March 10, 2023
Typically, when we do something repeatedly, the action just feels rote. We fall into old habits and when we engage in the action, autopilot kicks in and we do what we’ve always done. Generally, when we ride a bicycle, whether outdoors or indoors, our leg motions are typically in an even pattern. I have been riding an indoor spin bike regularly for 4 years and typically I ride in a standard 1-2-1-2 rhythm with my legs. When we ride like that, we typically generate our power with the same leg each time. Earlier this week, the Peloton instructor with whom I was riding chose music in a waltz rhythm for the entire 45-minute class. The rhythm was 1-2-3, 1-2-3. He told us to ride so that we would alternate the legs that drive the power right-2-3, left-2-3. For 45-minutes as I rode the bike, I sat there huffing and puffing saying 1-2-3, 1-2-3 in my head doing my best to alternate the drive with my legs. Not only did it change the physical output, but the mental focus was tremendous as I had to really pay attention for every stroke of my legs. This action was that much harder because it was out of the ordinary from what I was used to.
As I was riding, I kept thinking about the importance of focus and how we cannot fall into the traps of what we typically do. This is even more true in the moments when we are trying to change the behaviors that we normally do. It reminded me of the Jewish notion of kavanah. In his book “Making Prayer Real,” Rabbi Mike Comins explains that kavanah might be rendered as intention, focus, concentration, purpose, or sincerity. Its origin actually comes from archery, in which we aim the arrow towards the target. In modern Hebrew, Comins adds, it is used for tuning an instrument. As I think about this term, I reflect on the notion of intention. We require intention with any action. Intention starts us off in the right direction, but that is not enough. We then require focus; focus allows us to keep going in that same direction and prevents us from veering off course. While we mostly use this term today to connect with prayer, the rabbis of the Mishnah also used this to talk about actions. They said that the Priests in the ancient temple had to always be focused on the offering they were giving at a certain time. If they were doing all the actions for a burnt offering but were thinking about the sin offering they just did for my neighbor, then my burnt offering isn’t valid.
It is quite difficult to bring that level of focus to everything we do. However, our tradition challenges us to think about the meaning we might derive from an action when we do bring a certain level of kavanah – an intention and focus. Such intention also brings about the potential for us to change habits we wish to change. Whether we are bringing kavanah to the words we say, the relationships we have, or the things we do, the result will be a better sense of purpose. As we enter this Shabbat, may we all be able to “keep our eyes on the ball” and bring a sense of kavanah to what we do so we can add meaning, purpose, and holiness to our lives.
Rabbi Rick Kellner