I would now like to quote the holy words from Avodat Yisrael (Chayei): “When a person grows so upset by his wrong behavior that he is cheapened in his own eyes—particularly during the long winter nights after midnight when person gets up, and he is alone before God....
“...And he thinks about the emptiness in his life, and his years that slip away like swift ships, and that he has not pleased his maker, but actually has caused damage with his deeds, from his head to his feet, and the day is short, and the moment when he must leave this world grows ever closer, when he will have to give an account for every moment in his life, and as a result he considers all this and regrets his deeds and weeps with a broken heart before his Father in heaven, and he is cheapened in his own eyes (for the word ‘cheapened’—zal—is the milui of sag)—when he says in his heart that he is full of dross (sig).
“The essence of confession is leaving the sin and accepting the yoke of the kingdom of heaven from this day onwards, so as not to e amongst the wicked, who even when alive are called dead, but with the righteous, who even in their deaths are called living. That is to say, throughout the course of their lives, they prepare for the moment of separation, the moment that they will leave this world in purity and sanctity. As the Zohar states, ‘Those righteous ones, consider in their hearts as though today is the day that they will leave the world....’
“But those who have wasted their days and whose years have been unhappy, can at least be inspired to return before the sun sets below the horizon. And the sign that one has truly repented and regretted is when he is cheapened in his own eyes as he recalls his many wrong deeds. And then he comes to a new spirit of life, of the days to come when he will sin no more.
“[In the verse, ‘And there were, [in] the life of Sarah, one hundred and twenty and seven years,] the word yih’yu (‘and there were’) has the same numerical value as does the word ‘cheapened,’ zal.
“Then one is said to be alive—’[in] the life...’
“‘One hundred’ refers to keter—i.e., after repenting a person is inspired with a new will to serve God, and that will is called keter.
“And then ‘twenty’ years—for it is carved into his mind to serve God with chochmah and binah, called ‘gates’ (sha’arim) because this is in accord with the measure (shiur) of one’s heart. Each individual measures out his own rules for rectifying what he had damaged.
“And then one comes to ‘seven years’—these are the seven traits with which to make God King: with love, fear, pride, confidence, humility and clinging to God.
“But the wicked person is not like this as he gazes at everything within his field of vision, as every day disappears and his soul is further removed from God, and he sins so profusely that he becomes like a blind man tapping his way through the dark, adding misdeed to sin, considering himself righteous because he sees himself as serving God, but he forgets all of the wrong things that he does. He remembers the easy mitzvot that he performs thoughtlessly, and that in fact he performs with ulterior motives, and yet he seeks great reward for doing so.
“And so have we found and heard of a wicked person who boasts, ‘Thank God, I put on a prayer shawl and tefillin and I prayed and I recited Psalms and the ma’amadot, and I learned a chapter of mishnah and I gave a coin for charity and so who is as righteous and upright as me?’
“And so the Haftorah states, ‘Adoniyah, son of Chagit, elevated himself, saying, “I will rule”‘—i.e., ‘I’ refers to the kingship of the Creator, and I make Him King. ‘And he sacrificed sheep and oxen and fatling...’—and in this way he filled his heart with joy, since he is serving God, and so he was now permitted to enjoy this world, with its eating and drinking, and his spirit would not be broken within him.
“But to the contrary, he trails after his desire, which is near ‘Ein Rogel’—’rogel’ has a secondary meaning of ‘slander’—i.e., now that his spirit is haughty and his belly and throat are full, his tongue will smoothly speak slander ...
“But the opposite of that, the approach to do the will of God, comes when a person breaks his spirit within himself and recognizes how far he is place from God. And because he is so far, he approaches and clings to his Creator.”
It seems to me that there is no need to speak with you at greater length on this topic, for these holy words have already had their holy effect on you. Nevertheless, I will add some words, in the spirit of “rebuke your son, and he will give you comfort” (Proverbs 29)—and, as the Talmud says, “even though he learns” (Makkot 8b).
The Zohar states (Tikkunei Zohar 10) that “Torah without fear and love does not rise up.”
