Praying With Understanding

מצוות צריכות כוונה
Jewish Sages debated widely the subject of the mental state that a person must have —or achieve—when he or she is fulfilling a Tora commandment. When we fulfill a positive Mistva, say, wearing the Tefillin, is it necessary to think about what we are doing? Or the act itself, even if it is not accompanied by a thought, is enough? The conclusion of the Rabbis was מצוות צריכות כוונה, the commandments must be done with “consciousness” (kavana) and a completely mechanical performance is not enough.
Let us see some examples or levels of “consciousness”.
1. INTENT.Firstly, we need a basic “intent” to fulfilling a Mitsva. Let’s think of an extreme example: if I put on the Tefillin to take a selfie wearing a Tefillin, would this be considered that I have performed the Mitsva of Tefillin just because I put it on? The response of the Sages is NO. The elemental intention of performing a Mitsva is a condition sine qua none.
2. ATTENTION. Let us see now a higher level of “consciousness”. What happens if I fulfill a Mitsva but I am totally distracted from it? This is also questionable. When carrying out any precept, it is necessary to withdraw from all distractions, and focusing in what we are doing. Thus, besides “intention” we also need to pay “attention” to the Mitsvot. That is why our Sages established the berakhot, blessings that we recite before fulfilling a positive Mitsva. We say, “Blessed are You, HaShem our God, Sovereign of the World, who has sanctified us with His commandments and ordered us to wear the Tefillin.” When we recite this and other blessings we explicitly declare our intention about what we are about to do and we “reset” our attention, focusing on what we are doing. Since “attention” is so important, the Rabbis of the Gemara excused certain people from the obligation to fulfill a Mitsva in special circumstances, because it would be virtually impossible to reach the necessary attention. For example, the groom is exempt from the recitation of Shema Israel on the night of his wedding.
3. UNDERSTANDING. In addition to “intention” and “attention”, we also have to reach a level of “understanding”. This level is especially important when it comes to the fulfillment of a Mitsva that is carried out with words: for example, praying the Amida or reciting the Shema Israel. It is not enough to pronounce words to have satisfactorily fulfilled a Mitsva; it is also necessary to understand what we are saying. Incidentally: in the world of idolatrous rituals or in acts of magic, “words” contain an intrinsic “power” like the unlocking charm which causes a door to open, or the numberless spells of Harry Potter.  When we pray, words have significance only when they are accompanied by a thought, and ideally, also by a feeling. The Sages criticized those who pray only with their lips, emitting sounds rather than producing words. And remind us that the Tora asks us to pray with our heart. When praying, we meditate on the content of the words, letting these ideas mold our mind and reshape our feelings.
This critical process of spiritual growth is not possible unless we understand the meaning of the words we are saying. Therefore, we must make a conscious effort to learn them.
We will start from the “Shema Israel”.
(To be continued….)