Has Anyone Seen My Kavanah?


Okay, here’s the thing: while I typically possess the organizational skills of an ant with OCD, over this past year my every attempt at organization has been confounded. I believe that this is due, in large part, to my lifestyle becoming increasingly nomadic; and my resistance to this. In an effort to both conserve space and travel lightly, I was forced to consolidate my possessions down to the bare necessities (I mean, I was only able to take, like, ten to twelve pairs of shoes with me. In my world this is nearly equivalent to a social crisis.). Consequently, when high holy days crept up behind me, placed its hands over my eyes, and whispered, “guess who?” I was completely caught off guard. To say I was ill prepared for the most important holidays on the Hebrew calendar would be like saying Henry Ford was a bit put off by the Jews; or that the Middle East has one or two small issues. Shifting into seat-of-my-pants, headless-chicken mode, under which I had been operating to a much greater extent lately, I tried to remember where I had stored the things I would need for the days of awe. More specifically, I wondered when I had last seen my kavanah. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term kavanah, it is a Hebrew word meaning intention or direction of the heart and describes the state of mind one should be in while praying.

Oy gevalt! Was my Kavanah in mothballs somewhere? Where on Earth had I put it? I searched through every closet and box, finding nothing but half-finished projects and mementos of broken vows and unfulfilled oaths. I started to sweat until I remembered that I had already nullified my vows and oaths during Yom Kippur the previous year. Baruch HaShem! At least I didn’t have that to worry about. Also, I distinctly remembered having my Kavanah with me since that time. So where did I put it? Did I leave it at the shul among the prayer shawls and kippot that are provided for those who don’t have them? Perhaps it was buried deep within my storage unit, in the box containing my white Yom Kippur clothes? I was at a complete loss.

Feeling like a complete shmuck, I thought that perhaps I might skip high holy days services this year; then no one would have to know about my lost kavanah. Except that I had already requested, and was granted, a ticket for all of the services for a very meager donation. Even though I attend synagogue services sporadically, at best, the people at this shul have been very good to me, and never make me feel like the village schnorrer (beggar) that I actually am. And once again, by granting me a ticket at a ridiculously generous discount, they were extending the hand of tzedakah to me. No, not attending services was not an option. I needed some advice. In the past, when faced with an untenable situation, I typically asked myself how my dad would advise me in a given scenario. In this instance, I was sure he would have told me to “suit up and show up.” Okay…good…I could do that…probably.

When the first day of Rosh Hashanah arrived, I suited up, showed up, and listened to the beautifully plaintive call of the shofar. Even though I did my best to stay anonymous amidst the sea of people, the rabbi noticed me and proffered, along with his warm greeting, an invitation to the break-the-fast dinner that takes place at the conclusion of Yom Kippur. I accepted the invitation graciously, and hoped my nervous smile didn’t betray me. I wondered if he would have extended the invitation if he had known that my kavanah was still MIA? Sh*t! Where the f@#* was my f@#*ing kavanah? Since I had 10 days until I really needed it, I went home and promptly forgot all about it. You can imagine my horrified shock when I woke up one morning to find Yom Kippur staring me straight in the face.

Bugger! Bugger! Bugger! No kavanah in sight, and my white Yom Kippur clothes were still buried somewhere in the depths of my storage unit. I would have to wing it. In keeping with my decidedly punk personality, I made the ironic choice to wear all black.

I mean:
A) I had plenty of black clothes
B) Hell, I even had black canvas sneakers
C) Being the one black dot in a sea of white is sort of my shtick.

Once I had suited up, I went to the Kol Nidre service for the showing up portion of the evening. Guess who wasn’t with me? That’s right; Ms. Kavanah apparently had a better party to attend. The evening service passed more slowly than the line at the DMV; and the service on the following morning was even slower (it’s not like I could hide my kindle inside my Machzor; there were too many people in attendance. But I totally thought about it). It was all I could do to not run screaming to the nearest exit. That afternoon, as I was heading back to the shul for the concluding service of Neilah, I began to despair of ever seeing my kavanah again. It was during the final moments of Yom Kippur that I became really desperate; and as the gates of Heaven started to close I prayed feverishly, pleading to be written in the book of life. Suddenly, I saw something flutter in my peripheral vision. When I turned to look, guess who was sitting there looking oh-so-convivial? Yup…it was my kavanah. I was so relieved to see her that I decided I could wait until the service was over to discuss the (ahem) problem.

When the service concluded I quietly requested a word with her outside. Once we were out of earshot of the other congregants I turned on her angrily. “Where the hell have you been?” I demanded, “I’ve been looking everywhere for you since before Rosh Hashanah! You sure picked a fine time to disappear. If I don’t get written in the book of life this year, and I die, I am so taking you with me!” She looked at me as though I had lost my mind (and since I was subjecting abstract concepts, like kavanah, to anthropomorphism, perhaps I had). “Nu?” I asked her impatiently, “What do you have to say for yourself?” She contemplated for a moment and then spoke. “Wait,” she began, “you don’t actually think that I’m something that can be carelessly misplaced and forgotten, do you? Like a book or car keys?” Then under her breath she said, “And you think I’m a flake?”

Did I think that? Did I think she was like other commonplace items that are easily misplaced? She looked at me then; looked directly into my eyes, searching expectantly for contrition that wasn’t there. “You are too much!” she said, clearly exasperated. “I can’t believe I have to explain this to you. Um, I actually live inside of you!”.

Okay, that was hurtful.

”Here’s the problem. I can’t engage unless you engage me.” It was at that precise moment that it dawned on me: she was right. It wasn’t until I became desperate enough to try that she appeared. I mean, sure, suiting up and showing up is all well and good; but because I had convinced myself that kavanah was something that existed separately from me, I didn’t even try. I had been faithless and foolish. I did, however, learn something that day: the Creator has endowed each of us with plenty of kavanah. However, in order to engage it we must also have faith; and sadly, faith is in much shorter supply.

Written by Shoshana H. Hogue