Intention (Kavanah) and Time
Rosh HaShanah: September 16, 2004/5765
Rabbi Jeffrey Summit
There is nothing quite as frustrating as wasting time. I remember, I wish I didn't remember this quite so vividly, how in my senior year of college I would go to the library to work, with the full intention of studying and writing essays for graduate school applications. That was the plan. Instead, I managed to spend hour after hour walking aimlessly around the library, talking to friends, looking at pictures in big books. I perfected the art of staring into space. That was not an especially good time in my life.
I often wondered: what was the difference between doing nothing on vacation, which is often a very good time, and coming home from the library after having done the same amount of nothing, and feeling so bad about it? Coming home from doing nothing on vacation, I felt refreshed and rested. Coming home from the library, I felt frustrated and often angry. What was the difference between the two?
One difference is that doing nothing on vacation was intentional while doing nothing in the library was not. This morning, as I continue to explore my theme for the holidays this year, how we understand and use time in our lives, I would like to talk about the application of intention to time. I want to consider how intention can shape and determine both the passage of time, and how we feel about the time that has passed.
In the Jewish tradition, intention, kavanah, is an essential part of meaningful action. The term kavanah comes from the Hebrew root meaning to direct, intend, focus. The rabbis were very clear that living a meaningful Jewish life involves combining both the actions we do and the intention we bring to those actions. For example, the rabbis stressed that prayer was not just about the act of reading or saying the words of a prayer. If you did not pray with kavanah, actively thinking about the words you were saying, you have not fulfilled your obligation to pray. So too, in the Mishna, there's a wonderful passage about the commandment to hear the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah. The rabbis ask an interesting question: What if you were outside walking to shul and you heard the shofar being blown and then you realized it was a shofar and not, say, a fog horn? They pose the question: have you fulfilled your obligation to hear the shofar? The answer that they give is an emphatic "No!" In order to fulfill your obligation to hear the shofar, you have to actually intend to hear it before you hear it. That is, meaningful action is not just something that happens haphazardly. Meaningful action is the confluence of a thoughtful decision about what you want to do coupled with the action of doing it.
I'd like to examine two ways that the Jewish tradition focuses our attention in order to make time more meaningful. The first example is about the use of ritual to mark and distinguish time. In the second example, I explore how Shabbat creates "an island in time" and places us strongly in the present moment.
One way that we focus our intention in the Jewish tradition is by the use of ritual. A problem with time is that it has a tendency to all blur together, one day moving into the next. The Jewish tradition has approached this problem by creating rituals and traditions that mark specific times as holy, unique, special. As an example, here I want to consider the rituals around the Shabbat or Holiday table: the blessings over wine, hallah and candles and songs, These rituals don't stop time but they stop us in time, using the power of our history, language and symbols to help us to pause, take stock and pay attention to the moment.
Doing specific ritual acts every week has the power to place us, at that moment, in a much larger stream of our people's history. The wine, the hallah, the songs, become a form of shorthand that brand that moment in the week deeply and vividly. Through the ritual, we step into many pictures from our past when we sat together with our parents and grandparents, our children, or friends in college or at summer camp.
Think of it this way: The act of saying those blessings intensifies the moment by linking us to community both vertically in time, and horizontally, in space. When we say a blessing, we travel back through time, connecting to words that Jews have said, to values we have taught, for thousands of years. Simultaneously, we metaphorically join hands with Jews across the world, from Medford to Los Angeles , from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem , doing the same thing as Shabbat begins sequentially around the globe. We mark a moment in time during the week with a ritual full of the essence of history, people-hood, family, tradition, values and culture all converging in one concentrated act that shouts, "Well, time might go quickly but here's a moment that didn't get away!
All right. I realize that the ritual of holiday or Shabbat dinner doesn't work that way all the time for everybody; but it could! Ritual can function to direct our actions in order to hold, mark, celebrate and fully experience time.
Before I close, I want to return to my opening question: what's the difference between doing nothing that feels like wasting time and doing nothing that can feel wonderful and regenerating? After all, one of the Jewish tradition's greatest teachings is the importance of Shabbat, a time when we're commanded to stop creating, stop working and stop being productive?
The difference, I believe, is the way we think about time during those two very different situations. When we go to the library or sit at our desk and do nothing, we might think we're living in the present but in fact, we're not in the present moment at all. We are thinking back to all the lists we made that we're not completing. We're remembering all the instructions and directions we've gotten from others about what we should be doing with our time. We're thinking ahead to the deadlines we have to meet and the consequences if we don't meet them. Our kavanah, our intention, is to be productive but because we haven't found a way to enter the present moment, our actions don't match our kavanah.
But, in "Shabbat time" we commit to living in a way where we pretend that there is no past and no future, only the present. We briefly create a legal fiction that says our world is just fine as it is and we are good just the way we are. Even briefly we say, we don't have to be productive to be worthwhile. We're not judged by our grade-point average or measured by our resume. This is an essential lesson because our tradition believes that men and women weren't only created to labor but also to laugh and love, to sing and celebrate with friends and family.
Whether you set aside an hour, an evening or the whole day, the key to intentionally creating "an island in time" or as Abraham Joshua Heschel said, "a palace in time," is to commit in advance to setting that time apart. By intentionally stopping, we assert that time is not master over us. We change our relationship with time and stop trying to wrestle an extra hour from time's grip. Time stops being a burden and pressure. Time becomes a friend, as we savor those precious, chosen hours.
In fact, your kavanah, your intention is doubly rewarded because once you've decided to set that time apart, you not only fully experience living in the present, the power of that time shines through the entire week. You can go through a very hard week if you know at some point, even briefly, you'll be going to your own island in time. That's the meaning of the saying, "more than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews."
The rabbis teach that Rosh Hashanah is the birthday of the world. The world begins anew and time stretches out before us like a clean slate. We have another chance to get it right. This day begins a new year and we have the opportunity to live the days and weeks before us intentionally, marking moments as special, balancing our work with our rest, and building lives with meaning and fullness. My wishes for a healthy, happy and fulfilling New Year. Shanah Tovah.