I mentioned twice recently the connection between dimyon (imagination and the ability to recreate experiences) and desire, and the number of rishonim and acharonim who therefore associate it with the yeitzer hara, as in the sense of “and you will not veer after your hearts or after your eyes, which you often stray after”. (See this entry on the role of dimyon in thought, and this one on the yeitzer hara.)
The ba’alei mussar realized, though, that desire cuts both ways. If dimyon can create destructive desires, it could also be harnessed to create sacred and ennobling ones. I had this idea in mind when I wrote:
I think therefore we must conclude that the key of Rav Yisrael [Salanter]’s thought is more in the contrast between free and confined than in dimyon vs. muskal. Dimyon is far more readily uncontrolled. Emotions are more readily fired by events rather than ideas, and so of our thoughts, our ability to create and recreate events has a strong ability to shape our desires.
This link between dimyon and desire is also seen in the English word “dream” — the same word is used for describing the free-wandering experience of dimyon at night and for a person’s desires and aspirations. (As per the quote used in the title line, which was written when I thought this entry would be complete on time for Martin Luther King Day. That day was also the 25th of Teves, which is Rav Dessler’s yahrzeit. This devar Torah draws heavily from his Michtav meiEliyahu, so I wanted it to be in tribute.)
The Alter of Kelm, R’ Simcha Zisl Ziv, called the use of mental imagery to create holy desires and ahavas veyir’as Hashem (love and awe for G-d) by the term “hisbonenus“. (Described in Kisvei HaSaba veTalmidav miKelm I pp. 108-170.) Hisbonenus is a controlled visualization in which you try to create and internalize change through the power of dimyon.
Rav Dessler explains the idea at length (Michtav meiEliyahu IV pp 249-257, “Darkhei haHashavah el haLeiv“). If we are trapped by the number of negative images we dream up, the only way to fight it is to choose to imagine situations that increase one’s ahavas and yir’as shamayim. To thereby find a better balance in our desires.
Rav Zalman Vilozhiner (Toledos Adam, also cited in Michtav meiEliyahu) gives a powerful example of a second use of dimyon. Not only does it motivate desire, but dimyon is also key to emotion in general. When Rabbi Aqiva was being tortured to death, he happily said Shema. His students were amazed with his ability to do so. Rabbi Aqiva explained to them that he spent all his life wondering if he would have an opportunity to serve Hashem “bekhol nafshekha — with all my living-soul”, “miyamai nitzta’arti al mitzvah zeh — all my life I pained for this mitzvah”. Rav Zalman explains that Rabbi Aqiva imagined this possibility his entire life, and thus, having practiced it through imagery, he was capable of following through when it happened in reality.
Rav Dessler starts by speaking about a different use of imagery and builds from that to hispa’alus. Visual aids are a powerful tool in education. We use this idea both in the classroom and in mitzvos like the seider. We don’t just tell our children about the exodus, we eat matzah and maror and we reenact the slavery and departure from Egypt. Rav Dessler understands this visualization as the difference between the seider night’s commandment of sipur yetzi’as Mitzrayim and the daily mitzvah of zeikher yetzi’as Mitzrayim.
This is a central them in R’ SR Hirsch’s philosophy. Rav Hirsch classifies many mitzvos as osos, signs. In his thought, Hashem communicates basic truths to us through the symbolism of mitzvos. Symbols are at the intersection of emotion and thought. For things we accept but do not analyze, they provide a metaphor for study and further understanding. For ideas that we understand intellectually but do not internalize, they give us the means for internalization.
Rav Hirsch writes that it is for this reason that prophecy too was through the medium of metaphor. The prophet not only receives the ideas he immediately apprehends, but can also get more understanding by contemplating and analyzing the metaphor in all its detail.
Similarly, Rav Dessler points to the text of our tefillos. We don’t merely say on Rosh haShanah that Hashem judges each of us. We create the image of sheep going past the shepheard’s crook, counting off each one to separate ma’aseir. Something we can visualize and focus our attention on, and thereby impact our souls. To truly get the full value of these symbolic mitzvos we must take the time to absorb and feel the imagery. Not just say these tefillos or follow through the actions, but actually imagine.
Illness spread throughout the Jewish community and Hashem commands Moshe, “make a venemous snake for yourself”. Rav Dessler notes that Hashem didn’t tell Moshe what to make the snake out of. Moshe chose bronze because its name resembles the word for snake. He made a “nachas nechoshes“. Why? Was Moshe composing poetry? Moshe’s example teaches us something important. The more detailed and precise the image, the greater it moves the heart.
Imagery is our most powerful tool for shaping our desires and emotions. This is channeling the very same power that is at the core of many of our aveiros.
We discussed three environments in which imagery helps: symbolic mitzvos (and prophecy), identifying with our prayers, and in hisbonenus. We saw that such imagery is more effective when as detailed as possible. And, we saw that imagery can be used to create desires, allow one to practice how to respond to situations without actually having to live through them, and thereby change one’s emotional response.
Hisbonenus is something we all did as children, but as adults, it can be both difficult and alien to our routines for many of us. Find some quiet time and try picturing a scene. Perhaps an image from tefillah, a historical event, or a midrashic story. When Rav Dessler was writing, there were Holocaust survivors who traveled by boat trying to fulfil the dream of living in Israel only to be turned back at Cyprus. Try picturing being on such a boat. Feel it rock on the waves. What color is it? Who are on the crowded deck with you? What are they doing? Who brought their children? Who brought their chess set? Did you strike up a friendship with anyone? Once spending the necessary minutes to make that voyage is made “real”, look out in the distance. Land! What is it? Did we really reach Israel? No, the next fellow tells you, we were redirected to Cyprus. And so on. Initially, our attention spans are short, but with practice one can spend many minutes fully developing the scene, creating the detail Rav Dessler tells us is so critical to the process. After spending the time it takes to place yourself in the shoes of the person who just have their dreams so cruelly dashed, realize — this is the experience of the soul upon death. Just as it thinks it was freed from the body to return to heaven, it learns that no, there is a detour first…
Through hisbonenus exercises like this one we can pierce the orlas haleiv, the callousness of the heart, to allow Hashem’s mitzvos and ideals reach the core of our being.