Elul is the Time to Start on the Little Things
At the beginning of Shaarei Teshuva (The Gates of Teshuva), Rabbeinu Yonah teaches that if we make our efforts in Teshuva, then Hashem will assist us in return, even to the extent of reaching the highest level of loving Him. But we have to make our efforts. Rabbi Welcher says that Elul is the time to start making efforts on the little things as we work up to dealing with some of our bigger issues.
Kavanna is a Big “Little Thing”
Where does kavanna fit in? On the one hand, we all know how difficult it is to daven a full Shomoneh Esrai with good kavanna, but on the other hand saying one brocha or doing one mitzvah with the proper kavanna is something that all of us can achieve. Being focused on Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh this year has shown me the importance of kavanna and awakened me to the fact they we can spend our whole lives involved in Torah, Mitzvos, Tefillah and Chesed, but if we are not focused on Hashem during our day to day lives, then we are not properly building our souls and achieving our purpose in this world and the next. The obvious place to start building is when we’re involved in Hashem focused activities like davening and mitzvos.
Kavanna during Mitzvos
There are three basic thoughts to have in mind before performing a mitzvah:
1) Hashem is the one who commanded this mitzvah;
2) I am the subject of that command; and
3) Through the act that I am about to perform, I am fulfilling Hashem’s command.
It’s that simple, the Commander (Hashem), the commanded (me), the fulfilment (the mitvah). So, perhaps we can focus ourselves before we do a mitzvah and have these three things in mind.
Kavanna during Prayer
Shacharis davening consists of four basic components, while Mincha and Maariv and brachos contain some subset of those components which are:
1) Thanking Hashem for the physical goodness He gives to us (Berachos/Korbanos)
2) Praising Hashem for His general awesomeness (Pesukei D’Zimra)
3) Intellectually accepting and appreciating the Kingship and Oneness of Hashem (Shema)
4) Standing before Hashem with spiritual awareness that He is the source of everything
Obviously there’s a lot to talk about here and I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Mediation as a primary source for understanding kavanna and prayer.
Kavanna during Shacharis
Let’s go through a typical Shacharis and pick some potential Kavanna points.
1) When putting on Tallis and Tefillin, have in mind the three points of Kavanna during mitzvos described above
2) When saying morning Brachos, be thankful that Hashem has given you the opportunity to say these Brochos
3) During Korbonos, say at least Parshas HaTamid and Ketores with extra focus concentrating on the simple meaning of the words
4) During Pesukei D’Zimra in Ashrei say this line with focus: Poseach Es YoDecha… – You open your hand and satisfy every living thing’s desires”. A basic understanding is that although Hashem runs the world through orderly natural laws (as symbolized by the aleph-beis structure of Ashrei), He is constantly active in running the world.
5) During Shema, before the first verse have in mind that you are accepting Hashem’s Kingship and oneship with the implication of following a Torah way of life. According to some you should have in mind that you would actually give up your life for Hashem, if necessary.
6) Before Shmoneh Esrai have in mind that you are about to stand before Hashem and pray to him, that He is awesome, and that we are relatively small compared to Him, the source of everything.
These are just some ideas. Certainly we can do one a week, or one a day, or possibly more. Whatever works for you, but let’s make the effort and earn the merit to grow closer to Hashem at this time.
Originally published on September 2, 2009
The Mesillas Yesharim approach is to affirm to yourself everyday that your purpose in life is to get closer to Hashem. And you should pursue all opportunities to get closer to Hashem.
Davening to Hashem is one of our primary opportunities to get closer to Him. If you lose your focus, stop at the end of the brocha and remind yourself that this current prayer is a tremendous opportunity to get closer to Hashem. When that thought is your current focus, continue with the next brocha.
Take a gradual approach and use this technique to say the first two brochos. Then add a brocha when you feel you have made the first two a repeatable habit. Repeat the process over time.
My problem is remaining focused. I find it easy to say the first blessing of the Amidah with kavannah, but with the second and third blessings my mind is running off in other directions, and by the fourth I barely notice what I am reading in the siddur. Any suggestions on how to deal with this?
Mr Cohen, there no chiddushim (novel ideas) here, this is pretty basic stuff. The components of kavanna are straight from the Mishneh Berurah in the sections on Shema and Shemoneh Esrai. The davening aspects come from Mesillas Yesharim and Rabbi Kaplan’s book that I mentioned in the post. If you have a specific question on any point, please email me at beyondbt.com or ask it here.
Simple Kavannas for Elul by Mark Frankel is excellent.
All of his suggestions are perfectly logical.
If these suggestions have exact sources in sifrei kodesh, then I hope to see them.
Great post, Mark. Thanks for such a direct and useful reminder.
Great post. R Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Mediation changed my davening (for the better).