Arts & Culture: Chassidus & Poetry: Attaching the Mind and Heart Through Verse
Do you believe that Hashem exists? Does your conduct - permitted or not - sometimes contradict this belief?
I - and I'll bet many others - answer yes to both these questions. This seeming paradox is not new, having existed about as long as organized religion. The Alter Rebbe - Schneur Zalman of Liadi - sought to address this contradiction in his revelation of the Tanya. One of Tanya’s core concepts is that most people, even if they have an earnest intellectual belief in G-d, don’t view G-d as real on an experiential, emotional, or visceral level. To better understand this idea, let’s step away from formal language in favor of a mundane example. Suppose your friend eats junk food in excess. They probably know - perhaps better than you - about the food’s negative health effects. However, this detached knowledge doesn’t necessarily translate into a sincere aversion to unhealthy eating. Similarly, rational belief in G-d doesn’t always directly translate into sufficient motivation to think, speak, and joyously act according to His will. If such a disconnect between mind and heart exists with vices that our senses can perceive directly, such as junk food, how much more so with G-d, whom we typically cannot perceive directly?
Tanya offers practical guidance in solving this dilemma. In chapter 14 of Tanya the Alter Rebbe proposes that developing a habit of contemplating G-d is the first step in bridging the mind-heart gap: “Furthermore, habitude reigns supreme in any sphere and becomes second nature. Therefore if he accustoms himself to despise evil, it will to some extent become despicable in truth; similarly, when he accustoms himself to gladden his heart in G-d, through reflection of his greatness [...].” If we contemplate G-d constantly as we go about our day, our initially detached belief extends into the realm of emotion. In addition to a more passive, habitual reflection, it is important to dedicate time to deeper contemplation. The Alter Rebbe uses the word Hisbonenus - literally “reflection” - which might be better understood as meditation. Traditionally, Chasidim take a concept - such as an idea from Chasidus or a passage from tefillah - and focus on it to the exclusion of all else, an act known as active Hisbonenus.
The result of both passive and active Hisbonenus isn’t a permanent change in one’s personality. Rather, the love and fear of G-d it generates merely helps us act with the necessary excitement in the short term. This is why Hisbonenus is a constant endeavor, not a one-and-done change in an individual's psyche. In my own life, poetry has been an important method for continuously renewing my connection with G-d. I've found that the best way to understand and emotionally enliven a concept is to rewrite it in my own way. Poetry allows my mind to generate imagery and comparisons to my personal life, even disregarding lingual conventions in order to express ideas in a unique, intimate manner.
When writing poetry on a subject, one necessarily emphasizes certain details and excludes others. Suppose I describe a bird: its smoky hue, its tucked wings, its resemblance to my roommate. In such a description, I neglect a multitude of characteristics: its talons, how it relates to the tree branch, my mother’s opinion on its appearance, the makeup of its macromolecules, etc. The details, both included and excluded, reflect the individual’s unique relationship with the subject. In any endeavor, from academic assignments to physical projects, the difference between good and great results is often one's interest in the subject. The contemplation of Hisbonenus is no different; if one can connect their meditation to their personal life via composing a poem, they’ll have an easier time emotionally connecting to G-d. In this sense, poetry helps in the process of Hisbonenus by bringing to bear the whole of one's personality in the contemplation.
When I feel inspired by a concept from Tanya, an essay by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, another piece of Torah, or a particular part of tefillah, I try to write a quick poem, roping in related experiences and ideas. For the time being, I have no intention of sharing them, but nonetheless, I strive to write them such that a reader can understand them, as even simulating writing for an audience makes my poetry more precise. I then use my poetry as an aid in traditional active Hisbonenus. By recalling the poem, one recalls the emotions and ideas that entered one's mind as they composed it. It’s important to note that while the poem serves as a jumping-off point, it shouldn’t distract from exploring the original concept - one relating to Hashem. In the best of cases, this develops into a repeating cycle of poetry aiding meditation, which aids poetry.
Poetry isn’t a substitute for traditional Hisbonenus but rather an aid I’ve occasionally found helpful. It may not work for everyone. I wouldn't recommend forcing it if poetry doesn’t speak to you. I suspect that people who are already interested in poetry stand to gain the most from this approach, but I could imagine this working for other art forms. One could argue that Niggunim - “Hasidic Melodies” - represents the musical equivalent of the approach described above.
If such an approach interests you, I encourage you to research Hisboneus further. As with many things, Chabad.org isn’t a bad place to start. In regards to practical techniques, I’d recommend Jewish Meditation by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. At that point, it's up to you to pick up a sefer such as Tanya or Likkutei Sichos in one hand and a pen in the other. I wish everyone hatzlacha in their journey, connecting their mind and heart and living a rich, meaningful religious life.
Photo Caption: "In my own life, poetry has been an important method for continuously renewing my connection with G-d."
Photo Credit: Nicolas Messifet / Unsplash