact that you are there before Him wanting and yearning to speak is itself very good. You can even turn your very inability to speak into a prayer. Tell God that you feel so far away that you cannot even speak to Him! Ask Him to have mercy on you and open your mouth to tell Him what you need.

Many great and famous Tzaddikim have said that all their achievements came only through Hitbodedut. Anyone with understanding can recognize the supreme value of this practice, which ascends to the most sublime heights. This advice applies to everyone equally, from the very least to the very greatest. Everyone is capable of practicing it and can attain great levels. Happy are all who persist in it.

It is also good to turn Torah teachings into prayers. When you study or hear a teaching of a true Tzaddik, make a prayer out of it. Ask God when you too will be able to fulfill this teaching. Tell Him how far from it you are and beg Him to help you attain everything contained in the lesson.

A person of understanding who wants the truth will be led by God in the path of truth, and he will learn how to practice Hitbodedut and offer words of grace and sound arguments to persuade God to bring him to true service.

Hitbodedut rises to a very high place. This applies especially to turning Torah teachings into prayers, which creates the greatest delight above.

Hitbodedut is the highest level: it is greater than everything.

When God helps with Hitbodedut, it is like a person talking to his friend.

prayers_in_the_darkI get the sense that the “talking to his friend” part is more familiar to some Christians than to many religious Jews. I could be wrong of course, but when I pray from a siddur, the words communicate a more formal relationship with God, a greater awe, the powerful majesty, as we stand before the King of all Glory. Not exactly like schmoozing with a good buddy.

But then again, that’s not exactly right, either. God is closer, more intimate than a friend. As the Master says, He is our Father, our “Abba.”

It is very good to pour out your heart to God like a child pleading with his father.

Doesn’t God call us His children? “You are children to the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 14:1) . Therefore it is good to express your thoughts and feelings and all your troubles to God, like a child nagging and complaining to his father.

Even if you think you have done so much wrong that you are no longer one of God’s children, remember that God still calls you His child. As the Rabbis taught: “For better or worse, you are always called His children” ( Kiddushin 36a) .

Even if you think God has rejected you and told you that you are no longer His child, you must still say: “Let Him do His will – but I must do my part and continue acting as His child.”

How good it is when you can arouse your heart and plead with God until tears stream from your eyes and you stand like a little child crying before his Father.

Confusing thoughts may enter your mind, but if you stand firm, God will send you another thought to encourage you. You may think you are no longer one of God’s children. But if you do your part, God will eventually send you thoughts of encouragement.

Jesus encouraged his disciples to pray to their Father who is in Heaven. These were his Jewish disciples but by extension (and since we have no other model from the time of Jesus), we may apply the teachings of the Master about prayer to we non-Jewish disciples as well. What choice do we have?

I know Nachman of Breslev is addressing Jews in his teachings, but he does say, “From the smallest to the greatest, it is impossible to be a truly good person without Hitbodedut,” implying that one’s station in life or relative level of spirituality is beside the point. No matter who you are, unless you pray Hitbodedut, that is, pray totally from the heart, you are missing something.

Can we small, finite creatures be intimate with an infinite and Holy God?

Christianity seems to think so and sometimes I think some folks are a little too intimate. I’ve never been one of those who thinks that I can simply sit down at my kitchen table and share a casual cup of coffee with Jesus. He’s a King, not my next door neighbor. Not even his own disciples treated him so commonly.

But I’ve got to “reboot” my journey by starting somewhere. I’ve got to attempt to rise to a higher level. Even if I get it wrong, it’s better to stub my toe while walking the path than to stand frozen in one spot out of appearing foolish or a fear of failure.

During your Hitbodedut, it is good to say: “Today I am starting to attach myself to You!”

Make a new start each time, because everything that comes later is always in accordance with the beginning.

No matter what happens, it is always good to make a new start each time and say, “Today I am beginning…” If things were already good, now they will be even better! And if they were not good before, then you certainly need to start anew.

You’re probably familiar with the phrase, “today is the first day of the rest of your life,” generally attributed to Charles (“Chuck”) Dederich, and that seems to be part of what the Rebbe is saying too. Each day is a new beginning. Every moment is a fresh opportunity. The Master said, the spirit desires but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). We want to draw nearer to God, but there are so many things we let get in the way. After a while, we start to feel as if there are too many barriers and we stop trying.

But while we live there are always opportunities. Pushing the walls aside is as easy as finding some place to be alone and then starting to talk to God. Our first words can always be, “Today I am starting to attach myself to You!” Even if nothing seems to “happen” first, be patient.

Even if many days and years pass and it seems as if you have accomplished nothing with your prayers and conversations with God, don’t give up! Every single word makes an impression.

“Water wears away stone” (Job 14: 19 ) . It may seem that water dripping on hard stone could not make any impression, yet when water drips on stone continuously for many years, it can literally wear a hole in the stone. We actually see this.

Even if your heart is like stone and it seems that your words of prayer are making no impression at all, still, as the days and years pass, your heart of stone will also be softened. For: “Water wears away stone”.

rabbi-akiva-stone-waterThere is a story told about the great Rabbi Akiva that applies to us and particularly (I hope) to me.

Rabbi Akiva was a shepherd, a laborer, an am ha’aretz – religious in observance, but ignorant of Torah knowledge. At age 40, he didn’t even know how to read the aleph-beis.

One day, while sitting by a brook, Akiva noticed a steady trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a drip, but it was constant – drop after drop after drop. Akiva observed something incredible: A hole had been carved out by that steady drip of water. He wondered how that could be. He concluded: If something as soft as water can carve a hole in solid rock, how much more so can words of Torah – which is hard as iron – make an indelible impression on my heart.

That marked a turning point in Rabbi Akiva’s life. He committed himself to Torah study, and went on to become the greatest sage of his generation, with 24,000 students learning under him at one time.

-from “Like Water on Rock”

It is said of Rabbi Akiva: If water can wear down a stone, then every Jew can and will study Torah…If water can wear down a stone, the Jewish people can overcome Rome…If water can wear down stone, then the Temple can be rebuilt…

If water can wear down a stone, then I can encounter God in prayer.

And so can you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.