The Secret of Concentration

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Ha-Azinu 5774 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Question: How can one increase one’s concentration in prayer, study, and life in general?

Answer: As with all such questions, there are two closely-related approaches: the lofty and the down-to-earth. The lofty approach involves achieving an elevated understanding. The down-to-earth approach means accustoming oneself to the way things work on the ground.


The Lofty Approach: Understanding

Understanding is a supreme ideal, as is explained in Rav Kook’s treatise Mussar Avicha, in the chapter, “Bechol Derachecha Da’ehu”. Whatever one does, G-d is present there. We must therefore do everything to the best of our ability.

There are two interpretations to the verse, “In all your ways, acknowledge Him” (Mishlei 3:6). The broader interpretation is that G-d can be found in everything. The narrower interpretation is that whenever a person does something good, G-d is there at that moment and not elsewhere. When a person prays, G-d is there with him in his prayer. At that moment, he won’t find G-d through Torah learning or kind deeds.

When a person is learning Torah, G-d is with him in his learning. At that moment, he won’t find G-d through prayer or kind deeds.

When a person is doing kind deeds, G-d is with him in his kind deeds. That is not the time to pray or study.

As the Talmud explains (Berachot 10), even though Torah study transcends prayer, when one is praying, he must to pray and not study Torah. There is a time for study and a time for prayer.

What is the source of Rav Kook’s idea? It is the concept of Tzimtzum, so to speak, the idea that G-d can limit Himself. Even though the Master-of-the-Universe transcends the universe and precedes the universe, when He does something, He limits Himself, so to speak, to that act. When G-d speaks with Avraham, He is not doing anything else at that moment (obviously, all this is from our perspective). A human being has to limit himself in what he does. This is in stark contrast to conventional “wisdom”, which praises the person who does a thousand things at once, like the butterfly that flits from flower to flower every second.

Such is the new fashion of the past five hundred years, which comes as a response to Christian pressure and terrible coercion. We can understand the response, but one needn’t exaggerate. A person has to decide for himself what to do, but whatever it is, he should do it well. Obviously, one is allowed to change his mind, but not as a habit or an ideal.

Therefore, one has to understand the major importance of concentration. You don’t have to dance at every wedding to know all there is to know, or to work in every profession. Focus on whatever you do. Concentrate and do it well. If you are a physician, be an excellent physician. If you learn Torah, be an excellent Torah learner.

There’s the story of the person who invited a friend to a meal.

“How is Uncle Eliyahu?” the host asked.

“He died,” the guest responded.

“So Aunt Sarah is alone?” the host continued.

“She died too,” was the reply.

“What? She died too? Heaven help us!” said the host, and he could eat no more.

Afterwards he asked, “What do you do for a living?” and the guest replied, “I work in your Uncle Eliyahu’s carpentry shop.”

“But you said he died!” cried the host.

“When I am eating, the whole world is dead,” said the guest. “Let a person eat in peace.”

One has to eat, so let him eat the way he must. Not like the wife who simultaneously eats, nurses, cooks, does laundry, chases down a child, gives another child a bath and calls her mother-in-law and gives her advice.

One must understand there is nothing ideal about doing a lot of things at once.

Whatever you do, do it well.

The Talmud in Arachin 11b illustrates this point. It teaches that in the Temple, some of the Levi’im served as Temple choir members while others served as gate keepers, and it rules that a Levite who served as a choir member was forbidden to fill in for a gate keeper. In fact, if he did so, he incurred the death penalty.


The Down-to-Earth Approach: Accustoming Ourselves

If you don’t succeed in concentrating during prayers, accustom yourself to it gradually. Start by concentrating on one blessing of the Eighteen Benedictions. Every week, gradually add something. In the Army this is called using an “exertion scale”. A soldier is not told on the first day to take forty kilograms on his back and to run forty kilometers. On the first day he takes a single kilogram and runs one kilometer, and so forth.

Is it hard for you to concentrate when you study? Take it slow. It isn’t working for you? Take a water break and then try again, or study something different. Bit by bit, get used to concentrating. There are a lot of people with attention deficits who have still become Torah scholars.

Is it hard for you to concentrate in life? The same applies. Every step must be gradual.

Going bit by bit, you can overcome all of your problems.

This goes for everything in life. When you marry a woman, no other woman exists after that. As Adam said after he married Eve, “All the other women are monkeys.” “But,” you’ll say, “I’ve still got a girl friend from my youth movement.” She’s not a girl friend! She doesn’t exist! She’s a monkey. That’s what is called the down-to-earth approach. Accustom yourself.

Obviously, in order for one to be motivated to accustom himself, he must have understanding. He needs a lofty atmosphere. That’s important.

Summary: Whatever you do, do it well, increasing your effort gradually. Then, you will surely succeed!