Va'era - Focus

Art by Maggidah Shoshannah Brombacher, Ph.D.
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“..and cast it down before Pharaoh, that it become a serpent.” (Parasha Va’era; Exodus 7:9)

G!d is speaking to both Moses and Aaron here, giving Aaron instructions on how to proceed in the upcoming “battle of magic” with the Egyptians. Note, the ‘serpent’ is not a snake – nachas – but a kind of large sea creature – tannin – that seem almost mythological in their great size. The midrash says:

We have learnt: One who is praying must not return the greeting even of a king; and even if a snake has entwined itself round his heel, he must not cease.

Midrash Rabbah – Exodus IX:3

This seems to be a simple injunction, only peripherally related to the text. Even the midrash changes the word from ‘serpent’ to ‘snake,’ perhaps to make the practical version seem more “realistic.”

I believe there are parallel lessons here. The first, at the p’shat – simple, explicit – level is that prayer requires focused intent – kavannah – in order to allow us to achieve the greatest result. If we can pray with such concentration that even a king’s command, or warriors swirling around us, or a snake biting at our heel cannot distract us, how wonderful that would be!

For the next step, go back to the story for a moment: Here stands Aaron, about to confront Pharaoh, knowing that his staff is going to turn into a huge, monstrous sea serpent. And when he does, a gaggle of Pharaoh’s magicians do the same: Loch Ness monsters writhing around everyone! And through it all, Aaron has the composure not to break his concentration, staying with the moment, until his monster swallows all the others. What prodigious kavannah! How can we ever hope to achieve this?

For me, the answer lies in part in ritual. For example, when I davven (pray) in the morning, I have come to think of my preparations – donning gartle (prayer belt), tallit (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) – as donning a kind of protective armor. Not to guard myself from the world of spirit, but from the material world and its calls upon me. In this way, it has become easier for me to make the transition into the world of prayer filled with more kavannah.

What rituals do you use – with or without objects – to deepen your kavannah and encounter with Spirit?

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