Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Baal Shem Tov’s Way of Meditation

According to Chassidic tradition, Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov, was born on “Chai Elul” in 5458 / 1698 C.E. (the Hebrew acronymn for 5458 being “NaCHaS,” or gratification). This year the 18th of Elul coincides with Shabbos Ki Tavo (September 17th). In honor of the holy Baal Shem Tov, we are posting this discussion of his teachings on meditation and deveykus (cleaving to God).

The Baal Shem Tov’s Way of Meditation
Dovid Sears

First posted on ASimple Jew.Blogspot.Com

I. Direct Encounter of the Mind

From Dor Dorim, Chapter 1: “The Light of Israel”

“Dor Dorim (Throughout the Generations)” is an intellectual history of the origins of the Chassidic movement and its most prominent leaders written during the early 1900s by Rabbi Yekusiel Aryeh Kamelhar of Stanislav, Galitzia. Rabbi Kamelhar was an accomplished Torah scholar, expert in both Halakhah and Kabbalah. He was also knowledgeable in many areas of secular thought, which he felt was necessary in order to reach out to the religiously disaffected Jewish youth of his day. Rabbi Kamelhar spent his last years in the Bronx until his passing in 1937. This lengthy introduction to Jewish mysticism was but one of many of his published works, today known only to bibliophiles and historians.

The first chapter discusses the Baal Shem Tov’s youth and early influences. This excerpt defines the salient features of the Baal Shem Tov’s meditation more clearly than any discussion I have ever come across:

“While the Baal Shem Tov was in Kutov [sometimes rendered “Kitov” or “Kitiv”], he used to meditate in the mountains and fast from one Shabbos until the next. The purpose of his meditation (hisbodedus) in the mountains and wilds of the forests was this: he sought to become one with his inner being – with his feelings and thoughts; to hear the voice of his inner soul from her very depths, without any admixture of external influences, the hustle and bustle of the city and its surroundings; to become lucidly aware of the flow of his inner being and its inclinations, and to bring them entirely under the authority of the mind, freed from all external distraction. Prior to him, spiritual seekers devoted all of their energies to searching out all that exists above and below, and completely forget about themselves and their physical existence in order to know their ‘I.’ By contrast, the Baal Shem Tov introduced a new method of spiritual probing: a way to become an explorer of one’s inner being, and to vigilantly observe whatever took place in the chambers of one’s heart and soul, all of one’s inner faculties, and every movement, however great or small.

“His meditation had one other goal, as well, as the eminent scholar and kabbalist Rabbi Aaron Marcus states in his work HaChassidus:

“ ‘The atmosphere was fraught with terror due to fear of the enemy [i.e. the combined forces of Ukrainian Haidamaks and Cossacks]. Even the most stout-hearted feared for their lives, lest calamity befall from the marauders who lay in wait to put an end to them. Sounds of terror constantly filled their ears from horrendous incidents of pillage and murder, which were commonplace. In addition, the existential void of the Jewish world was filled with dreadful images of demons and ghosts. These were the causes of the widespread pietism of self-mortification and morbidity, due to the “lower fear,” external fear. The Arizal had already cautioned against this in his time – to keep far from external fears and to serve God with joy; as the Torah cautions, “Since you did not serve the Lord with joy…” (Deuteronomy 28:47). Therefore, the Baal Shem Tov meditated in the mountains and in uninhabited places to train himself to rule over the lower fear aroused by his desolate surroundings, and to transform it to the supernal fear, which is awe before God; to master his fear due to the awesome splendor of the Lord of Hosts.’ ”

“The Talmudic sages called sailors ‘chassidim (devout)’ – ‘Most sailors are devout’ (TB Kiddushin 82a). Men of the sea are habituated to overcoming their external fears because they often are faced with death, and this motivates them to attain the ultimate pristine fear, that sublime awe of which our holy master [Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev], the author of Kedushas Levi, states: ‘There is no delight like the delight of cleaving to God in pure awe.’ This is the spiritual rung of the true Chassidim; and there, in the mountains, among the caves and cliffs where the Baal Shem Tov meditated in seclusion, he attained this trait: mastery over all external fears by bringing them under the sovereignty of God, Who reigns forever in His might.”

Similarly, the Baal Shem Tov’s illustrious great-grandson, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, states in Likkutei Moharan I, 15, “Whoever wishes to glimpse the ‘hidden light (ohr ha-ganuz)’ – the ‘secrets of the Torah’ that will be revealed in time to come – must elevate the trait of fear to its spiritual source…”

II. “Hearing” the Silence

Although the Baal Shem Tov has much to say about the cultivation of holy speech and attaining deveykus, attachment to Godliness, through verbal prayer, it seems that the hisbodedus we have been discussing was silent meditation. At the very least, it was a combination of using speech in spontaneous personal prayer and silent meditation. This is suggested by the following teachings:

The Fence for Wisdom

“ ‘Silence is a fence for wisdom (chokhmah)’ (Avos 3:13). When one is silent, he is able to bind himself to the World of Thought (Olam ha-Machshavah), which is called ‘wisdom (chokhmah).’ “
Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Zhelikhov, Keser Shem Tov 225

And in Tzava’as ha-Rivash (sec. 133), the Baal Shem Tov observes:

“Through silence, one can meditate upon the greatness of God and bind oneself to Him more completely than through speech.”

