Kavanah (כַּוָּנָה) means "aim" in the sense of focus, devotion, inspiration, intention, mindfulness, and attention. For example, my kavanah is energized by a quest for spiritual relevance (i.e., how do the myths, metaphors, parables, and rituals of Judaism help me define God and soul as well as help me stand, metaphorically, in God’s presence?) I avoid rote, boring, dry religious legalism/behavior (heeding the caution in Isaiah 29:13-14 מִצְוַ֥ת אֲנָשִׁ֖ים מְלֻמָּדָֽה).
Kavanah for rituals is challenging since they are conducive to automatic, thoughtless repetition instead of flexibility and creativity. But repetition is okay as long as it is thoughtful and purposeful. Repetition can have meaning and power, if we let it. Fundamentally, I use rituals to achieve and maintain awareness (לְמַעַן תִּזכְּרוּ--"so that you remember") of my spiritual goals and to train and discipline myself to accomplish those goals.
My kavanah for rituals is shaped by these notions:
"Sacred times and rituals are not to be rushed, rather they are to be performed with delicacy and savored in a reflective, contemplative, deliberate, dignified way. Take the time to experience them deeply. In doing so, a spiritual faculty, much like other faculties, can be developed. This faculty is a center of spiritual awareness that resonates with, identifies, embodies, responds to, projects, and therefore activates and effects spiritual dynamism and movement. A key element is the softening of the soul, the dissolving of calcification, the cultivation of gentleness, sweetness, pleasantness, and balance." (Rabbi Nehemia Polen)
"Ritual, however important, is not an end in itself. Ritual is infrastructure, scaffolding. More than knowing the law by heart is knowing the heart of the law. Uncover layers of meaning that buttress the ritual act. The discovery of rationale enhances and enlivens the ritual act which, by itself, is an empty gesture at best and a form of idolatry at worst." (Rabbi Harold Schulweis) "Rituals are instrumental. They exist to give you inner content, the spiritual essence. The outer shell helps us pass on the precious kernel. The form contains the great jewel within it. But we have to bring it out. We’re not just passing on a collection of forms. We pass on the essence because we pass on the form. That doesn’t happen if we do it on automatic pilot." (Rabbi Art Green)
Prayer is especially challenging. I keep front-of-mind some advice from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (1924-2014), who said that making prayer meaningful is like taking frozen soup out of the freezer: You don't just throw a block of freeze-dried gunk on the table and tell people to eat. You heat it up so you can enjoy it! "Look for new melodies, prayers, and spiritual exercises. Be receptive to a little chaos, to not knowing what will actually happen." (Cantor Ari Priven) At the same time, "improvisation is framed by prayer that is fixed, so as to balance surprise with predictability." (Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein) "Creativity needs structure. Creativity without discipline is like a blender with the top off. It doesn't help you." (Rabbi David Wolpe)
A particular challenge in prayer is references to miracles. Intelligent adults don't believe in supernatural miracles that defy science. But we can use the word miracle and still be rational: blessings elevate and highlight everyday miracles in the natural world that are revealed by observation. Celebrate every flower and snowflake and anything else that causes us to see the world as wondrous and amazing.
Below are various ways of understanding these notions.
"The prayers in our siddur were collected over centuries, but the siddur is not a museum vault. It is a living document. Like a coloring book, the siddur only gives us the outlines. Coloring those outlines in with life, context, feeling, is up to us. The siddur belongs not to the mind but to the heart. If my wife tells me, 'I love you,' and I take that on the level of information, I would respond, 'Yes, dear, I know, you told me that yesterday.' But of course she is not telling me something I didn't know; she is trying to transmit a feeling. The same is true for prayer. We're not trying to lay the same old praises at the feet of some old man in the sky. We're trying to connect with a being, a will, a love radiating out from the center of the universe--not the astrophysical center but the spiritual center--that can nourish something deep in our souls.
"Rather than reciting dutifully from the siddur, seek a genuine encounter. Take your time. Let the siddur speak for you. Daydream. Space out. Go where the images take you. A single phrase may be enough to transport you to a higher level. Just as we can, at any time, spontaneously express the feelings we want to convey to God, so can we put things in our own words, whenever we are struck by a thought in the prayer book itself. Make your own version; put thoughts from the prayer book into your own words. Reconstitute the freeze-dried language in the siddur with the living water of your own experience.
