Our first attempt to hold כוונה for more than a few words like ברוך אתה ה and Hashem’s name where ever we encounter it will be in קריאת שמע. It bears repeating that developing כוונה in davening is a big project and no one should expect to be able to wake up one morning and maintain כוונה throughout the whole of davening. It is a habit and mindset that must be developed over time. Therefore, we are not going to go serially through קריאת שמע but will cover the first paragraph and then move to another subject so that you can have a break from the strain of maintaining כוונה.
I heard the following from R. Simcha Wasserman zt”l. When we say the words, “שמע ישראל” we should realize that we are talking to ourselves. Even a Cohen or a Levi is also a Yisrael. We are saying, “Hey, you, Jew, listen, pay attention.” It is this statement that I adapted when I mentioned by the name י-ק-ו-ה that when we have in mind אדון הכל as it says in סי’ ה of the שולחן ערוך we should bring that to ourselves with the realization that הכל includes me. We have to bring these statements to impact ourselves personally. שמע ישראל. Pay attention.
We know that during the first verse of קריאת שמע we are supposed to have in mind קבלת עול מלכות שמים. This is actually the simple understanding of the first verse. In addition to the meanings of י-ק-ו-ה as אדון הכל and היה, הוה ויהיה (Was, Is and Will Be), the name י-ק-ו-ה is Hashem’s name of Mercy. He is a merciful Master. אלקינו is Hashem’s name of Judgement – דין. So we are saying in this verse, the merciful G-d and the judgemental G-d, יקוה אחד, are one. The most loving parents must also sometimes be strict for the best of the child. So, too, we accept that both Hashem’s kindness and judgement is all kindness and that whatever He does is for our best.
When we say ואהבת, aside from pronouncing it correctly v’ahavTA with the accent at the end (to do otherwise completely reverses the meaning) we should think, “I love you, Hashem.” R. Avigdor Miller, zt”l, suggests in his shiur The Artificial Man that when passing the mezuzah, which also contains this verse, one should quietly say, “I love you, Hashem.” It doesn’t matter whether or not we have really developed the feeling of love in our relationship with Hashem. We should work on conditioning ourselves by at least saying the words, “I love you Hashem.” Here, too, during קיאת שמע when we say the words ואהבת את ה אלקיך we should think, “I love you, Hashem.”
בכל לבבך has two בs which means we should serve Hashem with both our יצר הרע and our יצר הטוב . We can use otherwise bad midos, for example, to be jealous of others who have learned more Torah than we have so as to drive ourselves to learn more. We can be angry at ourselves for having failed to keep a Torah goal that we had set for ourselves. An example of serving ה with our יצר הטוב might be to leave the בית מדרש to go help someone just at that time that our learning is so geshmak and we’re having fun. Another example happened to me recently on Shabbos. I had finished שמונה עשרה just in time for Kedusha but still had to say the paragraph of אלקי נצור. My שמונה עשרה had been amazing and Kedusha was especially beautiful and kept my eyes closed and just floated with the chazzan and finished אלקי נצור after the repetition. I asked my rav after davening if I’d been right to do so and he told me that in fact I’d been wrong. I had an obligation after Kedushah to finish my own davening through אלקי נצור.
בכל נפשך means “even if He takes your נפש,” but we need to actualize these words for ourselves. Imagine, that someone would approach you with a gun and say, “If you’re a Jew I’m going to shoot you.” You should imagine then replying, “I’m ready when you are. Go ahead and shoot.” Rav Schwab writes, “At the moment when a person resolves to allow himself to be killed for kiddush Hashem, if necessary, the resolution itself is considered as if the person had already offered his life for HaKadosh Baruch Hu.” We can thus actually perform the mitvah of Kiddush Hashem.
There are multiple interpretations of בכל מאדך but it is interesting to note that in the second paragraph of שמע there is no corresponding בכל מאדכם like there is בכל לבבכם ובכל נפשכם. The idea of בכל מאדך is personal and individual. The word מאד means very much. Rav Schwab coins the term to love Hashem “with your very muchness” – that which makes you special and unique. The suffering that a person endures, in particular, is very uniquely designed for him and no other person on Earth can understand what the person is experiencing. Accepting one’s suffering with love for Hashem is an opportunity to bond the uniqueness of the individual with the uniqueness of Hashem on a level even higher than בכל נפשך.
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