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Home » Va'etchanan

Vaetchanan: Pay Attention

Submitted by on August 15, 2016 – 11:49 pmNo Comment | 3,319 views

Shema Yisrael

The best known verse in the Torah is the declaration of Jewish faith, Shema Yisrael, “hear O’ Israel, G-d is our Lord G-d is one.”[1] It is part of our liturgy and is recited four times a day. It is the verse with which countless Jews faced their death at the hands of the Babylonians, the Romans, the Crusaders, the Pogroms and the Holocaust. And it all begins with the word, Shema – listen, pay attention.

It is admittedly not the only time this word is used in the Torah, but it is the only prayer in our liturgy that begins with this word. It is so important that G-d wants to make sure we are paying attention. Before it begins, He tells us to ignore every distraction and to listen. Make sure you get it. Pay attention.

It is ironic, but true that when we are called upon to concentrate, we often find it difficult. It is hard to pay attention on command. We can focus all day long, but the moment we need to focus, we lose it. When we are told what to think, we stop thinking. When we are told not to think, we start thinking.

Prayer is one of those times when we are commanded to pay attention. We are told that prayer is a devotion of the heart.[2] When the people in ancient times repented by rote, G-d appeared to the prophet Joel and said, “Return to me with all your heart. Rend your hearts, not your garments.”[3]

Yet, it is difficult to pay attention during prolonged prayer. The mouth mumbles and the mind wanders. Before long, only our mouths are praying. Our hearts are all over the place.

Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz uses a wonderful metaphor to describe the problem. Imagine, he wrote, that someone built a beautiful house and filled it with expensive furniture except that he forgot to attach a roof. The house looks wonderful, but by the next rainfall it will all go to ruin. Similarly, we gather in the synagogue, open the prayer book and read the words, but if our minds aren’t focused, if we are open to distraction – open minded – then the distractions will fall in and ruin our prayers.

Another metaphor that he offers is inviting your boss to dinner. Suppose you are hoping for a promotion and to make an impression, you invite your boss to dinner except that you have a scheduling conflict. So you set the table, put out the food and leave a sign on the door to explain your absence and to invite your boss to make himself at home. The dinner is there, the table is set and the guest has arrived, but the head of the table is missing.

So too, the prayer is there, the book is there, the synagogue is there, but if the mind isn’t focused, the head is missing.[4]

This is why we need to be jolted back to our prayers from time to time. It is not surprising that the mind wanders, but when we notice that we have wandered, it is incumbent on us, to bring ourselves back. This is the deeper meaning of the word, Shema, listen. Pay attention. You might have been distracted for the last few minutes, but this is important so pay attention.

Gather Your Soul

A more mystical way of putting it is to gather the scattered dimensions of our soul.[5] The word Shema, means to listen, but it can also mean to gather. It is only used in this context on rare occasions,[6] but it is one of the word’s alternate meanings.

When we speak of our faith in G-d, we want it to permeate every level of our being. We want to declare our faith with our minds, our emotions and our psyche. We want it to percolate through our thoughts, words and actions. We want it to reach our depths and we want it to cover our surface. It comes from the essence and should be all pervasive.

Shema, gather all the elements of your being and proclaim as a single organism that G-d is one.

Here too we can apply the concept to the distractions that we suffer during prayer. On a very basic level, we need to gather ourselves. During prayer, our minds can worry about where to take a client for lunch, our hearts are concerned with the latest fight we had with our spouse and our desires are filled with temptations. Our thoughts are fixated on the news we heard in the morning, our eyes wander about taking in everyone else in the room and our hands are busily playing with whatever is handy.

We are scatterbrained. All over the place. We have to gather ourselves in. Bring your mind back from lunch, your heart back from your spouse, your desires back from temptation, your thoughts back from the news, your eyes back from spying on others and your hands back from meaningless actions. Shema – gather your whole being and make a holistic declaration. G-d is our Lord, G-d is one.

Welcome Home

The Baal Shem Tov taught that we are, where our thoughts are.[7] If I am thinking about home, I am at home. If I am thinking about Spain, I am in Spain. If my thoughts are in Australia, that is where I am.

A well-known rabbi would stand at the exit of the sanctuary after prayer to bid everyone farewell. He once noticed that one of his parishioners was distracted during prayer and when he greeted him later at the door, he said, welcome home. The parishioner was surprised because he hadn’t traveled anywhere. But the Rabbi explained, we are where our thoughts are and during prayer your thoughts were all over the world. You have now returned home so welcome home.

Indeed, during the course of prayer we might visit multiple cities. Part of us might be in Israel, another part in Romania and yet another part in St. Louis. You might have touched down in Europe, passed over Asia and paid a visit to New Zealand.

If at that moment someone tells you listen, it would be in vain. How could you listen to one person in one place if you are in so many places?

This is why Shema has two meanings. First to gather, then to listen. Gather your thoughts and all your dimensions so that you are in one place and ready to focus. Now that you have returned, now that you are here, welcome home. We are about to declare our faith in G-d. G-d is our Lord, G-d is one. So Shema, pay attention. It is time to listen

[1] Deuteronomy 6: 4.

[2] Sifri on Deuteronomy 11: 13.

[3] Joel 2: 12-13.

[4] Hassidur V’hatefilah, chapter on Kavanah.

[5] Likutei Torah, Devarim p. 11 as sulci dated by Rabbi Shlomo Y Zevin in L’Torah Ul’moadim.

[6] For example see Samuel I 15: 4.

[7] Keter Shem Tov, Kehat, New York, Additions, ch. 38.

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