Building Ladders in our Prayer – An Introduction to Hitbodedut

During this week, Rabbi Nosanchuk is serving as visiting faculty of the URJ Kutz Camp, our Reform movement’s teen leadership camp in Warwick, NY, where he annually attends with one or two of our Fairmount Temple youth group leaders. The words offered below helped introduce an extended private meditation in nature that he offered at Shabbat morning worship at URJ Kutz Camp, June 30, 2012.

A great chasidic teacher named Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapiro (known as the Piaczener Rebbe) taught that our time at prayer is a time for building ladders. This was true for him as well as us today- whether we are praying at home, or in a sanctuary, or perhaps at at a camp or retreat. It is true in a large community such as the one in which we are currently gathered or a small minyan composed only of us and the blades of grass that surround us in the setting of nature, the trees in whose company we pray, or the stones upon which we stand here at Kutz Camp.

The Piaczener Rebbe felt we should use our time to pray in order to build ladders to ascened heavenward, and that the strength of each rung on the ladder is built from the sincere fruit of our contemplation and reflection. The mystics called this building of rungs on a ladder toward heaven hitbodedut, a Hebrew concept that in its origins conveyed building our ladders to God from our hearts full or broken, whole or shattered. And hitbodedut may be something one does in a public or private space, nearby or at some distance.

We are encouraged then– to carefully thoughtfully climb the ladder until we find ourselves in the company of the Holy One. But he warned us- not to warry if we don’t have a siddur in front of us. Hitbodedut can but does not have to include a siddur. The way we begin is to simply close our eyes and open our hearts and our memories to a melody that may be a memory trigger for you. It could be a niggun, a Jewish prayer with no words, or perhaps another song that reminds us to feel uplifted. But song is a valid kind of siddur by which to pray. And hitbodedut conveys that when we sing out what is in our souls fervently and truthfully, we may find ourselves believing that the place in which we are praying is nothing less than the throne of God’s glory, the place where a holy presence may yet be.

What’s more- we don’t even have to sing a melody or prayer that makes sense to someone else. It may be simply moaning or sighing, or repeating God’s name, the way a child says over and over, “Daddy” or “Mommy,” and when responded to by the parent, “What do you want, my child?” she only replies, “Nothing.” It is as if we are reminding God through the authenticity of our prayer, “I only wanted your attention, mommy/daddy.” I only wanted to know you are near my God, the source of perfect motherlove and fathercaring, the source of meaning. I only wanted to know you respond when I say your name over and over again.

That’s what I want to offer you now. With the help of our community this Shabbat morning, but ultimately and decisively on your own, I want you to find a place of your own somewhere in camp. I urge you to find your own place to hold as precious. Be in that space, the space of your choosing, for the next eighteen minutes, no longer than it takes to bake a single piece of matza, but way longer than we typically grant ourselves for private reflection on any given day.

Take eighteen minutes to begin a type of hitbodedut, a prayer with what is truthfully in your heart this Shabbat morning, be the material shining and brilliant or dark and shadowy.

But I urge you in this time to step out of your comfort zone. Go forth, leave this place, for a place that God will show you. When you arrive there, take a seat that is comfortable, and begin to open your heart and then have the confidence to open your lips and your voice and let your song pour out with truth, with feeling and with the most precious aspects of your spirit.

Adonai, Open up our lips, that our mouth will declare your (and our) glory, Amen.