being and doing, kavanah and mitsvah

i turned to jeff aitken the other day in search of some guidance in prayers for beginning and ending the waking parts of my days. in his helpful response he introduced me to the hebrew word/practice, kavannah. his description of this practice moved me to learn more and i turned to abraham joshua heschel's book, god in search of man: a philosophy of judaism.

what i found deeply moves me, relates to the post on attention, and highlights for me a distinction between being and doing.
What is meant by the term kavanah? In its verbal form the original meaning seems to be: to straighten, to place in a straight line, to direct. From this it came to mean to direct the mind, to pay attention, to do a thing with an intention. The noun, kavanah, denotes meaning, purpose, motive and intention.

Kavanah, then, includes first of all, what is commonly called intention, namely the direction of the mind towards the accomplisment of a particular act, the state of being aware of what we are doing, of the task we are engaged in. In this sense, kavanah is the same as attentiveness....

To have kavahah means, according to a classical formulation, "to direct the heart to the Father in heaven." The phrasing does not say direct the heart to the "text" or to the "content of the prayer."...Kavanah is attentiveness to God. Its purpose is to direct the heart rather than the tongue or the arms. It is not an act of the mind that serves to guide the external action, but one that has meaning in itself.
i understand this to say that being, in a fully present sense, is synonymous with directing the heart to god/spirit/oneness. and with such direction, such a straight, direct line of connection, meaning, purpose, motive and intention become clear along with a profound state of being aware of what we are doing and what we are engaged in. heschel goes on to discuss appreciation, mitsvah, and what i see as the more doing component.
mitsvah means commandment. In doing a mitsvah our primary awarenss is the thought of carrying out that which He commanded us to do, and it is such awareness which places our action in the direction of the divine. Kavanah in this sense is not the awarenss of being commanded but the awareness of Him who commands;...the awarenss of God rather than the awareness of duty. Such awareness is more than an attitude of the mind; it is an act of valuation or appreciation of being commanded, of living in a covenant, of an opportunity to act in agreement with God.
i take a mitsvah to be an action guided by god. to me, this statement illucidates the primary aim of acting upon our passions, the wishes and desires of our true selves. our true selves are always pointing in the direction of the divine. heschel continues,
It is in such appreciation that we realize that to perform is to lend form to a divine theme; that our task is to set forth the divine in acts, to express the spirit in tangible forms. For a mitsvah is like a musical score, and its perfomance is not a mechanical accomplishment but an artistic act...it is not enough to play the notes; one must be what he plays. it is not enough to do the mitsvah; one must live what he does...the holiness in the mitsvah is only open to him who knows how to discover the holiness in his own soul.
let's join together in our task to set forth the divine in acts, to express the spirit in tangible forms, to bring light to humanity.


thanks for this ashley - i love the idea of beginning and ending the day with 'being'!
penny | Email | 07.01.04 - 10:30 pm | #


sure thing, penny. and how about the aspiration of the whole day in 'being'!

with love, of course,
ashley | Email | Homepage | 07.02.04 - 2:41 am | #


oh my, yes! i'm practicing! but i have been more aware lately that all there is is current reality...and so being present in each moment, i find that when a decision needs to be made, i know instinctively how to make it. little kids are really good at this - lots to teach. which reminds me of something i just read that buckminster fuller said: 'children are our elders in universal time... because they've come into a more evolved world as more evolved beings.' lots of love to you too! p
penny | Email | 07.03.04 - 2:26 pm | #

posted by ashley

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