And the Zohar also states (Tikun 70) that Torah or prayer without fear arouses divine anger, heaven forbid. Someone who learns Torah in a degraded fashion is “cast to the dogs,” heaven forbid—i.e., he is cast over to the Other Side, God have mercy.
But, young man, let us assume that your Torah learning is good—then you are indeed fortunate, and who can be compared to you, beloved of God?
However, in addition to Torah learning, we must also serve God with our thought, speech and deed. Who can be compared to the sages of the Talmud, who sacrificed everything to learn Torah? Yet, recall the words of R. Elazar (Shabbat 31b) who said, ‘Let us stand before [R. Yaakov], for he is a man who fears sin.”
R. Simon answered, “Let us stand before him for he is a man of Torah.”
R. Elazar was taken aback and said to him, “I said that he is a man who fears sin and [you give a reason to stand before him that is less persuasive, as though you think it is more persuasive—i.e.], that he is a man of Torah!”
It is true that the Talmud says that “Torah protects and defends a person more than mitzvot do.” Yet we learn in Sanhedrin (106b), “In the days of R. Yehudah, all of the learning [in the academies] was in Nezikin [on civil law], whereas we learn [much more, including] a great deal of Uktzin [on ritual impurity]. Moreover, when R. Yehudah would quote the mishnah regarding “a woman who preserves vegetables in a pot, etc.,” he would say, “I saw [a need for] the inquiries of Rav and Samuel [because he himself didn’t understand it sufficiently], yet we learn Uktzin in 13 academies. Despite that, [in times of drought,] when R. Yehudah took off his shoes [as a sign of affliction] the rain came down. Yet [in times of drought, even when] we cry out, no heed is taken. And so [we must conclude that ultimately] the Holy One, blessed be He, desires the heart, etc.” And Rashi explains that “[the earlier generations] were more pious than we.”
And we learn in Berachot (20) that “the early generations sacrificed themselves to sanctify God’s name.”
In other words, learning Torah alone does not suffice—one must also be pious—a chasid-and that is the main thing.
And what does chasidut depend on? On the heart—“the Compassionate One desires the heart.”
And how can one attain chasidut and the heart? By means of total commitment—“the early generations sacrificed themselves to sanctify God’s name.”
The holy work, Beit Aaron, explains that the term we use for self-sacrifice literally means “giving over the soul” and not “giving up the body”—for self-sacrifice, total commitment, is not just something that takes place when one is faced with physical martyrdom. Rather, all of one’s service throughout one’s life—one’s entire being, one’s will, one’s thought, one’s emotions and body—are given over to God and to His service.
As we see there in the Talmud, it was not a test of forced heresy that brought them to self-sacrifice, but facing a simple sin, and not for oneself but of another, and not that others wanted to kill him but that he himself gave himself over, for he saw a gentile woman wearing a scarlet garment and, thinking that she was a Jewish woman, he tore it off her.
Learning Torah with consistency is very great, and serving God is great—service in general and the service of the heart, which is prayer—in particular.
Our sages said that “prayer is greater than good deeds and sacrifices” (Berachot 32).
And the Baal Shem Tov said that he attained his greatness in holiness through prayer.
And the Torah and the mitzvot themselves require prayer, just as prayer requires Torah.
And see the siddur of Rav Zalman Schneur of Liadi, (in the Gate of Hanukkah and the Zohar that he cites) that through prayer, the light of Torah is drawn down to us, and the mitzvot that we perform with its inspiration rise up, and the unification is complete.
These are great accomplishments and it is not easy to reach them.
We learn in Noam Elimelech (Vayishlach) on the verse, “I delayed until now” that Jacob “continued his service of God day after day and year after year, even as it grew ever-later. Another verse states, ‘“Please God,’ and his voice was heard’—meaning, that a person must cry out for a long period, ‘Please, God, help me to serve you truly, and only then is his voice heard’—but not after a few days.”
And in the name of the great and holy R. Asher of Stolin, we learn regarding the verse, “Cry out, cry out to Me and I will hear, indeed, I will hear,” “Why are the phrases repeated? The reason is that a person must cry out thousands and thousands of times without fooling himself that he is truly crying out, when he has not yet reached that state. Every prayer must be repeated a number of times until one comes to pray in truth from a deep heart.”
