While on the road travelling, whether in Israel or elsewhere, you may notice all kinds of strange "coincidences." Whether you are on a Birthright tour, another free trip, or your own personal journey, you will find people crossing your path unexpectedly, others pointing you in directions that help you discover new facets of yourself and of the universe, and yet others engaging you in long and meaningful conversations, helping both you and them. When you're travelling, there are no coincidences. Everyone crosses your path for a reason, a season, or perhaps a lifetime. If you haven't already arrived to the following conclusion, you may eventually do so: Someone is orchestrating the whole thing. Whether you call Him G-d, the One Above, or simply the Entity, He is directing the play so that all the actors and all the pieces are in the right place at the right time, fulfilling their destiny and actualizing their souls.
You may want to be in touch with Him. You can if you want, people have been doing it for thousands of years. Others are skeptical, doubting whether it's really possible for man to connect with the One Above. You never know until you try. They say that in Israel, it's a "local call," while outside of Israel, it's long distance. Certainly, something about the land of Israel lends itself to spiritual pursuit and actualization, which is probably why it's the cradle of monotheism.
But beyond that, there is a technique involved. In Hebrew, it's called "hitbonenut," or meditation. The etymological source of the word is "boneh," meaning "build." To practice Jewish meditation, we "build" a spiritual structure inside of ourselves. Also implicit in the word "hitbonenut" is the word "bina," or intellectual analysis and understanding. The structure that we build consists of G-dly concepts and ideas that we must understand thoroughly and deeply. They become the framework and girders of our inner "building." To "dwell" in this building requires that we use our intellectual faculties of Chabad - chochma, bina and da'at - to grasp, understand and internalize the concepts. When we properly understand a series of G-dly concepts and put them together in our mind, we are building your own inner spiritual structure. When we actively dwell in this inner structure for a certain period of time each day (usually before morning prayers), exploring its nooks and crannies and reinforcing its girders while building it ever higher, we are practicing Jewish meditation, or "hitbonenut." The "early Chassidim" of the Talmud used to do this three times a day, for an hour before each set of prayers (and they would spend an hour "coming down" after each set of prayers, as well).
What is the content of this meditation? It is from the Jewish books, specifically from the oral Torah, and it was known by the sages of the Talmud. It was presented to us by the sages of the Kabbalah, and in later generations, by the Chassidic masters. Kabbalah taught (and teaches) how to build "up." But, because the concepts of kabbalah are couched in physical language (for example, "the right hand," or the "forehead" of G-d), the Jewish sages were rightfully nervous about allowing the "layman" (you and I) to actively learn and engage in kaballa. They were afraid that we wouldn't know how to divest the physical terminology of its physical connotations, and that we would end up attributing physical attributes to the One Above, something that is anathema in Judaism. And here's a secret for you; you wouldn't understand it anyway. Kabbalah per se is technical and esoteric, even for the most advanced students.
It was the Chassidic masters who succeeded in expressing kabbalistic concepts in tangible form. This they did by building not upward, but inward. They brought about a "soul transformation," taking the physical terminology of Kabbalah, previously "out there" in spiritual space, and showing us where it is inside of ourselves, in the Jewish soul. The "right hand" of G-d became his kindness (one usually gives with the right hand), the "forehead" of G-d became His will, etc. Physical terminology gave way to subtle psychological and spiritual concepts, which circumvent the danger of attributing physical characteristics to the One Above. The Chassidic masters also gave us a tool for building "upward," since they taught that the Jewish soul is a part of the One Above. Therefore, the use of our own souls as an abstract metaphor for understanding G-dliness allows us to build both inward and upward. When one meditates upon the infinite concepts and G-dly ideas contained in the Chassidic literature, and especially within Chabad chassidut, he gains the proper understanding that allows him to build a spiritual structure inside of himself, climb all the way to the top of it, and cleave to the One Above.
So, how do you do it, after all the above introductions? Well, as starters, there are more introductions. Following this section are three short chapters introducing basic concepts in Jewish mysticism. These aren't for advanced students or initiates. They are for everybody, and are arguably obligatory (by Jewish law) for every Jewish person to know. (The arguments are out of the scope of this publication, but based upon Jewish halachic sources). After you read them, you may want to know how to go on from there. Sorry, but after the intros, the free meal is over. From then on, you must delve into the Chassidic literature. But even there, the technique of "hitbonenut," or Jewish meditation, is not so much taught, as implied.
You may find, for example, that a Chassidic text will tell you to think about the "greatness of G-d as manifested in His creations, of which there are so many, each one with its own purpose and attributes." You may try meditating upon this concept and come to the conclusion that it is too big, too general, to become a wall or girder in the particular spiritual building that you are constructing inside. Then, you may notice that elsewhere in the Chassidic literature it goes into detail about how every creation is brought into existence from nothing into something by the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and that the letters are fixed "permanently" in each creation. In fact, the Hebrew name for the creation is the very combination of G-dly energy which brings it into existence from nothing into something. If you're smart, you'll realize that the earlier suggestion to meditate upon the "greatness of G-d as manifested in His creations…" means to meditate upon the combination of Hebrew letters (brought to you by G-d) enlivening each particular creation.
If you continue your search and study of the Chassidic literature, you will find that the Hebrew letters exist on many different spiritual levels. There are not only letters of G-d's speech (with which He created), but also of His thought. There are not only letters written on paper, but much more refined letters which are engraved, meaning that they have no substance. There are partially engraved letters, and letters that are engraved from one side of an object to another, meaning that they are totally devoid of substance whatsoever. And so up the ladder of refinement, from letters of substance to letters devoid of substance, representing higher levels of creation. None of this is intended as a suggested meditation. It is meant only as an example to demonstrate how one must work to glean the technique of "hitbonenut" from the Chassidic literature. No pain, no gain. If you don't work at it, you won't learn the technique. The problem is that most people don't even know that this technique of Jewish meditation exists, let alone how to put it into practice. The other factor is that one needs living examples and mentors, to whom to turn for greater understanding and elucidation. Other chapters in this booklet may give you clues as to where to find such people. What we would like to let you know, as part of your Israel experience, is that Jewish meditation is alive and well, and is to be found in the texts of Chassidic literature, and especially within Chabad Chassidut. The rest (after you read the following introductions) is up to you…