By Richard Greenberg
Ever wonder how those Olympians performed their feats of athletic
mastery in Sydney?
For many of them, it's literally a case of mind over matter. Sure, they
need the physical tools. But there's more to it than that. The winning
edge, it turns out, is also the result of intense and intricate mental
As outlined most recently in a story in Newsweek magazine, elite
athletes everywhere spend countless hours training themselves to achieve
success by actually visualizing it. Whether it's a professional golfer
"seeing" the imaginary putt navigate a tricky green and then drop into
the cup or a pole vaulter "sprinting" down the virtual ramp and then
clearing the bar at record-setting height, the best athletes are able to
block out all distractions and mentally experience top performance --
and then translate that image into reality. In short, their success can
be traced, in part, to their ability to focus on what is really
In Jewish parlance, you'd say they've developed great kavanah. Eons
before before anybody ever heard of Marion Jones or Tiger Woods, Judaism
recognized the importance of mental focus, which it calls kavanah. In
the case of Judaism, however, the stakes are weightier than any gold
medal. What's involved Jewishly is nothing less than the establishment
of a meaningful existence. Kavanah -- which has been translated
variously as focus, concentration, devotion and intention -- is the
means by which we cultivate an intimate relationship with G-d, often
Kavanah, in short, helps Jews establish their priorities. It helps us
focus on what is really important -- in addition, of course, to the
proper technique for heaving a javelin 100 yards. What is important? The
knowledge that G-d is out there and in here, that He is watching over
us, and expects us to do His will.
There's a story that illustrates the importance of recognizing those
essentials. It involves a man known as the Chofetz Chaim, a 19th and
early 20th Century rabbi in eastern Europe who was renowned for his
scholarship, piety and modesty. He had a firm grasp of the essentials.
The Chofetz Chaim, it turns out, had hired a wagon driver to take him
somewhere. While they were passing a farm, the driver abruptly stopped
the wagon and climbed down in order to steal something from the farmer.
He left the Chofetz Chaim in the wagon as a lookout. As the driver
embarked on his illicit mission, the Chofetz Chaim called out: "He's
looking!" The driver raced back to the wagon, spurred the horses to a
vigorous gallop and made his getaway, the Chofetz Chaim in tow. When
they had gotten a safe distance away, the wagon driver turned to the
Chofetz Chaim and asked, "Who was it that saw me?" The Chofetz Chaim
gestured upwards and said, "He sees everything."
Indeed He does. But it often takes a special person to recognize that
fact with crystal clarity -- what with the background noise of life
intruding. Judaism acknowledges this difficulty, and offers a variety of
methods and images to help us visualize G-d and connect with Him.
On one hand, although G-d has no physical form, our texts often depict
Him, metaphorically, in guises that are familiar to us and that evoke
feelings of warmth, awe or security. King. Father. Shepherd. On Rosh
Hashanah and Yom Kippur, for example, there's the famous Unesaneh Tokef
prayer in which we see ourselves as sheep passing single file in
judgement beneath G-d's holy staff.
The Shulchan Aruch, the standard code of Jewish law, has another
approach to nurturing kavanah. It presents a brief "training regimen"
whose goal is to help us connect with G-d's worldly manifestation, known
as the Shechinah, and articulate our deepest thoughts during prayer. It
instructs worshippers to imagine that they are standing before a
flesh-and-blood king. Someone in that position would no doubt choose and
present his or her words carefully. Right?
"All the more so when he is standing before the King of Kings, blessed
be He, who searches our innermost thoughts," says the Shulchan Aruch
(Orach Chayim 98:1), which goes on to explain that Jews throughout the
ages have actually engaged in extensive private meditation before prayer
in order to get into the proper frame of mind to approach G-d. Some have
been able to "transcend their physical being and strengthen the power of
their intellect so as to attain a level close to prophesy."
Obviously, not everyone is expected to reach that level, and few do. But
the rest of us might profit from some practical tips aimed at fostering
kavanah that Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz has included in his new book, "A
Guide To Jewish Prayer" (Schocken Books).
He suggests, first of all, creating an environment in which talking and
other disturbances during public prayer are discouraged. On a personal
level, Steinsaltz writes, kavanah can be encouraged by the "simple
awareness that entering into prayer is, in fact, stepping into another
kind of reality" that is radically different from the mundane routine of
everyday life. Our Sages, he points out, felt this was akin to the
creation of a "Shabbat," or sacred oasis, within each day. Another
kavanah-enhancing technique: Make a deliberate and concerted effort to
concentrate on the prayers being recited. Focus on their literal meaning
and their imagery. Visualize. Visualize. Visualize. Try not to get
discouraged. It gets easier with practice.
And if all else fails, remember the simple but powerful words of the
Talmud (Berachos 5b): One who gives much and one who gives little are
viewed the same by G-d "provided he directs his heart to heaven." In
sports, winning is everything. But in Judaism, trying your very best can
also get you to the medal stand.
Richard Greenberg, a freelance writer in the Washington, D.C., area, is
the author of the book "Pathways: Jews Who Return," published by Jason
Aronson Inc. "Pathways" is a collection of first-person stories told by
once-assimilated Jews who came to connect with their spiritual roots.
Mr. Greenberg is available to discuss the book and related topics. He
can be reached here.
Copyright © 2000 by Richard Greenberg and Project Genesis. We welcome your comments.