Painting by Dovid Sears
(c) Breslov Research Institute
The “Side Path”
By Dovid Sears
Musings about hisbodedus after a telephone conversation with A Simple Jew.
Li’ilui nishmas avi mori Leib ben Yitzchak Yaakov, a”h
Yahrtzeit: 30 Shvat (Rosh Chodesh Adar, first day)
In Rebbe Nachman’s story, “The Lost Princess,” the Viceroy sets off in search of the King’s daughter with a servant, horse, supplies, and his royal Bank of America card. While “walking that endless highway” through a desert, they come across a side path. The Viceroy decides to give it a try, speculating that “maybe it will lead us to a settled place.” (Later, he lets go of the servant, horse and the rest, too.)
Breslover Chassidim have long understood this “side path” to allude to hisbodedus – secluded meditation and prayer. Rebbe Nachman outlines his method of hisbodedus in Likutey Moharan I, 52, citing the Mishnah: “One who awakens in the night, goes on an isolated path, and turns his heart to emptiness—he puts his life in jeopardy” (Avos 3:5). The Mishnah clearly sees these behaviors as ways of frittering away one’s life. But Rebbe homiletically recasts the mishnah in a positive sense: one who wakes up at night, walks on an isolated path (AKA the “side path”) in order to commune with God, and empties his heart of all negative desires and character traits until he nullifies the subtlest trace of ego—will realize and thus become transformed to the “Necessary Existent.” This term, evidently taken from Maimonides (which is a very interesting side-path in itself), denotes the Divine Oneness that is the True Reality; see the full teaching, which is one of the foundations of Rebbe Nachman’s derekh in avodas Hashem.
This transformative perception seems to be identical with the well-known Chassidic understanding of the verse “Ein ode milvado” (“There is none else but Him,” Deuteronomy 4:35), meaning that in truth there is no other existent or reality but God. (This interpretation actually precedes the Baal Shem Tov and may be found in a Shabbos Teshuvah derashah of the Maharal of Prague and in Rabbi Yeshaya Horowitz’s Shnei Luchos HaBris.)
The way this is attained, according to Rebbe Nachman, is by “negating the negative.” That is, the truth is right here and available to all of us, all of the time. It’s just that it is covered up by the “dark clouds” of negative emotions and character traits. When these delusions are dissolved through hisbodedus, one encounters the root of them all – the Rebbe uses the term “eizeh davar,” which Reb Noson explains to be “yeshus,” the sense of being a separate self – and that too may be transcended through hisbodedus, until the light of the “Necessary Existent” or Essential Reality shines through.
It struck me that there is a certain resonance between this teaching and something Rav Chaim Vital writes in his Sha’arey Kedushah (“Gates of Holiness,” which is both a classic Mussar text and a kabbalistic meditation manual). Before going into the esoteric practices listed in the long-unpublished Section 4, he states in his introduction that it is possible for a person to attain ruach ha-kodesh (divine illumination) without any of these techniques, but simply by virtue of tikkun ha-midos, self-refinement. And Rebbe Nachman’s hisbodedus is focused on this inner work as a path that is “shaveh le-khol nefesh,” applicable to everyone, and not only to those who are already on a high spiritual level.
Given that hisbodedus is the “eitzah ha-ye’utzah,” perhaps the main piece of spiritual advice Rebbe Nachman gives us (or certainly one that is at the top of the list), it is puzzling that he is so vague about the practical details of hisbodedus. Sooner or later, every new Breslover asks himself this question. Of course, there are some extremely important guidelines in another lesson, Likutey Moharan II, 25, as well as here and there in Likutey Moharan and Sichos HaRan. But when all is said and done, it must be admitted that Breslov-style hisbodedus remains somewhat amorphous.
However, this may be another case where “the question is the answer.” The Rebbe’s hisbodedus will vary from one individual to another, and even between one day and the next for the same person. Thus, it can’t be fully spelled out in words. At some point, each person must take the “side path” and forge ahead alone.
Yet in the above-mentioned Likutey Moharan II, 25, Rebbe Nachman adds an extremely important factor that is not mentioned in Torah 52: “turning my lessons into prayers” during hisbodedus.
With this, the Rebbe points out that reaching the goals of bittul ha-yesh (nullification of ego) and hasagas Elokus (realization of Godliness) can be reached—at least for most of us—only by following the Rebbe’s lessons and using them as guides for contemplation and prayer in one’s own words.
This has both an overt benefit and an implicit, deeper benefit. The overt benefit is gaining a focal-point for what one contemplates and speaks about in hisbodedus. The implicit, deeper benefit is that using these lessons in this manner is intrinsically a form of hiskashrus le-tzaddik, connecting to the tzaddik through the instructions he left for us. And those instructions include the concept that the “face” of the tzaddik may be found in his teachings.
May following this “side path” enable us all to reach the “takhlis ha-tov vi-hanitzchi,” the eternal goal that the Rebbe urges us to seek with our innermost will, amen.