Wednesday, Jul 24, 2024

Hisbodedus: Alone, Not Lonely

 

Please don’t get me wrong. I love simchos. It is a pleasure and nachas to dance at my friend’s and talmidim’s chasunos and attend vorts and lechayims. But two or three a night can become somewhat overwhelming, to the exclusion of many other things. Thus, the coming days of relative quiet bring just a bit of relief and respite. Although the Three Weeks have not yet begun, many people are away, and young people are in camp, so people avoid scheduling the kinds of simchos that can be delayed. July and part of August were created for a purpose, but for what exactly?

Speaking just for myself, but I invite my friends to listen in, these can and should be days for hisbodedus. During the Sefirah period, which coincided with the worst of the Covid epidemic, I discussed in these pages the opportunity of hisbodedus that Covid afforded us. I would now like to transfer this thought to our summer plans.

On the one hand, we know that being b’simcha is one of the great imperatives of the Torah. Dovid Hamelech (Tehillim 100:2) and his son, Shlomo Hamelech (Koheles 3:12), teach us the tremendous middah of being full of joy. Rav Nachman of Breslov famously adds, and it has become a popular song, that “it is a great mitzvah to be constantly happy.” On the Litvishe side, the Nesivos (Last Will and Testament) disagrees, declaring that “one should not be happy all the time.” There is, so to speak, a time and a place for everything.

In any case, all tzaddikim and baalei machshavah agree that there is certainly a time and place to be alone for a certain period of time. The Sefer Chareidim (Chapter 65) quotes the Arizal that “one day a week, a person should distance himself from people and be alone with the Creator only.” Others say that the minimum time for solitude should be once every 15 days (see Yagdil Torah, Vayikra, page 262). The Arizal himself spent six years (!) in a room, while the Baal Shem Tov spent years in the forest alone, returning home only each Shabbos.

Some baalei mussar (see Yalkut Lekach Tov, Yomim Noraim, page 68) suggest that during Elul one should engage in hisbodedus once or twice a week). Rav Yitzchok Blazer of Petersberg (Kochvei Ohr, page 28) limits hisbodedus to nighttime, when there are fewer distractions. The Peleh Yo’eitz (Likkutim, page 96) states that hisbodedus is useful for every aspect of Torah knowledge, including immersing oneself in halachic thought.

The Maggid of Zlotchuv was known to engage in one thousand days of hisbodedus before making important decisions and beginning new important endeavors (Toras Hamaggid M’Zlotchuv, Introduction).

The Chovos Halevavos (Shaar Cheshbon Hanefesh, chapter 30) and later the Chasam Sofer and Gra (Iggeres Hakodesh) quote the posuk (Vayikra 16:4) that uses the word bodd four times. While the literal translation of this word is “linen,” these two giants relate the word to boddod, which means alone. They explain that at certain times, a person should clothe himself in isolation. This does not refer to the forced quarantine of Covid at its worst, but the kind of “splendid isolation” even referred to in literature (Sir William Goschen) as a time for introspection and what we call cheshbon hanefesh.

Does all this really mean that we must spend time alone?

It would certainly seem that this is the optimum way to turn inward and do our soul-searching. However, interestingly, the rebbe of Vorka (Chassidim Mesaprim, page 201) teaches cryptically that “hisbodedus is very important, but only amongst people.” Although seemingly paradoxical, the Vorker is alerting us to an amazing fact. We can turn inward and communicate with our inner selves even and perhaps especially in the very midst of a crowd.

To be sure, the Chofetz Chaim took hisbodedus literally. In his later years, he once disappeared for hours on Rosh Hashanah afternoon. One of his closest talmidim was concerned for his wellbeing and so followed him into the forest. He found the tzaddik sitting on a rock, lost in thought. When the Chofetz Chaim looked up, he explained, “Today is the Day of Judgment. I have searched through everything I have and have found neither love of people nor love of Hashem. Without deep and profound thought, it is impossible to reach either of these two necessary traits” (Dugma M’sichos Avi by the Chofetz Chaim’s son).

Perhaps there is no disagreement here. Each of us must find our best opportunity to escape from the maelstrom of life so that we achieve absolute honesty with our own souls.

In fact, one of the great baalei mussar, Rav Eizik Scher, writes realistically that sometimes one may only have the luxury of a moment or two of hisbodedus, yet “even one moment of introspection, done with care, can transport a person to incredible new heights” (Leket Sichos Mussar, page 505).

A contemporary gadol, Rav Yitzchok Kolodetzky, son-in-law of Rav Chaim Kanievsky, alerts us to what we lose if we don’t even try the hisbodedus method: “Woe is to us,” he declares, “if we haven’t even tried to change utilizing the moments of solitude we are granted” (Leshichno Sidreshu 2:37). He explains that the times when we can be alone and commune with Hashem are a gift that should be utilized like a treasure we have been granted.

Rav Avigdor Miller (Toras Avigdor 2:41) gives us an entirely new way of achieving hisbodedus. Following the assumption that the purpose of hisbodedus is to be able to focus properly upon our purpose in life, he explains that just disengaging from as much gashmiyus – materialism – as possible achieves the same result as being alone. This seems to go very well with, and further explain, the adage quoted above from Rav Yitzchok of Vorka. He taught us that one can even be alone when surrounded by people. Now we understand. People are not the problem at all. It is our preoccupation and even unhealthy obsessions with unnecessary and extraneous worldly goods that don’t allow us to be the spiritual people we should and want to be.

Following Rav Miller’s lead, even if we don’t have the ability to disengage from society for any significant amount of time, we can certainly separate ourselves from the most trivial and even silly aspects of modern life. Politics, professional sports and their games, petty arguments and discussions can all be avoided so that whatever time we do have can be structured productively. The summer and vacation are a wonderful time to engage in this pursuit. First of all, no boss or taskmaster is looking over our shoulder. Now we can finally and impressively become the spiritual creatures Hashem created and loves.

Of course, this requires some discipline on our part and, once again, brutally honest self-evaluation. But once we have achieved even some of these goals, the summer allows us to divest in the best sense of the word. Sitting on a plain wooden easy chair, we can blot out everything around us and think of the basics: Who am I? What is my purpose in the world? What does Hashem want of me? What are my talents? What can I accomplish and what is beyond my capability? For many of us, it doesn’t mean wallowing in our failures. It means gloriously realizing the many gifts Hashem has granted us.

May we all have a healthy and productive summer, using every opportunity to disengage from the unimportant and focus upon our purpose in life.

 

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