I have been thinking a lot about Kavanah lately. Kavanah is a Hebrew term that is used to refer to the meaning and focus one has in prayer. Kavanah literally means 'direction' - as with everything in life, prayer needs a direction or focus to be meaningful. It is interesting that many Jews view prayer as lines read out of a Hebrew textbook - whether or not you understand their meaning - and don't try to focus on the meaning of the words to find parallels to their own lives.
At the same time, there are those that pray in the classic sense - that is, they give thanks for their lives and request for their needs, but somehow ignore the liturgy as they don't see the relevance. While they may not have the textbook elements of prayer, their prayers are potentially more meaningful because of the personal element.
Don't get me wrong - I am not, heaven forbid, discounting the value of our liturgy, but
I think that both of these approaches are lacking. Many years ago in college I met someone who made me realize that their are many Jews out their who are connected with Judaism spiritutally and culturally but not ritually. While I think that it is great that all Jews find a connection to our religion and to G-d, I ultimately came to this realization - the spiritual and ritual practices of Judaism combine to form their own equilibrium. While the balance will be different for most people, one is useless without the other, and that, during prayer, is where Kavanah comes in.
As I pray, I try to focus on the words set out by our great sages of centuries ago, and fit their meaning to my everyday life. To help you visualize this imagine you have a document in a language that you can't read, and you ask two friends of yours to translate it for you independent of one another. It is more than likely that their translations will differ at least a little bit - even if they have similar backgrounds and levels of fluency in that language. Why does this happen? Because their translation includes their perspective as well. And, IMVHO, so must your understanding of the prayers you say.
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