Day Seven: Pay Attention!
Kavanah is the Hebrew word for direction, intention, or purpose. In its simplest meaning, it refers to concentrating the mind in the performance of a religious act, ensuring that it doesn’t devolve into rote, mechanical action. It is most commonly associated with concentration and intention in Jewish prayer, but the concept of kavanah applies to all mitzvot.
Jewish authorities generally consider that proper kavanah is essential to the performance of mitzvot. The Mishnah rules that if someone happens to be passing by a synagogue at the time that the shofar was blown on Rosh Hashanah, they do not fulfill the mitzvah of shofar because they heard it only incidentally, not purposefully. They didn't bring kavanah to the act of hearing the shofar.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that living a life of kavanah isn't just about religious obligations:
A moral deed unwittingly done may be relevant to the world because of the aid it renders unto others. Yet a deed without devotion, for all its effects on the lives of others, will leave the life of the doer unaffected. The true goal for man is to be what he does.
Bringing intentionality and focus to how we live our lives ensures that we not only have an impact on the outside world, but also, that in acting for the benefit of others, we also transform ourselves for the better.
There are lots of distractions in life. Today, we're going to think about how we can focus on what's most important.
Kavanah is a Jewish response to instinct. The human animal has powerful drives. We are hungry, we are violent, and we are sexual. These compulsions are written into our blueprint as living organisms.
What Do I Do?
One of the most difficult tasks we face in trying to do right in the world is discharging these biological drives in a way that builds rather than destroys. It is as if our software were trying to rewire our hardware. We are not only animal, we are human. Once we realize and articulate this kavanah for ourselves, we have taken the most important step toward making it real. We can say, “Dear God, the love and well-being of my family means more to me than anything else in the world. Nothing — nothing — is more important to me than this, even if it means denying myself something that I would dearly love to have. Please help me do the right thing. I can’t do this without Your help.” Sharing this with God, or even with friends, can give us new strength to do the deeds we want to do, and to refrain from those that — no matter how enticing — would harm those things we hold most sacred.
Kavanah helps guide our speech as well. We might be relatively righteous in deed and yet our speech is still harmful. Without kavanah we say, “I really should change.” With kavanah we say, “Dear God, please help me to let this thought go. Netzor leshoni mei-ra, guard my tongue from evil. I know deep down that sharing this with others would just be a way of aggrandizing myself. And please guard me from impatience. May it be Your will that I not get angry today.”
Kavanah can give us the compass with which to steer our minds better. (Gratefully borrowed from the teachings of Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)