November 2010: Kavannah

At a recent board meeting the Ritual Committee was challenged with the following question:  Why do so many people leave after the Rabbi’s sermon during the High Holidays.  We all know, of course, that there is no one answer.  People leave for all sorts of reasons, including some who simply get some fresh air and return.  The question was obviously rhetorical, the questioner an intelligent person capable of forming the obvious answers.  None the less, it is an important question.

Our High Holiday services are carried out in the traditional Conservative manner.  We use a variety of tunes within the appropriate nusach, depending on the person davening.  However, the prayers we do and the order we do them in is true to our long-standing traditions.  So, why not change?  Why not cut out “less important” prayers?   I am sure that Rabbi Scolnic could fill a book on the Halachah (laws) regarding this issue, but I’d like to look at it from a different perspective:  kavannah.  Kavannah is one of those words without an exact meaning, but it essentially refers to a state of concentration on a single idea for a period of time.  In this case, we are talking about the ability to focus on G-d and prayer.

Achieving a state of kavannah is both difficult and essential to the prayer process.  If your mind is wandering to work problems, family issues, or the people talking behind you, how can you concentrate on your discussion with G-d?  For me, I find that this meditative state only comes for a few minutes during a typical Shabbat service:  usually for a few minutes of the Amidah, for the Shema, and some of the group prayers.   The rest of the service serves as background for these few minutes.  Depending on the week, it may take all of the Shacharit service just to unwind and begin to relax.  For every minute of real kavannah, it may take 10 minutes to prepare and another few minutes to return to awareness.  Sometimes preparation comes in the form of a sermon.  Reflection on a sermon that hits particularly close to home can replace all the printed words of the silent Amidah.

It is this state of kavannah that we all reach in different ways that makes prayer meaningful and fulfilling.  And this is why services have to be a critical length.  If it takes two hours to unwind and have some meaningful reflection for Shabbat when we traditionally thank or praise G-d, how much longer must it take on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur when we reflect on a whole year’s worth of past thoughts and actions, and the future years worth of hopes and aspirations?

So why do people leave?  Many have to leave for a variety of practical reasons, including getting their children after Junior Congregation or medical issues preventing them from sitting the full time.  But what of the others?  It is my hope that they were able to reach a state of kavannah within the time they were in services and that their prayers were sincere and heartfelt.  I hope that they left feeling satisfied and complete, and that they will have a happy and healthy new year.

I would also like to send a “shout out” to all of the children that made it to the end of each High Holiday service.  When the Rabbi called you to come up at the end of Rosh Hashanah services to lead Adon Olam and claim your coveted candy rewards, we were all pleasantly surprised at the number of you that came running.  I know that many of you spent the time between Junior Congregation and the end of the services in the playground, but that is still good.  We are happy that you are having fun at the Temple, allowing your parents to take turns in services, and leading us in the best renditions of Adon Olam we have ever experienced.