The Kabbalistic notion of kavanah means intention or desire. It is associated with the inner feeling or motivation to do something. It is rather mysterious, difficult to grasp completely, because it is totally subjective. Rarely is it possible to intuit what another person is truly feeling when they perform any activity. True, sometimes it is reflected in an obvious facial gesture or visible reluctance to do the activity. But more often, it is hidden, internal.
The activity is most associated with prayer. Anyone can read the words, go through the motions, while actually thinking about where they are going for dinner, the football game they are planning to watch, or the attractive woman in the next aisle. We often forget this, concentrating on the precise performance of ritual or prayer itself.
There is a fascinating Kabbalistic story about a small synagogue in Eastern Europe in the days before Hitler on one of the High Holidays, Yom Kippur, the most solemn day of the year for observant Jews. All the men were praying in their usual fashion, saying the words, speaking to each others, looking around. A young boy who had just begun to study the Hebrew alphabet began to shout out the letters, one after the other. It was obvious to all that he did had not yet learned the prayers.
The boy’s father tried to keep him quiet, ‘shushhing’ him as he continued to yell the alphabet as loudly as he could.
The elderly rabbi, seeing the commotion actually did something totally unheard of–he stopped the services. Everyone became quite alarmed. They had never seen anything like it. The rabbi climbed off the bimah and walked straight to the boy and his father. The father was literally sweating and shaking, this rabbi was held in such esteem.
Appearing like a Biblical prophet, the holy man with a flowing white beard and dressed in total white tallis and robes looked at both of them and said. How dare you try to quite this young boy. He may not know the words but because he prays from such kavanah, the heavens are open for all of your prayers!
I find that story completely compelling. I also know the proverb that the ‘road to hell is paved with good intentions’. And clearly intention alone is impotent. But It demonstrates that it is our intention to do good, to perform acts of kindness, to offer charity when someone asks for it, in other words–to heal–cares spiritual power not only to those who receive but to those who give.