HOW TO USE THIS BOOK
Look through the prayers in this book before you recite them, and choose any you feel in the mood to say. When it comes to the service of the heart, 1 sincerity is the main thing. If some prayer in this collection inspires you to add your own words to it, go right ahead. And if your own words begin to flow, keep praying! (This practice, described below, is called hitbodedut. It was likewise Reb Noson's intention that his prayers be used as a springboard for hitbodedut, and that they not be treated as unalterable text.)
The Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael Ben Eliezer, founder of the Chasidic movement) taught: Like a poor man, one should always address God with humble words of supplication. This attitude is reflected in the plaintive tone of many of Reb Noson's prayers.
His words come from a heart that knows its own travail and so cries out to God. Other prayers in this collection flow from Reb Noson's
joy in serving God or from his boundless love for God. Yet never does Reb Noson present God with insistent demands. Be gracious unto me, he pleads. But whatever You give me, I accept with love.
In the original version of these prayers, entreating phrases such as may I merit to be... recur continually. This usage attests to the humility and simple piety of our Eastern European ancestors,
who lived with the knowledge that everything is a gift from God. Nevertheless, the phrase to merit to attain this or that virtue or spiritual
level does not fare well on the voyage from the author's culture to our own. For this reason, such usages have been omitted in this translation in a number of cases.
Another cultural barrier is encountered in Reb Noson's use of Biblical quotations. The problem lies not in any difficulty the reader may
have in relating to their content, which is as compelling today as ever; it is their lack of context. Many readers may be unfamiliar with Judaism's sacred writings in their original Judaic frame of reference.
We have done our best to render these quotations in the modern idiom while remaining faithful to the classic Biblical interpretations.
Source references were omitted to facilitate the reader's concentration upon the prayers.
This book was designed to guide and inspire the reader who wishes to pray. Beyond this, however, Reb Noson's prayers are highly instructive.
Aside from their value to both practiced and occasional daveners, these prayers offer the reader a fairly good idea of what the Chasidic path is all about. May they help to draw us all near to God, wholeheartedly, in joy and in peace.
ABOUT THESE PRAYERS
The author of these prayers is Rabbi Noson Sternhartz ,
foremost disciple of the celebrated Chasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Reb Noson, as he is known among Breslover Chasidim, lived in the Jewish Pale of Settlement during the Napoleonic era. Thus, while born into the traditional Jewish way of life and worldview, he experienced the revolution in societal values that, for most of us, has become normative.
The winds of secular humanism that swept through the world in the late 1700s threatened to supersede all organized religion, including Judaism. Despite the promise of greater social and economic freedom,
the Jewish community was divided in its response to modern trends. On this issue, the young Reb Noson sided strongly with the religious traditionalists. But as to the dispute between the Chasidic and the non-Chasidic approaches to Jewish life and observance, he was unsure of where he stood.
Reb Noson came from a long line of Torah scholars. His father, Rabbi Naftali Hertz, was a respected textile merchant in the city of Nemirov, and his father-in-law, Rabbi Dovid Zvi Ohrbach, was chief rabbi of the cities of Sharograd, Kremenetz and Mohilev. Both were opponents of the Chasidic movement. As much as he respected his parents and teachers, Reb Noson could not accept unquestioningly their views on the hotly debated issue of Chasidism. Dissatisfied with his own spiritual life and seeking direction, he began to explore the Chasidic world, first visiting Rabbi Zusia of Anipoli, Rabbi Gedaliah of Linitz, Rabbi Barukh of Medzeboz and others, then spending time in the court of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichov. In his diary from that period, Reb Noson noted that he began to sense some progress in his spiritual quest, but still he felt that something was missing. Then a comrade spoke to him in glowing terms about a young Chasidic master who had recently moved to the region. Together, Reb Noson and his friend Reb Naftali traveled to meet Rebbe Nachman in the nearby town of Breslov. There Reb Noson found his teacher and his path.
After their first encounter in the fall of 1802, Rebbe Nachman remarked, In every master-disciple relationship, the spiritual elements of Moses, Joshua and the Tent of Meeting are present.
These words of the Rebbe were prophetic: like Moses' disciple Joshua, Reb Noson did not depart from the tent of his master for the rest of his life. Although already an accomplished scholar and a writer of exceptional skill, Reb Noson came to Rebbe Nachman with the unbiased receptivity of a child who wants to learn the alphabet.
