Finding meaning through action

Completing a task without understanding the rationale for your actions is one of the most difficult things we ask children (and sometimes adults) to do. We ask children to do this all the time when we ask them to listen without questioning, or to follow instructions without an explanation. Why should anyone put themselves fully into actions that they don’t understand? The heart of this question is about faith and trust. If I trust that there is a good reason for me to follow the instructions as written, then I am likely to follow them, even if I don’t understand them. If I don’t, then I have no real motivation to listen at all. Judaism, with its heavy focus on ritual behaviors and actions, has an interesting perspective on this important question, and it has to do with with prayer and commandments:

I’ve been thinking about these two central aspects of prayer that we teach students at Gesher – Kevah & Kavanah.

Kevah comes from a Hebrew root meaning fixed, stable, or rooted, and refers to the aspects of prayer that root us – the familiar tunes and body motions, the call and response of leader and congregation, the order of the prayers in the service, the words that are repeated each time we pray – the routine.

Kavanah comes from the Hebrew word Kivun, which means direction (like “the store is that direction”), but in this context refers to intention or meaning. We sometimes begin specific prayers or parts of the service by offering a Kavanah, an intention or direction to help guide our thoughts and emotions. This aspect of prayer involves spontaneity, introspection, mindful reflection, and spiritual connection.

One last thread to introduce, and then I will tie these three all together…stay with me. This week’s Torah portion contained two of the most important words, conceptually, that in many ways define Judaism throughout the ages – Na’aseh (we will do) and Nishma (we will hear). These words are the response of the Hebrews to the laws they are given at Mount Sinai, and the response is given in this order: first, we will do; second, we will hear.

A traditional interpretation of this phrase is that it is only through the doing that eventual understanding is achieved. This takes faith – sometimes this is hard for adults, who are used to a significant degree of autonomy. Kids, however, really GET this message – they are asked to do things they don’t understand all the time!

Back to Kevah/Kavanah. In prayer, this tension between the routine and the spontaneous can be a challenging experience. How can I allow my thoughts and emotions to wander and find meaning if I have do the same things in the same order all the time? Saying Hebrew words I barely understand isn’t likely to help me find transcendence, is it?

Here again, it is through the routine doing (and saying or singing) that we eventually create the space we need to allow true Kavanah (meaning) to occur. Just as Yogis achieve mindfulness by putting their bodies into exact poses, Jewish prayer is designed to be exact and repetitive, so that eventually, the act of prayer comes so naturally that it allows your mind, body, and spirit space to explore.

I guess the point is really this – it takes practice – you have to trust that by doing, you will eventually come to understanding. This is one (among many) reasons we pray together at school. Through the practice, we come closer and closer to understanding and meaning. Ask your children about their experiences with prayer. They might be interested in the reasons you do or do not engage in this practice. Perhaps you can learn from each other.

Shabbat Shalom,