Re-Committing to Intention
Rabbi Lisa Goldstein
In just two short weeks, the High Holy Days will be upon us: a new year, a new beginning, a new opportunity to live our lives a little more in alignment. At first glance it may seem a little odd that Rosh Hashanah is also known as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. If we are setting our sights forward and reconnecting to the possibility that in every moment we are recreated as a new creature, as R. Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev put it, why would we begin the season with remembering? Why not focus on envisioning?
One answer might be to reconsider precisely what we want to remember. Perhaps the Day of Remembrance is not a call for nostalgia or regret for days gone by. Instead, we might see it as an invitation to recall – and recommit to – our intention, to setting a direction for the purpose for our life.
The High Holy Days are a shining example of a spiritual practice that offers us its transformative power, to live more awake, aware and loving lives. We have inherited beautiful forms, rituals and practices, to help facilitate that. But then we forget why exactly we are engaged with these forms. Nonetheless we continue on and wonder why the rituals and practices are so empty. It’s not our fault that we forget: We are subject to so much information and sensory input that our brains are designed to forget as much as to retain. That protects our sanity (most of the time), but it also saps meaning from our lives.
The practice of setting an intention is there to help us remember to remember. It is helpful to begin each session of practice with an intention. Why am I engaging in this prayer? In this meditation? In this Torah learning? What quality of presence do I want to bring to it and how do I hope it might transform me? It is a small but crucial step of contemplative practice; in fact, it is what distinguishes spiritual practice from just any habit.
So on Rosh Hashanah this year we have another opportunity to remember. In fact, it’s a kind of meta-reminder. The holidays asks us to remember: Who is the person I yearn to be? What is the quality of relationship that I want in my life? What kind of a world do I wish to live in? And then within each ritual of the day, the shofar blast, the once-a-year melodies, the apples and honey, is a chance to practice remembering the intention. How can this particular act help remind me of those overarching questions I am asking about my life?
Shanah tovah to you all! May it be a sweet and intentional year.
Rabbi Marc Margolius
The essence of Jewish spiritual practice is a process: setting a kavvanah (intention); straying from that intention; waking up to “missing the mark;” and choosing to return again to the intention. Perhaps the most significant part of this journey is the inevitability—even the necessity—of wandering from the original intention.
Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l) illustrates this teaching through a story about a Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of modern Hasidism, in his contemporary classic This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation. The story describes the Ba’al Shem Tov’s contest to determine who would blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, requiring not only technical expertise, but also mastery of the special kavvanot/intentions which would ensure that the shofar blasts favorably impacted the cosmic realms:
All the prospective shofar blowers practiced these kavvanot for months. They were difficult and complex. There was one fellow who wanted to blow the shofar for the Ba’al Shem Tov so badly that he had been practicing these kavvanot for years. But when his time came to audition before the Ba’al Shem, he realized that nothing he had done had prepared him adequately for the experience of standing before this great and holy man, and he choked. His mind froze completely. He couldn’t remember one of the kavvanot he had practiced for all those years. He couldn’t even remember what he was supposed to be doing at all. He just stood before the Ba’al Shem in utter silence, and then, when he realized how egregiously—how utterly—he had failed this great test, his heart just broke in two and he began to weep, sobbing loudly, his shoulders heaving and his whole body wracking as he wept.
All right, you’re hired, the Ba’al Shem said.
But I don’t understand, the man said. I failed the test completely. I couldn’t even remember one kavvanah.
So the Ba’al Shem explained with the following parable: In the palace of the King, there are many secret chambers, and there are secret keys for each chamber, but one key unlocks them all, and that key is the ax. The King is the Lord of the Universe, the Ba’al Shem explained. The palace is the House of God. The secret chambers are the sefirot, the ascending spiritual realms that bring us closer and closer to God when we perform commandments such as blowing the shofar with the proper intention, and the secret keys are the kavvanot. And the ax—the key that opens every chamber and brings us directly into the presence of the King, where he may be—the ax is the broken heart, for as it says in the Psalms, “God is close to the brokenhearted.”
From this story, we learn that the key to spiritual transformation lies not in setting an intention, or even in returning to the intention. It flows from our awareness of the gap between our aspirations and our reality, which reflects the soul’s desire to close the distance between them. We might call this “holy heartbreak” which, when we treat it with compassion, leads to personal and social transformation.
 Alan Lew, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (Little, Brown: 2003), p. 98.
Rabbi Sheila Peltz Weinberg
Psalm 27, traditionally recited daily during Elul, is a personal, beautiful piece of both poetry and prayer. In this translation, our teacher Rabbi Sheila Weinberg takes an interpretive and poetic approach, offering us a new way to explore the close of the Elul daily ritual as we begin to set our intentions for entering the Days of Awe.
Rabbi Jordan Bendat-Appell
Our intentions can have brief shelf lives – we focus on something, and then, as is natural, life happens, and we lose our way. Our practice can help us train in sustaining kavvanah and in returning back to it when we lose it. In this guided meditation, we will practice refocusing and recentering our intention, just for these next 10 – 12 minutes. Notice your experience in emet and chesed – honestly bearing witness to what is happening, and greeting whatever you notice with love.
Getting Stuck in Jewish Spirituality
Rabbi Aryeh Ben David
Jewish educational leaders and their communities have become very good at the first stage of Jewish spirituality – connection. The time has now come to move to the second stage – calling.
The First Stage
When I ask people for their first association with ‘spirituality’, the most common response is ‘connection’. They speak of connecting with something beyond themselves, whether with nature, history, a people, a transcendent being, or even the depth and fullness of the present moment.
