Originally published in Tzvi M. Rabinowicz (ed.), The encyclopedia of Hasidism (1996), p. 88.
Attachment to God, cleaving to Him in thought at all times, having God in the mind constantly—this idea is found in the work of a number of medieval authors, especially in Nahmanides’ comment: “To love the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to cleave unto Him” (Deuteronomy 11:22), and in Maimonides’ description of what it means to be with God (Guide for the Perplexed, III, 51).
In the earlier sources, however, devekut is an ideal capable of realization only by the greatest of saints after arduous training. In Hasidism, it is an ideal to be striven for by the average Jew, though the hasidic thinkers generally add that it is only the tzaddik who can maintain life always at this level and that his followers can be led to its approximation only through their attachment to the tzaddik. The hasidic emphasis is a direct result from the hasidic idea (see PANTHEISM) that the only true reality is God, which is implied in monotheism, so that a failure to achieve devekut is really a kind of idolatry.
The hasidic teachers urged people to have this state of attachment even when studying the Torah, to which the mitnaggedim retorted that it is impossible to have God always in mind when studying adequately the difficult talmudic arguments that demand complete concentration.
It is by virtue of the doctrine of devekut that Hasidism urges man to engage in worldly things, that is, to use these as steppingstones toward the realization of his aim. The true hasid sees only the divine element in all things. Even when hasidim partake of the world, their thought is not on the material delights and pleasures but on the holy sparks by which they are nourished. In many a hasidic tale of the saints, the tzaddikim engage in what appears to be childish, worldly, or frivolous conduct, but in reality their minds are on the yihudim (unifications), the source of all these things in the upper world. In an oft-quoted hasidic saying, attributed to a Midrash, Enoch was a cobbler, and whenever he stitched the upper part of the shoes he was repairing to the lower part, he performed unifications.
The hasidic masters appreciated that there is an ebb and flow in the life of devekut and that there are bound to be times of “littleness of soul,” when all is dry, when God is far from present in the mind. The hasid must not be deterred by such a fall from devekut. On the contrary, it is only through this descent that the hasid can later rise to even closer degrees of attachment.
Moses Hayyim Efraim of Sudzilkov (d. 1800), the grandson of the Besht, reads this idea into the narrative of Jacob’s dream in Genesis 28:10-12 (“Va-yetzei,” in Degel Mahanei Efraim [Jerusalem, 1963], pp. 40-41). He quotes his grandfather as commenting: “The living creatures (hayyot) run to and fro” (Ezekiel 1:14), which he reads as “vitality” (hiyyuf). Man’s vital nearness to God is not possible all the time. The angels on Jacob’s ladder are, in fact, the tzaddikim, and even these ascend and descend. Yet the purpose of their descent is for an even more elevated rise.
A saying quoted by a number of early hasidic teachers in the name of the Baal Shem Tov is on the verse “Lest you turn aside and serve other gods” (Deuteronomy 11:16). This is interpreted as meaning that whenever one turns aside from devekut, one is, in fact, guilty of idolatry. It further means that the ideal of devekut was held up for emulation even by the ordinary folk. There is much evidence that even those who were among the early hasidim at least tried to cultivate the ideal, using—since they were incapable of attaining it by purely spiritual exercises—such aids as tobacco and alcohol.
G. Scholem, “Devekut, or Communion with God,” in The Messianic Idea in Judaism, pp. 203-227.