Rav Aryeh Kaplan: Preparations Part Three
Setting the Atmosphere: The first requisite is setting the atmosphere. The many laws regarding the respect that one must have for the synagogue are designed to make the synagogue
a place with a worshipful, meditative atmosphere. Just walking into the synagogue should be an experience that prepares a person to commune with his Maker. Merely being there should be enough to remove all extraneous thoughts from one’s mind.
This entails developing proper synagogue habits, which begin with accepting that the synagogue is not a place for socializing. One would do well to emulate the many Sefardim who do not utter a single irrelevant word from the time they enter the synagogue until they leave. This would be an excellent to develop for its own sake, but at least attempting to keep synagogue conversation to a minimum is absolutely essential if one expects to learn how to develop kavana.
Incidentally, it may be useful to understand the word kavana before going any further. The word has variously been translated as “feeling”, “emotion”, “concentration”, or “devotion”. Its root, however, is kiven which means “to aim”, suggesting “directed consciousness” as perhaps the most literal translation of kavana. Indeed, it does consist of directing all of one’s thought towards a single goal.
Most people may find it very difficult to manage this for the entire Amida. In any case, it is the most important of the berachos, and according to the strict letter of the law, if one says it without the proper kavana, the entire Amida is not valid, and should be repeated.
As an additional consideration, concentrating on the first beracha gives one a realistic goal in tefilla. The first blessing is refered to as Avos, which literally means “fathers”, because it speaks of the perception of HaShem as attained by the Patriarchs. Actually the blessing is an introduction to achieving one’s own individual relationship with HaShem. When people ask me what the Jewish concept of G-d is on a I-Thou level, I refer them to the first blessing of the Amida. On a practical level, this first blessing serves to bring a person near HaShem and lead him into the door of the spiritual.