One must exert oneself before being able to truly pray from a depth of one’s heart and soul.
It is true that we cited the Zohar earlier that any inspiration comes from the soul—but not all inspirations are equal. There is the beginning of an awakening, and then something greater than that—and it is not easy to finally reach inspiration and a true will that comes from the depth of the heart.
R. Schneur Zalman teaches, “The Song of Songs mentions the phrase ‘until it be desired’ twice—to tell us that everyone must desire and desire until that desire comes forth of itself.”
In particular one must arouse oneself, fill oneself with feeling and desire when one chooses to do so, when one wants to inspire oneself.
The service of God, prayer, is a great matter, and not so easy to come to.
So how can you think that you are already a Hasid and that you already pray with fervor? I don’t see you right now, young man, so don’t be ashamed before yourself.
I won’t speak of those dead prayers that you rattle off without paying any attention to what you are saying, without even remembering that you are standing before God, you are calling out to God and pleading with him, while your heart is somewhere far off—far from Him and far from yourself. I am not speaking of the prayers during which, practically from beginning to end, you are thinking trivial and unimportant thoughts, and sometimes a repulsive thought that gets drawn in with them.
There is no need to make an accounting of this, because you yourself can see what they are worth, and what you are worth as a result.
But I want to speak of your good prayers, of those prayers with which you fool yourself and say, I prayed with fervor and am a Hasid. Let us speak of them and look at them.
Look into yourself—is it true that you fervently pray and perform mitzvot? Or is it only that you want to force yourself to be fervent—yet there is no flame, no fire?
Maybe you yourself don’t recognize what is happening to you, and so you fool yourself that you are fervent.
So allow me to describe to you some of what is happening within yourself as you pray, so that you can look a this as something happening outside of yourself, as though it is happening to someone else—and then you will recognize that you are not feeling fervor, not even emotion.
You wish to pray as a Hasid, so you do away with all other thoughts at this moment to pray before God in truth. You yearn for the conversation of prayer. You wish to speak directly form your heart to God. You have determined that you will pray fervently, and so before you pray, you visualize that this is how your prayer experience will be.
But when you begin, it is as though a stone lies upon your heart.
Yes, it is true that this moment of prayer is superior to other moments, or superior to other prayers and your thoughts are not racing so much, since you have prepared yourself for prayer, and you resolved and you determined to do away with every foreign thought. But there is no soul-talk, and there is certainly no fervor. And so you start to force it, you want that fervor, so you shake your entire body violently or you also wrap yourself entirely in your prayer shawl, you squint your eyes, purse our mouth, squeeze your face, in order to force it. Or else you may speak the words of the prayer by squeezing them out, and saying them with great precision and you draw out the words as though you wished to squeeze them out of your mouth, your heart and your entire being.
At times there is some faint feeling within yourself when you come upon a verse or a word in your prayer. But since this feeling is so brief and faint, passing like the blink of an eye, it isn’t possible to be sure and to say that it was a spark of feeling for it might have merely been a sigh because your heart is so embittered that you are asleep and that your prayer is so dry, without the slightest trace of emotion.
And for the most part, you don’t even experience that. But a few weeks or months pass as you engage in all sorts of physical gyrations trying to inspire yourself to pray with feeling. But you have been trying so long without results and your fervor has never materialized. You don’t even know what fervor is and what it isn’t. As a result of this extended effort, your awareness will be damaged and weakened until you mistakenly come to think that your vigorous motions constitute the requisite fervor for prayer and that you are quite a pious individual.
So listen and take heed of what I have to say. It isn’t easy to look at yourself. Even if you have some sort of technique to examine yourself, you still can’t be sure that you’ll see yourself clearly and truthfully . If something is physical and tangible and the way of measuring it is tangible as well, we can determine what we know or don’t know. For instance, if there is a cup filled with liquid and we don’t know whether it’s vinegar or just water and we don’t want to taste it, we can put in some baking soda. If the liquid bubbles, we’ll that it’s vinegar. If not, it’s water. The object of investigation is physical and tangible, as is the means of investigation. No matter how much a person may want to the glass to contain water or vinegar, that doesn’t affect the test.
