William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Bringing back your wandering attention

Why do you remember insults and criticism more than praise? The answer may be biological. When our bodies sense any form of threat, adrenaline gets released which puts us on high alert. Such aroused states are quite memorable. This is why, for example, we all remember where we were on September 11, 2001, while very few of us remember what we were doing the day before on September 10th.

The Torah’s favorite word for alerting us to threats is shamar, to be watchful. The word occurs some twenty times in this week’s portion of Torah. Threats of trending idolatry in the ancient world were high, particularly given Judaism’s contrarian insistence on serving one God on a solitary altar.

Today’s trends are also infectious. As COVID infections rise, sense-making and curiosity are in decline. Destructive wildfires and surging floods seem strangely in sync with our disquieted emotions. MacBeth’s words are ringing true,“Confusion hath made a masterpiece”

It’s no wonder that mindfulness movements and discipline from the Stoics are gaining popularity.

God’s recipe for restoring calm and balance is found in the Shema prayer which originates in this week’s portion. “Listen, Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One” (Deut. 6:4).

A student once asked me, “Why is God so insistent on exclusivity? It’s not like God needs to be worried about market-share or heavenly competition.” I responded by paraphrasing Heschel’s framing of one-ness as something that is actually for our sake.  ‘If in the afterglow of a religious insight or experience, you can find a way to gather together scattered strands, to unite what lies in strife, to cohere in a way that makes you fully attentive in the present, then you can know that one-ness has worked its magic on you.’ From this vantage point, God’s one-ness serves to help us gather, collect, and integrate.

Feeling fully present in tough when we’re collared by outrage. Being attentive to your breath is impossible when you’ve gotten the wind knocked out of you. This is why the coalescing energy of the Shema recurs so often in our lives.  It’s evident in every passageway (mezuzah). When we rise up, lie down, and throughout a day’s travels. Its words are the first a newborn hears when being put to bed each night and the last words uttered at a life’s end. The Shema helps us bring back our attention to prioritize the here and now.

Even as it won’t magically make our challenges disappear, it can help us meet them at our best.

Amidst your vast mental excursions this weekend, may bringing back your attention quietly meet up with God’s attentiveness, as you cherish the sheltering support of our Guardian (our Shomer Yisrael).

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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