Shabbat candles: 7:41 p.m.
Torah: Deut. 3:23-7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26
Jewish tradition captures the secret of prayer in the Hebrew term kavanah. But what exactly is kavanah? Since it comes from the Hebrew root k-v-n, “to direct” — in the sense of “directing one’s heart” to God — we tend to think that prayer must emanate from the heart. God wants the heart, the Baal Shem Tov used to say. Prayer must be heartfelt.
But there is another possibility. In antiquity, the heart was considered the seat of understanding, not of emotion. Perhaps, then, prayer demands theological rigor, logical entailment, and cognitive depth.
Both of these views are carried in commentaries to this week’s portion, which begins with Moses praying and fairly begs the reader to confront issues of prayer.
In antiquity — before the age of writing — prayers could not be written down. With no fixed texts on which to rely, prayer leaders made up wording as they went along. Only the succession of topics was fixed. Kavanah, back then, was the name attached to the prayer leader’s jazz-like improvisation around each topic — a combination of quoting the Bible, alluding to rabbinic teaching, and developing poetic phrases on the spot.
The concept of kavanah remained fluid. Medieval kabbalists, for example, had a fixed text and the technology of printing to guarantee widespread dissemination of it. For them, kavanah denoted meditations on the esoteric meaning of those unchangeable prayers, the underlying message to keep in mind as the only proper goal of prayer in the first place.
Given this historical diversity, we should ask what kavanah means for our time. Whatever it turns out to be, it should satisfy a Midrash to this week’s sedra: Kavanah, says the Midrash, assures that our prayers are heard (tefillah nishma’at). But how can that be? Scientific studies demonstrate that patients heal at exactly the same rate and speed, regardless of whether they are prayed over, and by whom. How then can we be assured our prayers are heard? Shouldn’t we conclude that they are never heard at all?
As our sedra begins, Moses says, pointedly, that he prayed to God ba’et hahi, “at that time“ [Deuteronomy 3:23], a phrase that commentators find redundant. Of course he prayed “at that time”— when else?
Earlier in Torah [Genesis 30:33], Jacob, too, refers to prayer’s proper timing. As he prepares to leave Laban, haggling over his parting wages, he pleads, “Let my integrity testify for me tomorrow.” But by “tomorrow,” he will be gone, so the Midrash concludes, “Don’t pray for tomorrow” — who knows, after all, what tomorrow will bring?
Moshe Lieb of Sasov extends the teaching: prayer should address the current moment; as with Moses, it should always be ba’et hahi, because the current moment is all we ever have for sure. Prayers being heard, therefore, have nothing to do with petitions being granted, because petitions are always about “tomorrow.”
Our standard measure of successful prayer assumes an outside force called God, who listens in on what we say and then grants our requests. But “petitions granted, ” we now see, must be the wrong measuring rod. Whatever God may do is out of our hands, but we have the power to pray so that we ourselves can listen to our prayers. Indeed, the Midrash says only that successful prayers are heard, not that God does the hearing.
Put another way, we might say that prayer, being ba’et hahi and not for “tomorrow,” requires our “staying in the moment." Kavanah, then, is the reflective discipline of letting prayers tune us in more deeply to who we are.
Such deep reflectivity is no little thing. No other species has the capacity of self-awareness to the point where we can even be self-aware of our self-awareness. We are hard-wired to be able to experience day-by-day existence against the backdrop of the human condition in all its majesty, triumph, and tragedy. The awareness of being a paltry speck in eternity’s flow, but supremely gifted with power and potential, comes through prayer — if, that is, we stay in the moment.
Return, now, to the dichotomy of heart and mind, both of which are necessary to staying in the moment. Prayers are just another specialized form of thoughts, meditations, hopes, insights, and emotions that constitute the internal dialogue that makes us human. The prayer book is the accumulated wisdom of the past to which we have recourse. The cantor’s chant evokes its mystery and connectivity through time. Through silent prayer, we may safely dredge up thoughts that otherwise frighten us, play with ideas that otherwise elude us, admit our deepest fears and expand our broadest horizons.
With proper kavanah, prayer is indeed heard; and we are the hearers.
Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, co-founder of Synagogue 3000, and professor of Liturgy, Worship and Ritual at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is the author of “My People’s Prayer Book: Traditional Prayers, Modern Commentaries” (Jewish Lights), winner of the National Jewish Book Award.