Applying Kavanah/Mindfulness in the New Year

Kavanah, A State of Mindfulness

This school year, 2022-2023, we have chosen Kavanah/Mindfulness as SAR Academy’s theme of the year.  

Kavanah is a term we hear often in halachic contexts, especially around tefilla. 

Mindfulness has been a buzz word of late, as the challenges of multitasking, social media, and the ubiquity of information comes at us while we walk, eat, sleep, drive, work, and play. 

Until now, I never considered the connection between kavanah and mindfulness, but upon reflection, I am struck by the powerful synergy between an age-old torah value and a relatively newly recognized ingredient to productivity, stability, fulfillment, and happiness.  

אחד המרבה ואחד הממעיט ובלבד שיכוון לבו

This statement, among others, teaches us to focus on what is core.  We can have short interactions that are deeply impactful and long ones that feel frivolous and empty (think of a long, unproductive meeting). It is the quality of our interactions that matter. ובלבד שיכוון לבו.

Kavanah in tefilla is about recognizing the meaning in the words we utter.  The mishna teaches us that the “early chasidim” would come to shul an hour early to clear their heads so that they could properly focus on their worship.  Recognizing the holiness of the empty spaces, and that creativity and connection are fostered through calm, clarity, and reduced distraction.  

Halacha recognized that kavanah, while a lofty goal, is not always fully attainable, and in most cases the halacha actually dictates that מצוות אינן צריכות כוונה – while of course we strive for full mindfulness, we get “partial credit” for mitzvot done despite the lack of ideal intent.  This does not detract from the value of Kavanah or mindfulness. On the contrary, it recognizes the challenge of full presence and allows room for improvement.  

Mindfulness is understood as a state of active, open attention to the present.  Psychologists will tell us that mindfulness reduces anxiety, allows us to appreciate who we are and who stands before us.  We have all experienced that good feeling that comes with mindfulness, whether at work or at home.  We have also experienced the frustration and lack of satisfaction that comes with reduced mindfulness.  The anxiety of long to-do lists but the inability to do any of them well, orthe conversation that is not meaningful because one party is really not present.  Like Kavanah, it is unrealistic to expect mindfulness to always be attainable.  At times, the demands on our attention are too great, or we simply fall short because we are human beings.  I think we can agree that even a few mindful hours a day can feel good, and we can work from there to improve, reinforced by the good feelings generated.

Sometimes Being Unintentional is a Good Thing
There is a flipside to Kavanah, which can be particularly insightful to us as well.  Halacha tells us that דבר שאינו מתכוון מותר –  a prohibition committed without kavanah, is actually not a prohibition.  The classic example of this comes from Shabbat; a person is allowed to drag a chair along his field, as long as he does not INTEND to make a hole.  The person’s primary intent is to move the chair, so the fact that he may inadvertently plow the land (plowing is one of the 39 creative acts forbidden on Shabbat) is of no consequence. Since his intent was not to plow, he did not plow.

I encourage all of us to think of the things our children and our students do without kavanah; the student who is asked not to talk out of turn and says “I wasn’t talking”.  It seems he may be correct! He may not realize that he was, in fact, talking, and certainly did not intend to do so. Of course, we patiently train children to be aware of their actions, their words and their surroundings. We encourage mindfulness, but we also recognize the struggle to get there and find leeway to distinguish between what they do and what they want to do.

Attaining Kedusha Through Kavanah

The concept of Kedusha is about separation, between sacred and profane, pure and impure.  Kedusha is about sifting out the noise that surrounds us and focusing on the things that matter.  Finding the beauty in the things we invest in and that surround us.  The challenge of ignoring the minor annoyances while identifying the things that are worthy of our attention, because they bring us joy, they will improve the world, and they are core to who we are.  Kedusha is attained through Kavanah. 

So as we enter a new year, let us commit to being present in our interactions and making those interactions meaningful and memorable. Let us focus on our own growth, adopting the term קביעת עתים לתורה literally carving out time for learning, to read a book or to learn Torah, develop a new skill or finding a new area of interest and delve deeper. Let’s be honest with ourselves when we can’t lend an activity or a meeting the focus it may require…and reschedule. And as teachers, and parents, let us guide children, and work alongside them, in developing their own mindfulness, encouraging them to be mindful about their interactions, their projects, and their passions.

I know this is a big challenge to take on, and I know I, personally, in many of these areas, will fall short. The cycle of Elul through Yom Kippur (which is always followed by another Elul and another Yom Kippur) gives me perspective.  When we set high goals, let’s truly reflect on our ways and commit to change and improvement. We should not be deterred by the knowledge that perfection is unattainable.  At the same time, we know that next year we will be bigger than we are now, shaped by our experiences, accomplishments, and our failures.

גמר חתימה טובה

About the Author
Rabbi Binyamin Krauss is Principal of SAR Academy, a Modern Orthodox co-educational day school in the Bronx, NY. SAR Academy is dedicated to the belief that every child possesses a divine spark, has unique worth as an individual and should be encouraged to achieve according to his or her ability. Our warm environment promotes confidence, creativity and enthusiasm for learning. In our approach to academics, we nurture students to develop intellectual curiosity, critical thinking skills and a lifelong love of both Torah and Secular studies.
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