Intention, Distraction and Multi-Tasking in Jewish Law

Hatred Near and Far

I am sure many of us are transfixed as scenes of violence in Israel continue to flood us. After the holy site of Kever Yosef, Jacob’s Tomb, was torched in Hebron, Mahmoud Abbas issued his first public condemnation of this recent spate of murder and mayhem, noting how these vicious acts undermine his people’s culture and religion. Unfortunately, the militant branch of his Fatah have urged the Palestinian populace on, while Hamas has called for a day of rage. We hear the expected mixed rhetoric emerging from all quarters, Israeli and Palestinian, and are reminded once again of the power and limits of our speech to transform the tinderbox of the Middle East.

Meanwhile, closer to home, our friends at the Sephardic synagogue, Ahavath Achim, woke on Wednesday to discover their synagogue walls had been “tagged” with a swastika, the president’s name (misspelled), and the number 666. I spoke with Rabbi Kaplan that morning, commiserating with him and ensuring him that Neveh Shalom stands with them during this time when they understandably feel violated.

The police don’t yet have a motive for the crime. Was it a kid being stupid, a hate crime or an unbalance individual wanting to express their displeasure about conditions in Israel? We don’t know, and may never know. What we can say is that this act has highlighted something beautiful and heartening. For while it is probably safe to say that we will never eliminate all hate crimes, the communal outpouring of support for Ahavath Achim has been unequivocal. People want them to know that this lone act does not represent Portland or its people. A stranger, seeing the swastika, took the initiative to buy white spray paint at a hardware store and gave the cans to Rabbi Kaplan shortly after he arrived at his shul.

I am hesitant to link what is happening in Israel to here at the risk of descending into platitudes. Nonetheless, in recent years after similar episodes, we American Jews have been the beneficiaries of tremendous upswell of public concern. It was not always like this, should not be taken for granted, and demands that we reciprocate by expressing unity, compassion, support and outreach to all our neighbors. We need to continue to build on Neveh Shalom’s history of commitment to those in our midst who are less fortunate. It is only by ceaseless acts of kindness, understanding and caring speech that we can prevent the infrastructure of hatred from gaining a stronger foothold.

Intention, Distraction and Multi-Tasking in Jewish Law

Whether or not we modern Jews live halakhic lives–lives that are organized around Jewish law–there is tremendous value and guidance in our legal tradition. Let’s turn our attention to two such legal concepts and see if they can shine a little light on our how we go about our days.

The first of these concepts, kavannah, which can be translated as focus, intention or concentration, is familiar to many of us. Kavannah, at a minimum, instructs us that in many ritual acts, we need to be focused on what we are doing for our act to have religious significance.

Thus, when we recite the shema, our central creed of belief in one God, we need to concentrate and direct our attention to the words we recite. It is for this reason that we have a custom to cover our eyes when we chant the shema, so that the power of sight won’t overwhelm our ability to hear and focus on the meaning and the words of the shema. If we can’t manage this level of intention or concentration, the rabbis of the Talmud and later legal authorities question whether we have actually fulfilled the mitzvah.

This same question is raised about many other ritual acts, such as hearing the shofar blown. If we listen with the intention of fulfilling the mitzvah of hearing the shofar, then we have done so. But if we merely “overhear” the shofar, we have not heard anything.

Less familiar than kavannah is its mirror opposite, hesiah da’at, or distraction. Let’s say we have our attention on a given action, but become distracted in the middle so that our minds wanders from what we were doing. What does this break in attention do to the act in which we are engaged? In many cases, our action is nullified, and we need to go back to the beginning. The most common example of this would be the act of talking after we ritually wash our hands (al netilat yadayim) in preparation to say hamotzi, the blessing over the challah. If we talk before we make that second blessing and eat the bread, our distraction negates the washing, and we would need to wash our hands a second time.

Ours is an age rife with distractions. We rarely get to work uninterrupted. Rather, we are asked to “multi-task.” The term “multi-tasking” gives the impression that we are performing two or more cognitively demanding acts simultaneously. Most of the research I have seen insists that this is not actually possible for the human brain. What our brains really are doing is switching from one action to another very quickly. With each switch, there is a break, or distraction. One study showed that while we can still effectively produce despite these interruptions, we experience heightened levels of stress and frustration, and the same amount of work takes greater effort.

As a consequence, most of us subject our minds, bodies and souls to low-level chronic stress. As a nation, we suffer from insomnia. Over time, many of us lose sensitivity to the fact that we have chronic stress. If we are fortunate, we turn to prayer, yoga or meditation to capture a handful of stress-free moments. Yet those activities, as valuable as they are, are divorced or separated from the bulk of our existence.

When we look at these Jewish concepts of intention and distraction, and what they mean for the acts we perform, we discover a rather important intuition that our ancestors captured. First, they seemed to understand that human beings can’t actually multi-task in anything non-trivial, and that any change of focus counts as an interruption. Second, and as a result of this awareness, our tradition teaches us that our actions are not always sufficient on their own. Rather, our internal states determine the quality of our experience and our deeds.

Most of us can’t readily change the external constraints of our lives. Emails, texts and babies will continue to chime, beep and cry, pulling us in multiple directions. What would it be like, if in the midst of that, we could apply these concepts of intention and distraction to our work lives and our relationships? Could we monitor ourselves and effectively reduce our stress? Could we increase the internal experience of our acts and make them “count” in a different way? I am willing to bet it’s worth a try.

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