Paying Attention to the Spiritual Opportunities Before Us

One of the first steps to be spiritually focused is affirming the present moment and place. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov had a very powerful approach for achieving presence in the moment. He taught that the twenty-eight joints in our two hands match the gematria (numerical value) of the word koach (energy or strength) (siman 44). He wrote that in the moment of clapping with joy, the land below us becomes as holy as Israel. Through our actions, we transform temporal space and time into holy space and time. We need not travel somewhere exotic, but merely be totally present and full of joy wherever we are.

We must affirm where we are and be focused on the moment. Focused concentration has enormous rewards in all areas of life. When we admire a great painting or sculpture, a musical composition, or a work of literature, we admire the products of great feats of concentration. When I recently met with the Spinka Rebbe, he told me that the primary practice to connect to God is to spiritually focus on the physical amazement around us and to contemplate the origin. When we allow ourselves the chance to truly concentrate on something, the prefrontal cortex of our brain is filled with dopamine, the neurotransmitter most associated with pleasure, and which enhances our ability to concentrate. It is no surprise therefore, that many conditions associated with disruptions in our ability to concentrate, such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, involve disequilibrium in our dopamine levels.

Concentration in current society is a difficult proposition. While critics once complained that Baby Boomers grew up in the early days of television, where commercials tended to break viewer concentration about every 7 minutes, today the difficulty appears much greater. A Pew Research poll of 2011 data noted that on average, Americans age 18-29 send or receive about 88 text messages a day, and of those age 18-24, the average is nearly 110 messages a day. When coupled with email and social media, it is difficult to concentrate on anything today. I myself am inundated with messages at rapid clip throughout the day. I have to really focus to make sure I am completing the tasks I have at hand and to be efficient with my time. Not an easy thing to do.

Even the greatest among us have found the ability to concentrate and deeply get into a task challenging. Consider this teaching from Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: burning bush image

 Look more closely at the process of combustion. How long would you have to watch wood burn before you could know whether or not it actually was being consumed? Even dry kindling wood is not burned up for several minutes. This then would mean that Moses would have had to watch the “amazing Sight” closely for several minutes before he could possibly know there even was a miracle to watch! (The producers of television commercials, who have a lot invested in knowing the span of human visual attention, seem to agree that one minute is our outer limit.) The “burning bush” was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did, God spoke. The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough to behold the miracle without falling asleep. There is another world, right here within this one, whenever we pay attention (G-d was in this place, 25).

Rabbi Kushner continues:

If Moses were to ascend the mountain, why would God also bother to specify that he “be there?” (Exodus 24:12). Where else would he be? The answer, suggests Kotzker, is that people often expend great effort in climbing a mountain, but once they get there, they’re not there; they’re somewhere else (33).

Fortunately, we can still concentrate if we allow ourselves the necessary budget of time and the proper space. Just as we are grateful that surgeons, airline pilots, and our fellow drivers have the necessary concentration to carry out their tasks successfully, so should we be grateful to be have the opportunity to spiritually concentrate and receive the rewards of this concentration. Learning to spiritually focus can not only save our lives, physically, but can also save our lives, spiritually. This delicate art must be mastered.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of six books on Jewish ethics.  Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.