Spiritual teachings sometimes flow from the most unlikely sources. One of my teachers this year has been Margo. I don’t actually know Margo. I’ve never seen her, never met her, and never will. Yet I often listen to her at crucial moments during my day. “Margo” is the name I have given to the voice speaking to me from the Global Positioning System in my Prius.
I have learned to enter an address I am seeking, and then let Margo guide me on my way. Sometimes I misinterpret her directions and make the wrong turn. She never yells at me, never criticizes. Instead, she simply begins to guide me back on the right path from wherever I have gone astray. For one as directionally challenged as I, Margo is a great guide.
Of course, Margo’s guidance requires that I know where I want to go. Entering the destination is my responsibility alone. There is nothing Margo can do without receiving a destination chosen by me.
The metaphor of “Margo” and the GPS relates to more aspects of life than driving. There are many guides to help us along our way, but it is required that we commit ourselves to destinations we desire to achieve. And there is no other time of the year that calls us to consider our destinations as powerfully as the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days in which we now find ourselves.
This year, the Bet Alef Meditative Synagogue community and I have been celebrating the 40th anniversary of my rabbinic ordination. Doing so challenged me to look back on the rather unusual rabbinic career that I have enjoyed.
One of the things that I was reminded about was the Jewish journal process, Sefer Kavvanah: A Book of Jewish Spiritual Direction, which I self-published in 1977. As I looked again at those pages, I was reminded of the enduring importance of kavvanah, the Hebrew word for “intention,” or “direction.”
One of the great teachers of the Kabbalah, the tradition at the heart of Jewish mysticism, was Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746), known as the Ramchal, the Hebrew acronym of his name. He taught that the energies of our sacred seasons build up over time, so that whenever we celebrate those holy days, we enter into a greatly expanded field of spiritual energy. The Ramchal wrote in Derech Ha-Shem:
Any achievement that was attained, any great light that radiated at a certain time — when that time comes around again, the radiance of that light will shine again and the fruits of that achievement will be available, for whoever is there to receive them.
The “radiance of that light” does not itself know the destinations toward which it will be channeled. We are the beings who choose the goals, and our intentions, or kavvanot, provide the pipelines through which that holy energy can manifest in our world.
If we receive that additional influx of energy while focusing on negative thoughts and images, that energy flows in support of possible realities reflecting that negativity. When we are focused on our higher intentions, that radiance is given channels through which a deeper fulfillment of self and of other can be supported.
Our conscious choice of intention is crucial, and this season is perfect for such kavvanot. But it is crucial to know that kavvanah is not simply another “New Year’s Resolution.” True kavvanah is not a wish or a want—it is a direction toward which we focus the energies of our awareness. Here is one way to frame your kavvanah (or kavvanot) to carry with you into this New Year of 5769:
1. Identify your intention. What is it you really wish to manifest in your life or in your world this year? In what ways would you like to contribute to greater compassion and deeper healing of self and of other? What gifts would you wish to bring to those who are most precious to you?
2. State your intention in the present tense. If we hold our kavvanot in the form of “I want” or “I need” or “I wish,” then the energy of awareness with which we are gifted at this season will support the “wanting,” the “needing,” and the “wishing,” rather than the reality of the conditions, the experiences, and the feelings which we are seeking. After discovering a kavvanah, practice phrasing it as a current reality rather than as a wished-for reality.
So instead of writing (and it is helpful to write our kavvanot as well as to verbalize them) the intentions as hoped-for states of being, write them as if they were already achieved. “I wish to be more patient with my partner (or children, or parents, etc.),” needs to be translated to a current reality: “I am more patient now with my partner.”
The present-tense affirmation of a kavvanah provides the pipeline through which the special radiance of this season can flow to support our highest intentions.
3. Practice living your intention. Imagine what it would be like if you actually achieve your intention. Practicing the state desired — imagining acting, for example, with greater patience, with greater compassion, with greater clarity — provides a direct pipeline for the radiance of a sacred season to support your intended goal.
Setting a kavvanah, a clear intention, allows us to focus on the world we want rather than becoming mired in qualities that cause us anguish. Working with our kavvanot provides a specific way to honor the energies of these Holy Days. It all begins with a simple question: What is my intention for this New Year? What would I like to do? What would I like to share? What would I like to be? Our responses provide the first step toward engaging the kavvanah process.
There is another teaching that I receive from Margo. When I press the “map” button, the screen shows me my current location, and that tells me that I am connected to something beyond what I can perceive with my senses. It reminds me that we are all connected to something far greater than even a global positioning system. We are connected to the One Presence, One Life, and One Being of this universe. And we are challenged to take responsibility for the ways in which we channel greater energy that is available to us.
It gives me hope for a year of deeper meaning and celebration. May it be so for us all.