Question & Answer With Rabbi Tal Zwecker - Meditation & Avodas Hashem
A Simple Jew asks:
How has learning, teaching, and practicing Jewish meditation aided your own avodas Hashem?
Rabbi Tal Zwecker answers:
Before I can answer that I have to define what I do in terms of Jewish meditation. I have practiced only four kinds of Jewish meditation and there is only one that I use regularly.
I have tried meditating on yiras shamayim (the fear of heaven) through a focused structured meditation over a decade ago. It was a terrifying experience. After about an hour or so of deep relaxed concentration, I began to feel and sense a dawning understanding of Hashem and true awe and fear. I collapsed trembling to the floor and asked and begged Hashem to remove that type of consciousness from me. I wasn't ready for it then and probably am not now either.
I have meditated on letters of the Hebrew alef bais and on Hashem's four letter name: Y-H-W-H. However, I never really “got” anything concrete out of that.
I have used a niggun and phrases to attempt to feel ecstasy and rapture in avodas Hashem. My favorite form of this is at the Shabbos table. Occasionally I will use a nigun I once heard by the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak Rebbe's Shlit”a's tish in Yerushalayim entitled Yismechu BeMalchuscha. (I shall rejoice in Your Kingship!). I have sung and repeated this phrase over and over for an hour or so using that niggun and it really works me up into a Shabbos feeling!
However, by far the method I use most is simply davening. I have learned to chant the words of Shemoneh Esrei by heart extremely slowly with closed eyes so that each word takes approximately 5 seconds. Then I use some of the meditations from the “Berditchever Siddur” with the Keser Nehora commentary. Kesser Nehorah is actually not a commentary at all. It is, as far as I know, the only written step by step guide to Chassidic meditation available today and one that is crowned with the approbations of some of the greatest rebbes of the Chassidic movement: the Koznitzer Maggid, the Chozeh, and Rav Levi Yitzchak of Berditshev zy”a. It even has a haskama from the Chozeh's great opponent the legendary “Eizener Kop” who surprisingly writes that this system is not forbidden as he does not consider these kavanos to be too advanced like the kavanos of Divine names etc.
I one day hope to publish this Siddur complete with the Keser Nehora in English for those who wish to use it. The author, Rav Aharon of Zelichov, has three introductions where he explains his system for “Shivisi Hashem LeNegdi samid” - I have placed Hashem's name before me at all times. I won't go into it at length this time but he conjures some amazing imagery such as imaging yourself in Shamayim commanding the heavenly bodies and hosts to praise Hashem.
While I used to also think that extreme swaying and “shukeling” to and fro enhanced my “experience,” I have since studied Kuntres Hispa'alus from the Mittler Rebbe of Lubavitch and come to the conclusion that doing so during Shemone Esrei is really feeling yourself rather than feeling anything Divine. Instead, I have learned to put into practice what my Rebbe, the Clevelander of Ra'anana taught me long ago, exertion belongs to Pesukei DeZimra, where we cut away the thorns of distraction, whereas the silent Amidah flows based on the preparation you put in.
I find that when I am in the right state of mind and have prepared properly, I can spend the time reciting a slow Shemone Esrei and employ some of the Keser Nehora's imagery as well as what the Noam Elimelech prescribes in his Tzetel Katan for mesirus nefesh, and then my Shemone Esrei becomes a deep experience. Sometimes realms of understanding open up to me as I daven, such that roshei teyvos, gematrias and meaning speak to me from the words of the siddur.
One such example dawned on me one Shabbos as I recited “Atah Kidashta Es Yom Ha'Shevii LiShemcha,” - You have sanctified the seventh day to Your name. It occurred to me that this also means that Hashem made Shabbos His own name as the Zohar says Shabbos Shema DeKudsha Brich Hu, Shabbos is one of Hashem's names! Later, I heard that the Arizal and others do explain that as well. I was reeling. Another example that happened to me was when I recited Refayenu and noticed that the first three words - roshey teyvos - are Riv which equals the gematria of Gevurah (strength), thus perhaps alluding to the strength we seek through healing and that Barech Aleinu is roshey teyvos Ayin Bais – which is the gematria of Chesed because rain and the bounty of blessings Hashem rains down upon us is a form of kindness. Another time, I realized when saying Av Harachaman that this mirrors the teaching that when the letters of the Aleph Bais are in order this hints at mercy and kindness hence Av HaRacahamn – Aleph Bais in order is mercy. Whereas the Bracha of HaMelech haMishpat made sense too, since the letters Melech – are Mem Lamed Chaf in reverse order that is Mishpat judgement.)
One day, however, my Rebbe poured cold water on me, and woke me up to the idea that although any kavana is nice, the purpose of the tefillah should always be to ask Hashem for what the words actually mean; that is the first and most important rule. Once I learned that, I took a break for a few years and worked on that goal. Today, I try to keep that foremost in my mind, daven for what Chazal told us, ask Hashem sincerely for those things, and let any other motive be truly secondary.
Thus a slow inspired Shemone Esrei gives me inspiration and helps me tap into a deep meditative dialog with Hashem. Don't get me wrong, I still have plenty of days where me tefillah is unfortunately lacking, or rushed or missing concentration. It's one of those things that requires constant vigilance and chizuk! May Hashem help me and all of us continue to serve Him for the right reasons and in the best way.