Spirituality begins with pausing and noticing.
According to the Midrash, Abraham’s generation did not see what he saw. Moses too was the only person to pause and behold the burning bush, even though it was visible to all who passed by. Abraham and Moses noticed, and they followed up by asking themselves questions. Abraham asked: “Could this mansion be glowing and not have an owner?” Moses asked: “Why isn’t this bush burning up?” Abraham and Moses noticed, stopped, reflected, and then articulated their astonishment. This led to their personal connection with God.
But connection was not the end goal. God caught their attention – in order to talk to them:
- “God called to Abraham and said: ‘I am the owner of the palace’”
- “God saw that Moses turned to see, and God called to him from within the bush and said, ‘Moses, Moses!’”
Despite the Biblical paradigms of ‘calling’ being the end goal of spirituality, today we’re entirely focused on just the ‘connection’ piece. Connection is dominating the Jewish spiritual scene and language today. Being spiritual today means kavannah (intention) in prayer, mindfulness practice, and connecting to the transcendence of each moment. You’re spiritual if you meditate, journal, and spend reflective time in nature. In our time, a spiritual experience is entering into “a state of being” – being connected to God. The Torah and the Hasidic masters would call this a state of d’vekut (connection).
This spiritual approach is quite appealing: these practices can bring a person to a deeper state of calm, serenity, and fullness. In Heschel’s words, spiritual connection can lead one to a life of wonder and radical amazement. Spiritual connection is also rewarding: it can lead to greater self-worth, gratitude, love, and compassion.
Unfortunately, Jewish spiritual practice and education often stops at this first stage of connection.
We’re missing out.
The Second Stage
The spirituality of ‘connection’ is meant to culminate in a second stage: the spirituality of ‘calling’.
Calling leads to purpose, mission, and a life of action. After stopping, noticing, and articulating their amazement, both Abraham and Moses were then called to mission by God – called to action and purpose. God says to Abraham: “Lech-lecha (leave your home)… and through you all the families of the world will be blessed”. God tells Moses to return to Egypt and save his brethren.
The experience of ‘calling’ is totally different from the experience of ‘connection’.
- Connection begins when the individual stops and notices; calling begins with God’s reaching out.
- Connection is a response to the beauty and wonder of the world; calling is a response to that which is missing and needed in the world.
- Connection engenders feelings of tranquility, fullness, and gratitude; calling engenders feelings of fear, anxiety, and doubt that I may not be worthy of the calling.
- Connection brings to a state of being; calling brings to a state of action.
- Connection brings one into the immediate present; calling brings one to the future.
- Connection brings one to dwell in the moment; calling brings one to journey.
What is the spirituality of calling?
God has sent each of us into this world for a purpose (or tikkun: healing), which only we can fulfill. God has implanted within each of us a soul that is continually communicating – calling to us how we should act. Calling – when we hear it – reminds us that the world is a work-in-progress and we have a role to play in its repairing.
If today’s emphasis on spirituality of connection is about entering the fullness of the world, then the spirituality of calling wants to bring us into becoming fully present in the brokenness of the world.
How do we hear this call?
We are not prophets. We can never be fully certain that what we hear or sense is the true voice of our soul, that we are really hearing what God wants us to do. Yet every now and then, there are moments of clarity that arrive through our intuition. Rav Kook writes that this voice whispers to us, sings to us, and prays to us all the time. As long as we are alive, our soul is always calling to us. He writes that the goal of learning Torah is precisely this – to better hear the inner voice of our soul.
But there are obstacles to hearing this voice, to sensing the calling.
In the last 10 years I have asked hundreds of students, of all ages, if they have ever felt or heard a communication from the beyond guiding them. The vast majority raise their hands. When asked, it usually has come at a crossroads in their lives, a time when they needed guidance to make a difficult decision. A smaller portion of people have said they feel or hear this voice every day.
Virtually all of these people said that they have never talked about these experiences with someone else. They did not want to be regarded as weird, “losing it”, or as religious fanatics. “Who talks about these things in today’s world?” “Who claims that we can hear the voice of God?”
I think this is our primary role as educators today – to remove the obstacles that inhibit us and to create spaces in which people feel more comfortable talking about their relationships with God. We need to invite people to share how God plays a role in their lives.
For rabbis and educators, their own spiritual calling moments must be the root of this conversation. They need to share with their students when they have been open to hearing their inner voice. As risky as it feels, educators must engage students on their personal lech-lechas: they must model being in-journey, open to risk-taking and uncertainty, willing to listen to the voice of their soul and daring to walk with God.
We want stage #1; we want spiritual connection. God created an awesome and inspiring world to behold. Becoming fully present in each moment is fundamental to living a spiritual life. But going inward is really about ultimately going outward. The state of ‘being’ is the prelude to the state of ‘action’. If the spiritual connection does not lead to action benefiting others, it becomes self-serving.
‘Connection-only spirituality’ can become intoxicating, self-absorbed and narcissistic. The time has come to move the conversation of spirituality from connection to calling, from self to others, from being to acting. Our spirituality needs to propel us into the brokenness of the moment; to accept the world’s invitation for our role in its healing.
This article is reprinted with permission from Ayeka: Center for Soulful Education. Rabbi Aryeh Ben David founded Ayeka in 2006, after almost 20 years of work in formal and experiential Jewish settings. He is an alumnus of the third cohort of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality’s Rabbinic Leadership Program (now the Clergy Leadership Program).