"An old story tells of the Baal Shem Tov coming to a synagogue and turning back at the door, unable to enter. Too many prayers inside, he said.

" 'But Master,' asked his disciples, 'surely a room full of prayer is a good thing?'

" 'But all the prayers are stuck there in the building,' the Baal Shem answered. 'None of them are going up to Heaven.'

"You might get this feeling today. Clergy and congregants together might be dutifully singing and reciting — but somehow the prayer has no wings. You still feel uninspired. Maybe you've known the peace that can sometimes follow real prayer. Maybe you have prayed until you were drained and exhausted, for yourself or for someone you love. Maybe you've been there when a room full of people have managed to leave their individual preoccupations behind and are singing and swaying and making a joyful noise unto the Lord. If you've been blessed with such an experience, then you may have some sense of what the Baal Shem Tov mean. Sometimes we're transformed, and sometimes we're not.

"That's why we talk about kavanah.

"Jewish prayer begins with kavanah. To daven with kavanah means to pray with focus, intention, meaning. It means praying from the heart, rather than prayer centered solely in the mind. Celebrating a Shabbos or a holiday with kavanah gives that day a deeper, richer texture. Kavanah gives meaning to our rituals of marriage and birth and death. It inspires us to perform a mitzvah on a more conscious and ultimately more rewarding level. Kavanah lies at the heart of Jewish devotional life. That one word encompasses an entire body of inner work necessary to live consciously in the presence of God.

"Our Jewish path to inner awareness begins with kavanah. Our meditative lives as Jews could not be complete without it, for it is the steering wheel of all inner consciousness work. Our inner search for kavanah might at first be satisfied with a momentary boost of intention. Ultimately, though, we want our kavanah to be transformational. We seek a complete realignment of the soul, a mesirut nefesh — a handing over of the soul to God's work. We wish to become the very intention and kavanah of God."