Attesting to the high regard in which he held his gifted new disciple, the Rebbe stated: I thank God for sending me a young man who will make sure that not another word of my teachings shall be lost. It was Reb Noson who preserved and published Rebbe Nachman's works (as well as authoring many of his own, based on the teachings of his master). These core teachings have continued to inspire generations of Breslover Chasidim, as well as other seekers of spirituality, to this day.
Reb Noson exemplified what it means to be a Breslover Chasid. He truly lived with the Rebbe's teachings, plumbing their depths and applying their profound concepts as keys to open the gates to all other areas of Torah study and religious practice. Moreover, he realized that these teachings could serve as a lens through which to perceive the Divine life force and wisdom at each moment and in every situation.
Reb Noson's approach to mysticism was not restricted to the intellectual realm; it was an all-encompassing path of knowledge. An eloquent testimony of this approach is his masterwork, Likutey Halakhot, a brilliantly woven tapestry of Talmudic law and Kabbalistic wisdom, interspersed with practical advice on making one's way through the mazes of both the outer and inner worlds.
Dedicated to the goal of improving the spiritual plight of others, Reb Noson accepted upon himself the difficult task of disseminating and explaining his master's wisdom. Thus, he was the paradigm of what in Breslov came to be known as the manhig the living leader to whom other disciples turn for advice, instruction and guidance, now that the Rebbe is no longer a physical presence among us. (What is unique about this role in Breslov Chasidut is that, although the manhig may be a holy person in his own right, he is always looked upon as a more accomplished disciple, not a surrogate for Rebbe Nachman who had no successor. Through his writings and his disciples, Rebbe Nachman remains the leader of the Breslover Chasidim.) Chasidic Prayer
The Chasidic masters wished to enable every Jew to experience deveykut mystical communion with God. Therefore, they stressed prayer. Gohr mein zach iz tefilah For me, the main thing is prayer, Rebbe Nachman declared. He spent most of his days in solitude, studying Torah, meditating and praying. Often Rebbe Nachman would go out to the fields and forests to commune with God. This practice, known as hitbodedut (from the root badad, meaning solitary or alone), was likewise stressed by his illustrious great-grandfather, the Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Chasidic movement some forty years before Rebbe Nachman was born.
Following his master's example and instructions, Reb Noson devoted himself to prayer, both in the synagogue and as a personal spiritual practice. Eventually he committed to writing some of his original prayers, which were published under the title Likutey Tefilot. These excerpts from Reb Noson's prayers not only give us a glimpse into their author's inner life, but also serve to teach us how to pray.
The formalized prayer service has many advantages. While articulating the central concerns of Jewish life, it reinforces the social and spiritual bonds of the Jewish community. Yet the one precious component that was inevitably compromised when the prayer service became fixed is that of spontaneity. Rebbe Nachman sought to restore this by advocating the regular practice of hitbodedut. Spontaneity in prayer goes hand in hand with sincerity and fervor. The Rebbe looked upon spontaneous personal prayer as a powerful tool to aid one's spiritual work, especially when one prays in a secluded place late at night, when one can feel truly alone with God. If approached in the proper way, this practice can enable one to attain the highest levels of deveykut. Through a combination of self-examination and pouring out one's heart to God, it is possible to peel away the layers of the false self, allowing the Infinite Light to illuminate one's consciousness.
This is not to belittle the importance of the formal prayers. The Baal Shem Tov stated that he had reached his lofty spiritual levels primarily through prayer12 he viewed the daily prayer service as a path of mystical ascent. Thus, he taught his disciples to approach the daily prayer services with great fervor, attuning their minds and hearts to each word they recited, until they would reach a state of deveykut. 13 In keeping with the mystical teachings of the Ari (Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, the preeminent sixteenth century Kabbalist), he pointed out that the four sections of the prayer service parallel the four worlds, or levels of reality, described in Kabbalistic literature. 14 If a person approaches the prayer service in a meditative manner, explained the Baal Shem Tov, then by the time he reaches the Amidah (Prayer of Silent Devotion), he will have achieved a higher state of consciousness. (Of course, the nature and quality of this experience will depend upon each individual's other spiritual attainments. Clearly, though, a prayer that is recited with mental focus and emotional sincerity is far more potent than one recited by rote.)
In practice, the Baal Shem Tov's approach to prayer is not as easy as it may seem. It takes great determination and stamina to imbue the written word with the breath of life. Also, it is often hard to find a minyan (quorum) conducive to this sort of davening. There are no easy solutions to these problems, but one thing is certain: when a person practices hitbodedut diligently, praying in the synagogue becomes a far more uplifting experience. There is a saying commonly displayed in synagogues: Know before Whom you stand. The person who practices hitbodedut knows.