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Hayei Sarah 5782 - Creative Conversation with God

Saturday, October 30, 2021

18th-19th century Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Breslov prescribes a particular regimen of conversation with God:

Hitbodedut is the highest path of all. One must therefore set aside an hour or more each day to talk with God by themselves in a room or in a field.

Hitbodedut consists of conversation with God. One can pour out their words before their Creator. This can include complaints, excuses, or words seeking grace, acceptance and reconciliation. One must beg and plead that God bring them close and allow them to serve God in truth.

One’s conversation with God should be in the everyday language that they normally use. Hebrew may be the preferred language for prayer, but it is difficult for a person to express themselves in Hebrew. Furthermore, if one is not accustomed to speaking Hebrew, their heart is not drawn after the words.

However, in the language that a person normally speaks, it is very easy to express oneself. The heart is closer to such a language, and follows it, since the person is more accustomed to it. Therefore, when one uses their native language, they can express everything that is in their heart and tell it to God.

One’s conversation with God can consist of regret and repentance. It can consist of prayers and pleading to be worthy of approaching God and coming close to God in truth from this day on. Each one should speak to God according to their own level.

One must be very careful to accustom themselves to spend at least one hour a day in such meditation. During the rest of the day, one will then be in a state of joy and ecstasy.

No matter what one feels they are lacking in their relationship to God, they can converse with God and ask for help. This is true even if one is completely removed from any relationship with God. (Translation from https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/how-to-talk-to-god/

Today, Breslover Hasidim still take on this practice of daily hitbodedut, speaking to God spontaneously, in rooms or outdoor spaces in which their speech will not be interrupted. When you are not at Agudath Achim, how and when do you talk to God?

At least twice a day, in the afternoon and evening, I embrace our set liturgy. I daven Ashrei, the Amidah, and a prayer for forgiveness at Minhah and the Sh’ma and Amidah at Maariv. When I pray, I take a deep breath in between each of the nineteen blessings of the weekday Amidah, reminding myself to pause long enough to think about any words I’d like to share with God before I proceed to the next blessing. For example, after I recite the traditional blessing for knowledge, I often ask God for guidance in making whatever big decision I am approaching at this particular moment in time. After I recite the blessing for thanks, I tell God the list of people and things for which I am grateful on this particular day. And at the end of the Amidah, I pause for long enough to thank or ask God for anything I haven’t yet mentioned. For me, these twice, or if I wake up early enough, thrice-daily moments of hitbodedut assure that I have my time with God. Speaking with God from my own heart rather than simply from the page assures me that I don’t just think of the Divine as a theoretical idea but as a real, personal presence in my life.

Before today’s Torah reading begins, in Parashat Hayei Sarah, Avraham’s servant Eliezer presents two beautiful examples of spontaneous acknowledgment of God’s Presence. When Avraham sends Eliezer towards the city of Nahor in order to find a wife for Yitzhak, Eliezer arrives at a well near the city and says:

Oh Adonai, God of my master Avraham: Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water; let the maiden to whom I say, ‘Please, lower your jar that I may drink,’ and who replies, ‘Drink, and I will also water your camels’ - let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Yitzhak. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master (Genesis 24:12-14).

When Eliezer speaks to God at his moment of anxiety, he may be speaking in order to summon up some courage to take on the task at hand, reminding himself that he is not alone. He may be speaking his mind in order to organize his thoughts into a practical order, or he may be devising a way to discover whether this God of whom Avraham speaks so highly truly exists. Regardless, with Eliezer’s words to God, the servant does not read from a book or sing a tune he has known since childhood; he speaks the words that happen to come into his mind. And just as he is done speaking, (ויהי הוא טרם כלה לדבר), Rivkah arrives and enacts all that Eliezer had hoped (Genesis 24:15). A few verses later, Eliezer embraces spontaneous prayer one more time, to express gratitude to the God who has guided him on the errand Avraham assured him would be successful. From Eliezer’s example, we see our opportunity at each and every moment to speak to God. Anxiety, excitement, sorrow, and joy all contain the possibility of deepened relationship with God.

When the Masoretes canonized the Tanakh between the 6th and 10th centuries of the Common Era, they added a special trope called a shalshelet to Eliezer’s first vayomar - Eliezer’s first words to God. With this special trope, the Masoretes highlight the courage and creativity of Avraham’s servant, a man who is not from a monotheistic family or culture. By reaching out to God in request and praise, Eliezer embraces the chance that his conversation with God might really make a difference - and of course, it does.

When we make more space in our lives to speak to God, we remind ourselves of our priorities. We may even surprise ourselves with the words that come out of our mouths, when we speak candidly and openly to the One who already knows our every move. When we set our own space and time to talk to God, we allow ourselves to better shape our own idea of who God is and what God stands for. When we vocalize what we love in God’s created world, we remind ourselves of the goodness we have right here and right now; we encourage ourselves to embrace the optimism necessary for us to continue on our long journey in work, school, or relationship. Perhaps most importantly, we remind ourselves that we are not alone in this world; God is always present to listen, even when it seems like there is no one else with whom to share deep thoughts and emotions. And maybe, just maybe, God will respond to our request with exactly the results for which we asked (or at least, with exactly the results God knows we need).

While not all of us have an hour a day to set aside for conversation with God, most of us have the ability to set aside five or ten minutes to speak candidly, out loud, with the Omnipresent. You may want to start with five deep breaths to establish your mindset before you begin, or like me, you may want to intersperse your freeform conversation with set prayer, as inspiration for what to say. It may even be enough inspiration for you to just find your favorite spot at home, inside or outside, set a timer, and just start speaking. At the beginning, you may not be able to think of words to say - you may start and stop your timer in complete silence. But eventually, I hope you find that your conversation acts as a comfort and challenge, as an inspiration for your actions in the moments after you finish your words, and as a way to establish a personal, private connection with God. With a more personal connection with and view of the Divine, we can better discover what motivates us to pursue mitzvot and the values inherent in our Jewish tradition.

Just a few centuries after the Masoretes, Maimonides (Rambam) mused about spontaneous prayer as the ideal communication with God. According to the Rambam, God initially commanded the Israelites to sacrifice only specific animals, only in a particular order, at a particular place, to ease them out of the idea of animal sacrifice as worship. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jewish people eased out of animal sacrifice through the means of fixed prayer, with fixed words at fixed times, as we were not quite ready to pray completely on our own. And yet, Rambam implies in his Guide for the Perplexed, ideal prayer is that which is offered in any place by any person, inspired by words from the heart and mind. Today, we are still in that part of Jewish history in which we can learn from the help of the established words of the siddur. As we have discussed in this synagogue space several times before, these words help tie us together in community; they help inspire us towards values to enact and language we can use when we speak to God on our own. When we pray together at this set time of Shabbat morning each week, I bless us that we can use these words and this community to push us forward in our relationship with God, to inspire us towards more creative conversation with the Divine both inside and outside of this building. 

Sun, October 2 2022 7 Tishrei 5783