"If you get to a line that speaks to you, stay with it. Try not to allow yourself to be bored. Inevitably, we lose enthusiasm. We feel stuck; our practice seems empty. There will be times when the soul will feel depressed, when it just won't have access to that uplifted feeling it needs. Continue your practice and stay open. Your kavanah will return. Your soul will come to your body and ask, "Will you please remind me? What does it feel like?" Whereupon the body can repeat the actions/words it has learned as many times as it takes, until the soul recovers that feeling of connection. Be less interested in what the tradition dictates than in what works. How we put our spiritual realization into practice is up to each soul to decide. Try to go with what gives you chills or goose bumps, or what makes you laugh or cry. That's where the power is.
"Read Psalms as something to get in, not get through." (Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi)
Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk (1787-1859) "felt that overemphasis on strict adherence to patterns of religious behavior tended to obscure the individual's relationship to God. He never questioned the validity of the traditional pattern and regarded living by the Torah as essential. Observance as a matter of routine, however, he considered odious.
"What appalled the Kotzker was the spiritual stagnation of religious existence. He scorned prayer by rote. In opposition to the traditional preference for verbose recitation, he pleaded for brevity, even taciturnity. He dared to teach that the preparation for prayer surpassed prayer itself in spiritual value. Concentration should precede the act of prayer.
"Piety will not sustain the tedium of unlimited repetition. To preserve one's commitment with the intensity of its first ardor requires more than obedience. Surprise, spiritual adventure, the search for new appreciation--all these are necessary ingredients for religious renewal. Judaism lives because it is both a religion of finality, conclusive and irrevocable, and a faith of commencement, of inauguration. To act as a Jew, thought the Kotzker, meant to make a new start upon the old road.
"When first conceived, an idea is a breakthrough. Once adopted and repeated it tends to become a cul-de-sac. The Kotzker disparaged repetitiveness, routine, religious habit, and he loathed dead formulas. He demanded continuous transformation and transcendence of the interior life. He spurned the despotism of habit and routine. He realized that ennui could lead to petrification. Religion ought never to become dreary.
"Mere repetition and facile adherence, the well-worn track of habit with little effort, was contemptible. Individualism involves newness, creativity. Conformity was deformity in they eyes of the Kotzker. Observance without understanding and inner involvement was like a body without a soul." (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)
Rabbi Dov Ber believed that "the letters of Torah are drained of their power when recited by rote. One who reads them without the correct contemplative attention is misusing a divine gift. A worshipper can recite the liturgy with technical correctness, but such prayer is ineffectual if the inner intent has become coarsened through distraction or inattention. Hasidism sought to infuse timeworn practices, religious texts, and concepts with devotional significance that is at once old and new. The ideal Hasid strives to perform all deeds with total devotion, yearning to fulfill the divine command with focus and intensity rather than out of rote obligation.
"The Baal Shem Tov interpreted the psalmist's words, "Do not cast us into old age" as a soulful petition: may our service never become stale, and may our sacred actions and words never fade into old shells empty of meaning. The tireless quest for perpetual newness, held as an aspiration for communities as well as private individuals, is as old as Hasidism itself." (Rabbi Ariel Evan Mayse)
The clip below shows how Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi made prayer his own. He was fun and spontaneous, stopping his lecture to launch into song. He was considerate: he spent the first 90 seconds putting people at ease, letting them know he could not have cared less how he or anyone else sounded. He was creative: he took the familiar melody of "Row the Boat Ashore" and applied it to Psalm 148, mixing his own words into the latter (while also inserting, at the 4:10 mark, the Hebrew from verse 14, the Psalm's last line). Most important, he was effective: he got people to contemplate & enjoy gratitude with smiles on their faces...a none-too-easy task, although he made it appear simple. Magnificent!
Rabbi Menachem Penner, dean of the theological seminary at Yeshiva University, discusses the kavanah one might have during the Amidah prayer:
The goal of a meaningful prayer session is to leave the room a little different than when I came in, feeling that God is more a part of my life. (Penner's notion reminds me of the quote by Rabbi Nehemia Polen on the "Music" page of this website: "When you end a niggun you should be in a richer, deeper place than you were at the beginning.")
Deep down we're all better than we appear. We get lost spiritually, we make mistakes, we forget. But our real self is always trying to talk to God. Prayer is a time for that conversation to happen: listening to yourself and hearing what your soul really wants.
If prayer is boring ask: "Why aren't these the things I care about?" On the days I least want to pray, I should use prayer to judge (which is another meaning of להתפלל - "to pray") myself and ask if my priorities are in order. (Penner's notion reminds me of a quote by Rabbi Brad Artson: "Become the person for whom these are the appropriate words.")
