Hasidim relate that when R' Elimelekh would recite "Kedusha" during the Sabbath prayer service, he would sometimes take out his watch and look at it. He did this because, in the sweetness of the moment, his soul risked being totally consumed. By looking at his watch he was able to anchor himself firmly in the physical, temporal world.
In order to fully grasp the above anecdote we must first gain a certain understanding of the balance which exists within man. Man is a fragile mixture of material and spiritual elements. Any disruption of the balance between these two forces is likely to lead to damage. A person who buttresses the physical aspect of his personality becomes pulled down by that force, and his spiritual capacity becomes snuffed. He lacks the spiritual element of his personality, and he becomes completely engulfed by the physical. On the other hand, a person who attaches himself too firmly to the spiritual elements of existence is liable to cause his physicality to be nullified, a situation which results in death.
Regarding such a demise, Rabbi Kook writes, "Death is a mirage...what people call death is actually an increase and intensification of life." The "Shem MiShmuel," R' Shmuel Bernstein of Sokochov, interprets the verse "when You gather their breath, they die and return to their dust" (Psalms 104:29) in a similar spirit. A simple understanding of the words "when You gather their breath" is that when God takes away a person's spirit, that person dies. However, the verse uses the Hebrew word "tosef" for gathering, and this more accurately means "to add," not to take away.
This, then, takes us back to what we spoke about previously: when God gives man added spirit, additional spiritual elements, man perishes. According to the Sages, death typically receives expression through the righteous, for the death of the righteous usually stems from an increase of spiritual illumination, the kind which a physical being cannot endure.
This brings us to an additional observation, namely, that there are certain refined individuals who are capable of elevating themselves to a state of death. If a person achieves an extreme level of mystical devotion through divine illumination, he is liable to bring about the departure of his soul. Such a departure, however, is actually a pleasant experience, "sweet-tasting." This is the taste of refinement which comes through the exalted light, and this light is capable of gracing an individual with the supernal pleasure of divine encounter and the transcendence of all physicality. However, Hasidic doctrine informs us that God does not desire such self-initiated expiration.
This approach receives focus in the account of the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Standing at the foot of the mountain, the Jewish people request that, rather than allow God to speak directly to them, Moses act as intermediary so that they not be consumed by "the great fire." In response to this request. God says, "They speak well." Hasidism teaches that God does not desire angels, for had He desired angels He would have created angels, not man. When the Jewish people see that their proximity and exposure to Mount Sinai's great fire is liable to disrupt the balance between the physical and spiritual, they turn to Moses and request that he speak to them instead of God, "lest the great fire consume us."
When R' Elimelekh stands immersed in the sanctity of the Sabbath, he in fact stands at the gate of spiritual illumination - an illumination which threatens to upset the gentle balance between body and soul. There are a number of factors which come together and intensify this threat: firstly, it is Sabbath. Amongst the days of the week, Sabbath represents the spiritual element in our life. Sabbath's spiritual point of departure is considerably more ascendant than that of an ordinary week day. Within the sanctity of the Sabbath, R' Elimelekh arrives at an additional sacred venue - the recitation of "Kedusha."
Beyond the inherent sanctity which comes with reciting "Kedusha," this prayer is essentially built upon a comparison between the Jewish people and the angels: "We shall sanctify You and worship You, like the pleasantness of the enigmatic speech of the holy angels, who bestow three-fold sanctity upon You..." Essentially, "Kedusha" is human beings joining the angles in prayer. During those moments of sanctity, while reciting "Kedusha," Israel receives the spiritual illumination of the angels.
This spiritual illumination possesses great significance on any occasion, but it is doubly significant when recited on Sabbath. The occasion of "Kedusha" on Sabbath itself disrupts R' Elimelekh's balance. The spiritual world is strengthened, and the physical word risks being erased. His grip on the material world stands to be nullified.
God does not desire angels. He wants human beings. R' Elimelekh is aware of this, and therefore he takes out his watch and gazes at it. By taking his watch in hand R' Elimelekh intends to attach himself to physical existence. When this watch is clasped in his hands, the material world becomes indisputably clear. The Rabbi is unwilling to nullify himself before the spiritual world, and he therefore brings things back to their necessary balance.
Furthermore, the watch is symbolic. R' Elimelekh's watch represents the physical world's temporal confines. The watch pulls man down into a narrow and restricted existence, limiting him to the confines of time and place. "To everything there is a season and time" (Ecclesiastics 3:1) - this means that our world is built within fixed and established frameworks which dictate the boundaries of our lives. Grasping the watch implies holding on to the physical world.