But in self-examination a person isn’t looking at something tangible but at something spiritual. And this isn’t even a non-physical thing such as fact-based concepts, like Talmudical discussions of partial monetary admission or a goring ox, where a person considers a concrete case and tries to derive abstract conclusions.
In addition, in that case, a person can discuss the matter with someone else and gain another person’s perspective on whether or not he’s correct, because the truth being discussed is belongs to a shared reality that can be judged equally by everyone.
But self-examination is difficult because it is the examination of something non-physical with almost no concrete aspect. In addition to that, each person is unique.
A person doesn’t contemplate the word “awe” or the concept of awe. Instead he is looking at his inner being and its activity to determine whether he has awe of God. Does he have a feeling that is genuine awe—or is he deceiving himself?
Such a self-examination is unique to every individual. One person can’t ask another to tell him if his feelings of awe and love are genuine or not, as he could about some logical construct.
And when a person has his own self-interest at stake (as who does not?) then that will color everything so as to keep him from seeing himself as he really is. Even if he has some sort of technique to measure himself and his feelings, he will pervert them and deceive himself because of his self-interest, since such techniques are not tangible either, but consist of a sense of oneself, and are unique to oneself.
A person may imagine that he had a certain feeling and a certain attainment because that is what he would like to be true, not because it really is the case. So even when using techniques, one needs a great deal of effort to examine oneself.
And not only that, but first of all, a person should look at himself suspiciously, as though he were dealing with a thief who he suspects is trying to deceive him (but this is only when he is examining himself, not while he is serving God, as we will discuss, God willing).
So remember what I am telling you here. Impress it in your heart. And with God’s help, your path will be clear.
Let me offer you a technique which you can use to determine whether or not you are experiencing fervor and feeling. But if you use this along with your own self-interest, you will pervert this technique too and you won’t come to the truth.
Before I presented you with a way of measuring your fervor to some degree and distinguish between fervor and feeling. To review: if your emotions are so great and strong that you cannot hold yourself back and you cannot prevent yourself from praying or you cannot allow yourself to pray mechanically, that is what we call fervor for our purposes.
But when you make all sorts of physical motions to arouse your fervor and you imagine that you are aflame with ecstasy for God, try stopping all of those movements. If you really have reached a state of fervor, your burning spirit will not let you rest, you will cry out, moan, cry, rejoice, as though a stormy sea is moving within you. But if after you stop your movements, everything stops, nothing is pushing you, you experience no feelings, everything is still, and if not for the fact that you are in the middle of your prayers you could start a trivial conversation, that certainly indicates that you were just forcing yourself to no avail.
You cannot measure your feeling, for a person’s feeling is no greater and stronger than he himself. But at any rate if after you stop your movements you fall so low that you could actually enter into a trivial conversation, and that doesn’t bother you in the least, that means that you have not even experienced feeling. For if a person’s prayer is at least accompanied by feeling, when he suddenly stops, he will feel a sort of pain in his heart that comes out of his yearnings for God, to approach and connect himself to God’s holiness, a pain no less than that which he may at times feel when taking leave of his parents or his children.
And there is another sign that you can make use of. You should be aware that only the greatest people can go through the entire prayer service in a state of a fervor, unlike other people—in particular, a beginner. Even if he concentrates on the meaning of every word, he will find it impossible to experience fervor throughout the entire prayer, but only at certain points.
And certainly, a person who can only experience feeling cannot keep on that level throughout the entire prayer. And so if you think that your prayer was entirely filled with fervor, then you should be aware that you didn’t even experience feeling. But if you experienced heights and depths, lights and shadows, ascents and descents, then it is possible that you experienced genuine feeling.
But if you believe that I am advising you to seek experiences of fervor in your prayer, and you examine yourself in various ways to see if you have in fact experienced fervor, you are making an error.
I previously cited the holy texts that in prayer one should not seek fervor, but only a simple, powerful, intent prayer, and then the fervor will come of its own.
