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Shemini: Kavana in the Performance of Mitzvot: Causes and Effects

Kavana expresses inner emotion through free choice. The Tosafot in Pesachim 115 that begins “Rav Chisda attacked his argument” analyzes the application of Kavana: “Because

in relation to eating, we do not require Kavana to such an extent as we require it in prayer or in sounding the shofar, and therefore also we do not bring here the braitot that we bring there, where Kavana is required. Regarding Tefillah and Tekiat Shofar, more Kavana is required as I have explained.” 

From this Tosafot we see what seems to be a clear division between Mitzvot that are a performed act, and Mitzvot that entail speaking or praying. With a Mitzvah act, awareness of the act extends across the entire duration of the act. It is almost certain that consciousness and awareness were present during the act, and therefore there is no need for a deliberate effort of awareness.

However, a Mitzvah that depends on speech, that entails no actual deed, requires Kavana even according to the mahn d’amar, the opinion that Mitzvot do not require Kavana. After all, what value is there in mere talk, in speech that has no intention behind it? 

Kavana in Mitzvot seems to divide into two stages. The first stage is the simple consciousness of the fact that the act one is performing is being performed because it is a Mitzvah; that it is not simply a random act.

At the second stage, Kavana relates to the inner content of the Mitzvah – as in Pesachim 108, where we find that eating matzah and drinking four cups of wine requires awareness of the reason for these acts. Consciousness must be focused on the sensation of freedom – on moving from slavery into liberty. Here Kavana appears to devolve on the inner meaning of the Mitzvah. 

It is relevant to mention at this point that the requirement of the higher stage of Kavana, where one is meant to focus on the inner content and meaning of the Mitzvah, does not refer to the specific kavanot that have been cited and itemized in the sacred literature. Rather it refers to the individual’s personal participation in the Mitzvah. It refers to the individual’s inward experience, to his emotions, to the extent that he is willing to identify himself with the Mitzvah – to express his dvaikut to the Mitzvah through performance of the Mitzvah. 

By way of the Mitzvah he expresses his dvaikut to God; his dvaikut acquires physical tangibility through the act of Mitzvah.

Kavana does not refer to ideas written in books, that do not derive from one’s own heart. It refers to taking emotional initiative, through free choice; one’s heart moves toward the Mitzvah – one’s emotions reach out to a specific Mitzvah. 

From this perspective we can better understand the very problematic issue of the sin of Nadav and Avihu. Aharon’s sons are punished for drunkenness, for they have drunk wine. Why was the fact that they “offered an alien fire” not a sufficient sin? Why did Hazal have to add that they were drunk on wine? 

Perhaps if they had added their own qualitative inner feeling to the Mitzvah, meaning the addition of Kavana through an initiative of free choice, they might not have been punished but rather rewarded. Even if this inner intention of free choice had swept in its wake a fire added by human hands, uncommanded by God, nevertheless the deficiency was in their being drunk. Their minds were not clear enough to contain the inner intentions of Kavana, the conscious awareness required by bechira, the Kavana that would have been appropriate, that would have made them worthy of adding a kedusha supplement of their own, as “gavra” adds to “heftsa” – as a subjective human being may enhance an objective Mitzvah, as discussed by the Ramban in Parashat Tzav in relation to the haza’ot.

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