An old story tells of the Baal Shem Tov coming to a synagogue and turning back at the door, unable to enter. Too many prayers inside, he said.
"But Master," asked his disciples, "surely a room full of prayer is a good thing?"
"But all the prayers are stuck there in the building," the Baal Shem answered. "None of them are going up to Heaven."
You might get this feeling today. Clergy and congregants together might be dutifully singing and reciting -- but somehow the prayer has no wings. You still feel uninspired. Maybe you've known the peace that can sometimes follow real prayer. Maybe you have prayed until you were drained and exhausted, for yourself or for someone you love. Maybe you've been there when a room full of people have managed to leave their individual preoccupations behind and are singing and sawying and making a joyful noise unto the Lord. If you've been blessed with such an experience, then you may have some sense of what the Baal Shem Tov meant. Sometimes we're transformed, and sometimes we're not.
That's why we talk about kavanah.
Jewish prayer begins with kavanah -- intention. To daven with kavanah means to pray with focus, intention, meaning. It means praying from the heart, rather than prayer centered solely in the mind. Celebrating a Shabbos or a holiday with kavanah gives that days a deeper, richer texture. Kavanah gives meaning to our rituals of marriage and birth and death. It inspires us to perform a mitzvah on a more conscious and ultimately more rewarding level. Kavanah lies at the heart of Jewish devotional life. That one word encompasses an entire body of inner work necessary to live consciously in the presence of God.
Our Jewish path to inner awareness begins with kavanah. Our meditative lives as Jews could not be complete without it, for it is the steering wheel of all inner consciousness work. Our inner search for kavanah might at first be satisfied with a momentary boost of intention. Ultimately, though, we want our kavanah to be transformational. We seek a complete realignment of the soul, a mesirat nefesh -- a handing over of the soul to God's work. We wish to become the very intention and kavanah of God.
The Address and the Guide
Kavanah begins at the simplest level. I take a cup of tea, or a little glezeleh (glass) of schnapps, and I look at you and raise it up a little, and I say, Le-chayim! That moment when I'm drinking to you, or when I say, "I'll drink to that," is an example of kavanah, labeling the act and saying for whom I'm doing it. My papa, alav ha-shalom, had a custom when we ate meals together as a family on Shabbos. Before every dish that he would taste, he would take the spoon and dedicate it: "Li-kh'vod Shabbos," in honor of the holy Shabbos. He learned this from his teacher, the Belzer Rebbe.
Staking out the intent of what you're doing is one of the primary levels of kavanah. It's like donating something to s synagogue or charity and saying, "This is to honor so-and-so." This is where we say, "Le-shem mi? For whom are we doing it? With what intent do we do it?"
One of the basic kavanot you find in the siddur is "Le-shem yichud kudsha berikh hu u-Sh'khintei, For the unification of the Holy One, blessed be God, and the Shekhinah": that this holy act bring together the hidden and the revealed, the transcendent and the imminent. You're saying, this energy that has been gathered here, I want it to be for that purpose. That's what I'm doing it for. Your aiming it; writing an address, as it were. The Buddhist custom of assigning merit is the same kind of thing. The Hindus offer the prasad, the food offering to the gods, with kavanah. Tibetan Buddhists turning the prayer wheels -- that also goes with a kavanah.
From an ethical standpoint, we might say that 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.
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."
Finally, kavanah can give us the compass with which to steer our minds better. Very few people can do mind steering. If you drove a car like you use your mind, you'd bump into all kinds of things. Look at what happens when you try to meditate. You sit down, you try to compose yourself. All of a sudden yesterday's to-do list or last week's argument burps up like the garlic from dinner. No sooner do you have a moment's peace than the flotsam and jetsam of the mind khap you and take you to places you don't want to go.
In the coming age we need to move from the realm of dibur, speech, into machashavah, thought. This is what all the Eastern meditation teachers and Western healers of the mind are telling us. We have to be able to work in nefesh, the level of soul. Kavanah gives us a compass with which to realign our inner processes.
שויתי ה' לנגדי תמיד
"I set God before me always"
The verse "Shivti ha-Shem le-negdi tamid, I set God before me always" (Psalm 16:8) is one of the great remembrances that opens the door to kavanah.
Once there was a Hasid who used to go and study with Reb Chayim Halberstam of Sanz. This Hasid would travel some distance, and on the way there and back he would pass through a small town, where he stayed for Shabbos. The rabbi in that town also fancied himself to be a shtickl Rebbe, though he didn't have many followers. "I can teach you," he told the Hasid. "I'm closer, why go to Sanz?"
"Maybe so," the Hasid responded. "But in Sanz they are teaching me also how to be a yode'a machshovos" -- to possess that near-miraculous power some Hasidic Rebbes have to see into the hearts of those who are sitting before them, to divine their thoughts and concerns.
"Really?" said the local rabbi. "Then what am I thinking now?"
This was easy. "You're thinking, 'Shivti ha-Shem le-negdi tamid, I keep God before me always,'" returned the Hasid.
"No!" said the rabbi triumphantly. "I'm not!"
"Nu," said the Hasid. "Now you can see why I go to Sanz."
To the Hasid, the question "What am I thinking?" should -- on the most fundamental level -- have only one answer, whatever the person's other concerns. That is why "I have set God before me always" is embroidered on the covers of holy arks in so many shuls throughout the Jewish world. The awareness that we stand in the presences of the Living God is one of the most important realizations we can install in our operative consciousness.
God is always present. The question is, how present are we? We want to stand in that Presence without opacity. Our work is to penetrate, in meditation and in action, to the very heart of being nokhach penei ha-Shem (Lamentations 2:19), of being truly present before God. Repeating the Shiviti verse throughout the day reminds us to be present in that way.
Reb Zalman will be teaching at Elat Chayyim's Shavuot retreat at Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center, presented in partnership with ALEPH Alliance for Jewish Renewal, on May 14-17.
The above column was excerpted from 'Davening: A Guide to Meaninful Jewish Prayer' (Jewish Lights 2012).