In addition, if a Jew prays and senses that his prayer is smooth and he is filled with feeling, he won’t be involved with self-analysis, he won’t be measuring himself to see whether he was truly fervent and the like, because if these kinds of analytical thoughts come up in his mind, his prayer will disappear and all he will have will be his analysis. And when he prays however it may be but without examination, even if he doesn’t have an entirely successful payer session, some parts will have been successful. And even if the entire prayer was a failure, the next or the one after that will succeed.
And we learn in the holy text, Beit Aaron, that when a person’s evil inclination comes to him while he is in the middle of his prayers, i.e., that he decides to analyze himself in the midst of prayer, then he should push it off to a later time.
But when a person isn’t praying then he can analyze himself in whatever way he would like.
Perhaps when you examine yourself you will mistakenly only see good in yourself: you are good and your prayer seems pure, fervent and ascending. As a result you will remain on your low level forever, heaven forbid. You will never rise or experience feeling. Your soul will remain in its grave and without a soul you won’t be able to overcome your evil inclination. And this is what we must deal with in our self-examination. In particular if you fid that your spirit is so hardened that you boast of being a Torah personality, a pious personality, then, in order that you don’t throw away your entire life by living a lie, examine yourself, just once in a while.
But remember this well: if you examine yourself and find yourself wanting, if you make a personal accounting and find yourself to be a “sinner” (heaven forbid), then take it very much to heart; sigh and experience the bitterness until your heart melts; and despise a life of such a compromised quality, repugnant in the eyes of God and those who love Him.
But do not remain sad—for just as bitterness and repentance are necessary, so is the lingering presence of sadness forbidden, taking you far from holiness and the service of God in general, and from the service of the heart and the Hasidic path in particular.
Repent and make a personal commitment to improve from this moment and onward. And trust God to accept your repentance. As R. Schneur Zalman of Liadi writes in Igrot Hateshuvah (11), “When it is doubtful whether one should recite a prayer, one should not say it rather than possibly recite God’s name in vain. Nevertheless, three times a day, every day, we recite in the Shmoneh Esrei ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, merciful and greatly forgiving.’ We say this blessing because there isn’t the slightest doubt that Hashem will forgive you.”
And in addition trust the power of your holiness as a Jew. Even though you have made resolutions in the past to improve yourself yet have stumbled, still, when you hold firm now, suddenly the light of Israel and its holiness hidden within you will flash forth, and you will be transformed into a tzaddik who serves God. Haven’t you heard of people who repented, people who had been degraded for years and years, and yet who in one hour or one moment rose to a place where even complete tzaddikim cannot stand?
So: taking things to heart and being embittered, strengthening yourself and rejoicing in God—that is a major principle of the Hasidic way of worship.
May God have compassion and help me with these words to grow closer to Hasidism and to bring you closer to Hasidism—to understand and to walk in the footsteps of our masters, our holy forefathers.
Now is not the time to discuss other issues and inner aspects of your emotions in detail. My words here are only meant to discuss how to make a start of it and how to prepare yourself to be able afterwards to rise and become a Hasid, God willing. Here, I only speak of the beginning—the beginning on which everything depends—the beginning of holy feeling, the feeling of love and fear of God and of everything that causes you to tremble in the presence of the holy.
And so here I will only conclude by responding to your objections.
You have objected that I am bothering you pointlessly, since all of your thoughts are good. Even when you walk through the street you meditate on words of Torah and concentrate on complex Torah issues. But you are mistaken. Yes, there are great Torah Jews and tzaddikim whose thoughts are constantly on the Torah—but only such leaders and tzaddkim of Israel—not you, young man.
My one message to you is: don’t fool yourself and don’t be ashamed, for no one but God sees you now.
Sometimes you want to force yourself to meditate on Torah thoughts even as you walk in the street, and with your first footsteps out of the house you start to think about Torah ideas, but as quickly as snow melting in the sun, these Torah thoughts melt away, and in their place a multitude of trivial thoughts and sometimes even degraded thoughts spring into your mind, one linked to the next, one pushing aside the next and one gaining strength from the next, so that sometimes they stream by with such rapidity that they are like a herd of wild donkeys stampeding through your brain.