Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Mindfulness

When reading philosophy, especially spiritual philosophy of various world religions, I’m always struck by how completely unknown any authentic Jewish wisdom is in the outer world. Of course, I take much of it for granted since it’s the dominant environment that I live in. But considering having grown up (in the 1950s US) in a “Judeo-Christian” culture, I was always shocked at just how little of the “Judeo” informs it.

In recent years, a common buzzword is mindfulness. Although it seems to begin with the Buddhism that characterizes much of the “New Age”, I now see it popping up in many current spiritual contexts. But it always seems focused and limited to being aware, mindful is you will, of how our actions impact the environment, society and other sensitive people. I’ll never hear that word coming from traditional (i.e. orthodox/chassidic) Jewish teachers who, rather, usually focus on the finer points of mitzva-observance. To be sure, in more modern, progressive denominations, each of which seem to stray ever farther from traditional emphases, especially mitzva-observance itself, you do hear that word, usually with a greater frequency the farther that denomination is from traditional study and observance. I tend to discount it as coming organically from Judaism itself or if it is a modern grafting, much like the over-used and usually misunderstood idea of tikkun olam, in order to make Judaism itself more palatable to folks whose tastes and values are more informed by contemporary western culture than by millennia of Jewish thought.

A related idea, however, which has long been central in the discussion of performing mitzvot, commandments, is  kavvana, intention. There is an age-old discussion as to whether to be valid a mitzva requires not only the actual performance, the act, but also the kavvana, the intention. This discussion develops into what me mean by kavvana–do we merely intend to perform the mitzva because we have been commanded to do so and want to fulfil our obligation or should be we aware of the deeper and more subtle, energetic effects of that mitzva and to then have the goal of that effect as our intention? Can we merely perform the action required since, obviously, whatever the Divinely Intended effect, it will be achieved, or will it? In other words, is the mental/emotional/spiritual effect the mitzva has on the person performing it the actual goal of the requirement or is there a more global, external, even if unobservable to human senses, goal?

All in all, this discussion begins to look a lot like one of “mindfulness”. But is our mindfulness the same mindfulness the Buddhist and the New Age crowd talk about? For one thing, Buddhism excludes the very idea of a deity, while the very foundation of Judaism is building, through Torah and the mitzvot, an intimate relationship with God. Perhaps the central kavvana in every mitzva and in every bracha, is awareness go God. When we say the most common kabbaistic kavvana, we declare our intention to unify the Holy Names which point to the universal masculine and feminine forces. We also explicitly mention that we intend to benefit the entire Jewish people (as well as to join out energy with all of them who also perform this mitzva).

The entire concept of Brachot, blessings, is based on acknowledging The Creator’s role in our lives. The requirement to say a bracha, either to give thanks, to sanctify/dedicate a mitzva/positive action, we’re about to undertake, as well as in general is the verse, Devarim 8,10, “V’Achalta v’savata u’verachta“, “You shall eat, be satisfied and then bless (The Lord your God and that good land)”. Literally every bracha in our liturgy, and, perhaps, the very concept of blessing, stems from this realization of God’s presence in even our most mundane, physical activities.

Mindfulness, indeed, is a central Jewish value, with the understanding that we aspire to be mindful, aware of and in gratitude to The Creator every moment of our lives. With the understanding (or the accumulated teachings) that the essential nature of God is beneficence, in other words, goodness. And this, in turn, requires us to be constantly aware, actively engaged, mindful of our obligations to His Creation, to the Heavens and the Earth, to all life forms, especially to our fellow humans and, even more centrally, to our fellow Jews (or, moving from the center outward, to our family, our community, our people, to all humanity, to all life, to the physical world and universe itself).

Rather than limiting ourselves and those we hope to influence with a superficial buzzword, may we, each day, increase our true mindfulness.

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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