Sacrifice is giving something back to God, while prayer is asking for something from God. But sacrifice and prayer are only superficially about giving and receiving. Fundamentally, they are about admitting (מודה) you need God for everything. It doesn't matter if I'm giving something back (sacrifice) to God or asking for something (prayer) from God, the message is the same: everything is from God. That's why prayer is considered a substitute for sacrifice. It's hard to admit (מודה) that I have needs, that somebody helped me, that I can't do it by myself. But once I feel that way, of course I'm going to say thank you.
Daniel Matt explains the seemingly illogical practice of praying to a One of which you are part:
Rabbi Brad Artson, in his typically lucid and compelling way of explaining the Torah, takes a phrase from Nehemiah 8:3 as his gateway for explaining kavanah:
Professor Moshe Greenberg notes in his book, Biblical Prose Prayer, that "early Jewish prayer was a far cry from the rigidity it manifests in modern times as a result of the printing press. When the sages ordained obligatory fixed prayers, they did not prescribe the exact wording. They prescribed a framework (e.g., the number of blessings comprising each prayer). They also prescribed the topic, such as the rebuilding of Jerusalem. But they did not prescribe the wording. That was left, as a rule, to the pray-er, who filled in the empty lines of the pattern with substance tailored to the situation. It fell to the individual to infuse the specific content, according to the circumstances.
"The pray-er could reach for a temple poet's prepared text, happily adopting expert formulations of tender and profound religious sentiments. Such were the psalms. But the pray-er also might pray on impulse without recourse to prepared texts. Such praying is spontaneous in that it springs from an occasion and its content is freely tailored to circumstances. At the same time, it conforms to a conventional pattern of more or less fixed components appearing in more or less fixed order. Since extemporized prayer gave scope to individuality; a person was revealed by his prayers.
"Effective prayer is not a matter of a particular verbal formula. The essence of prayer is its content not its wording. It was in extemporized praying that the Israelites experienced a non-magical approach to God in which form was subordinate to content.
"Praying repeatedly is a way to sustain in one's consciousness the reality of Gods presence. Without prayer as a habit, one's realization of the transcendent fades. In the absence of an orientation toward the transcendent, mundane concerns take sole possession of the field of consciousness.
"Prayer unmediated by 'ritual experts' strengthens the egalitarian tendency that is rooted in Judaism's self-conception. Everyone enjoys priest-like intimacy with God:
"kingdom of priests, a holy nation" (Exodus 19:6)
"people holy to יהוה" (Exodus 22:30)
"For you are a people holy to יהוה your God" (Deuteronomy 14:1)
"Would that all the people of יהוה were prophets, that יהוה would put his spirit upon them" (Numbers 11:29)
"All the community are holy, every one of them, and יהוה is in their midst" (Numbers 16:3)
Below is an example of my own customized prayer content. Many nights--especially after days of stressful events--I say the prayer shown in italics below. It qualifies as "prayer" since it is a verbal ritual that helps me achieve and maintain awareness of certain spiritual goals: joy and serenity. It took months of tinkering to get the wording precise, in terms of being honest with myself about my goals, needs, and capabilities.
The template comes from an introductory passage to the "bedtime Shema." I retained its basic structure but re-worded it to focus on moderating worry, sadness, anger, frustration, and guilt. Every night when my head hits the pillow I clear my mind, say the following, then sleep:
"With love and kindness toward myself:
I am going to take a break from worrying.
I am going to stop imagining other people's derogatory, negative thoughts and comments.
I am no longer sad or disappointed about anything.
I am no longer angry or frustrated about today's irritations or past irritations.
I am no longer angry at anyone who sinned against me, whether against my name, person, or property, whether in speech or actions.
With mercy toward myself:
I forgive myself for my sins and any inadvertent harm I've caused.
I no longer feel guilty about those actions because I will try to repent and not repeat them. I will try to improve my speech, actions, and thoughts.
With tolerance toward myself:
I am no longer frustrated about my shortcomings in intelligence, memory, and verbal and facial expressions.
I am joyous about:
*insert joys of the day*"
Crucially, when the negative thoughts return the next morning, week, or month--as they often do--I tell myself: "I got rid of that anger (or whichever emotion applies). Don't re-start it." This phrase completes the prayer process, making it as successful as possible.
Certainly there are some emotions that cannot be extinguished and must recur daily (for example, if I am unemployed then I must worry about whether I am going to find a job). But the point here is moderation. Extinguish the negativity that can be extinguished and moderate the rest, both within the course of a day and when your head hits the pillow at night. (It would help to read the text, on the "Music" tab of this site, about distractions.)