Kavvanah/intention is an effort to “guide and regulate the individual in his performance of interior mental practice, a mode of action hidden from the public’s observation.” The pursuit of kavvanah, the effort to do one thing and be thinking about that one thing, is our own private work.
How many tasks are you accomplishing right now? While writing these words, is it possible for me to think only, or at least primarily, about this column and complete the 800 words before I check Twitter and clean my desk?
This week’s Torah portion, Ve-etchanan, known best for the words of Shema and for the Torah’s second listing of the Ten Commandments, also includes a powerful description about how to seek out God. Whether you perceive God as a transcendent being or as a sense of that which connects us all or as something else or even as nothing, perhaps you too might be moved by these words of spiritual quest:
“If you search there for the Eternal your God you will find God, if only you seek God b’chol livavcha u’vichol nafshecha/with all your heart and soul. When you are in distress because all these things have befallen you and in the end return to the Eternal your God and hear God’s voice” (Deut. 4:29-30). The phrase, “with all your heart and soul,” shares the same language as the words of the Shema-V’ahavta prayer, also found in this portion.
The meaning of heart/lev, beyond feelings, includes thought and intention. The meaning of soul/nefesh, beyond spirit, includes emotion and passion. What does it mean for us to seek God with all of our thought, intention, emotion and passion?
Modern Torah commentator Jeffrey Tigay (JPS Commentary) explains this passage as a mandate for the Jewish people to “love and serve God with undivided devotion.” The term Tigay chooses here, “undivided,” indicates monotheistic loyalty to the Eternal One, a distance from idolatry, devotion to one and only God.
Another look at “with all your heart and all your soul” could point to something different from God’s oneness. Another take on “undivided” could have something to teach us about the call for our oneness. The need for us to be undivided.
In daily life and in prayer, I’m guessing I’m not the only one challenged by dividedness — a fragmented multitasking mind. So it’s interesting for me to interpret the words “all my heart and soul,” as “all my attention.” Undivided. I am coming to believe as so much research supports that I can only really do one thing at a time. Perhaps whether in prayer or other activities, multi-tasking is really just distracted single tasking.
A favorite illustrative story of mine: In recent years I had the opportunity to watch as a young child had an IV port inserted into her hand. This is a painful procedure, so Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia provides a social worker to help ease the child through the process.
What was the magic this social worker brought into the emergency room? An iPad with a Hello Kitty puzzle video game. I watched as this child played the game, totally distracted from her fear and from her physical pain. She barely flinched when the IV went into her hand. When the social-worker turned off the game, the girl looked down at her hand and said, “Oh, what’s that!?”
If a child’s game can so easily distract her from pain, what does that say about our attention? We can only be fully present for one thing at a time.
So many of us today seek spirituality and mindfulness. I believe one path for our own spiritual quests can be discovered in Tigay’s word: undivided. One spiritual practice is to just do one thing at a time. To do one thing and be thinking about that one thing, whether that be prayer, study, acts of loving kindness, professional work or answering the door for the dishwasher repair person.
Kavvanah/intention is an effort to “guide and regulate the individual in his performance of interior mental practice, a mode of action hidden from the public’s observation” (Eitan Fishbane, As Light Before Dawn: The Inner World of a Medieval Kabbalist). The pursuit of kavvanah/intention, the effort to do one thing and be thinking about that one thing, is our own private work!
Kavvanah has an impact on my relationships with others, but only I can know how much attention I am dedicating to a task or moment; only I can know if I have brought all my heart and soul. No one else knows how many phone calls I made while writing this column or how distracted I was by ideas for a class I am teaching tonight. No one other than myself, and perhaps God, knows how fragmented or undivided I am.
While writing this column I’ve written three emails, written a pastoral note and checked my calendar. When it comes to Kavvanah, intention with all of my heart and all of my soul, I’m still working on it.
May we all find inspiration for kavvanah/intention in the words of Deuteronomy: “Search there for the Eternal your God, you will find God, if only you seek God with all your heart and soul.”
Jill Maderer is a rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Shalom and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.