In a teaching of his own, Rabbi Aharon Hakohen (who also authored the Chassidic commentary Keser Nehora, printed in the Siddur Tefillah Yesharah or “Berditchever Siddur”) develops this key element of the Baal Shem Tov’s approach:

Two Modes of Divine Service

“ ‘And it came to pass, when the Ark set forth, that Moses said: Rise up, O God, and let Your enemies disperse, and let those that hate You flee from Your Presence! And when it rested, he said: Return, O God, to the thousands of myriads of Israel!’ (Numbers 10:35-36)

“There is a type of divine service that entails movement (tenu’ah), which includes all of the positive mitzvos, Torah study, and prayer; and they all accomplish various mystical unifications. However, there is another type of divine service that entails repose (menuchah). One sits alone in silence and contemplates God’s loftiness. This relates to the World of Thought (Olam ha-Machshavah), which is also called the World of Rest; for one enters into a state of stillness. When one wishes to experiencedeveykus, he should sit in silence, with holy thoughts, in a state of awe and attachment to God.”

Ohr Ha-Ganuz La-Tzaddikim (B’ha’alosekha)

In a related vein, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov states in Likkutei Moharan I, 234:

“One who wishes to enter the World of Thought must be silent. Even to speak properly would detract from one’s state of mind – for thought is an extremely lofty thing, and even worthy speech would have a harmful affect on it. This is implied by [the Talmudic narrative, in which God shows Moses how Rabbi Akiva was destined to be burnt alive by the Romans, and tells Moses in his dismay:] ‘Be silent! Thus it arose in thought…’ (TB Menachos 29a). That is, in order to ascend to the [World of] Thought, one must be silent. And even if one were to remain absolutely still and not utter a word, in spite of this, there are confusions that disturb the mind and interfere with [one’s attempt to reach the essence of the mind]. Therefore, one must attain purification of the mind…”

Rabbi Nachman’s lesson is far too involved to present here, but it also reflects the “direct encounter of the mind” type of meditation taught by his holy great-grandfather. (In addition, see Reb Noson of Breslov’s Likkutei Halakhos, Hilkhos Shabbos6:5, 8; ibid. 7:43, translated in “The Tree That Stands Beyond Space,” pp. 70-73.)

III. God Is Right Here

Hand in hand with what Rabbi Kamelhar describes above as “becoming one with one’s inner being” is what scholars have called the Baal Shem Tov’s “immanentism”: the pervasive sense of God’s omnipresence experienced by one who is properly attuned to this reality. The discovery of God’s immanence and omnipresence is one of the primary goals of the Baal Shem Tov’s way of meditation. Several works citing oral traditions of the Baal Shem Tov attest to this.

Contemplating the Word “Echad (One)”

“ ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One’ (Deuteronomy 6:6). When during this part of the prayer service a person recites the word ‘One,’ he should contemplate that the Holy One, blessed be He, is all that truly exists in the universe, for ‘the entire world is filled with His Glory’ (Isaiah 6:3). One must realize that he is nothing, for the essence of a person is his soul, and the soul is but a ‘portion of God Above’ (Shefa Tal 1a). Therefore, nothing truly exists except the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch, Likkutim Yekarim (sec. 161)

Banishing Spiritual Confusions

“When a person realizes that the Master of the Universe is actually present in his every word and gesture, however great or small, all spiritual confusions [literally “all workers of iniquity”] disperse that obscure the light of the mind.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik Yehudah Yechiel Safrin of Komarno, Nesiv Mitzvosekha (cited in Sefer Baal Shem Tov, Vayelekh, note 6)

The True “I”

“ ‘I, I am the One Who consoles you…’ (Isaiah 51:12). When one realizes that the true ‘I’ is God, and nothing else exists besides Him, then [the divine promise is fulfilled that] ‘I am the One Who consoles you.’ “

Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, Teshu’os Chen, Tzav (cited in Me’iras Einayim, Inyan “Emunah”)
Similarly, Ohr Ha-Ganuz La-Tzaddikim (Mattos) states:

“One must realize that essentially he, too, is Godliness. When one considers that the ‘self’ is really nothing, then Godliness will rest upon him.”

No Need to Go Any Farther

“It is not necessary to ‘place’ oneself in Godliness – but only to realize that everything is subsumed in the Divine Light.”

Rabbi Aharon Hakohen of Zhelikhov, Ohr Ha-Ganuz La-Tzaddikim (Vayera)

The Inner Soul of Everything

“ ‘Why did the Torah begin with the account of creation? Because [the verse states], “The power of His acts He declared unto His people . . . “ ‘ (Rashi, Genesis 1:1, citing Psalms 11:6). This alludes to the soul contained within God’s ongoing act of creation at every moment. The Great Maggid (Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezeritch) received a path from the holy Baal Shem Tov by which one may perceive in everything the inner soul that gives life to its physical form.”

Rabbi Yitzchak Eizik of Homil (Chabad), Letter of Rabbi Raphael Kahan, cited in Ner Yisrael, Vol. IV (p. 237)

The catch is that this method seems to have been passed on from master to disciple as an oral tradition, and not put in writing. Therefore, one who is not merely curious but who wishes to embark on the Baal Shem Tov’s inner path is compelled to search for a qualified teacher – and as the old adage goes, “Those who know, don’t say; and those who say, don’t know.” So how can one know where to turn? It seems that the first way to recognize such a teacher (or at least a likely candidate) is by his demeanor – if he personifies the way of being that he seeks to impart. As the Talmudic sages recommend: “If a teacher is like an angel of the Lord of Hosts, seek instruction from his mouth!” (TB Chagigah 15b)

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