As each of us in the Western world first encounters it, we think of Mindfulness as a relatively recent concept. In point of fact, it has its roots in practices that are thousands of years old. To some it may seem trendy or bohemian. But I think that Mindfulness is actually built into the very fabric of Judaism.
As I pass through this season of Chagim, I have started to think more about Mindfulness in Judaism. It began as an amusing, almost mocking thought, while reciting the Amida during the Aseret Ymei Tshuva. “It must be,” I thought, as I panicked, trying to remember whether I had inserted one of the extra psukim, or remembered to say HaShalom instead of just Shalom, “that the Anshei Knesset HaGedola instituted these subtle text changes in the Amida to keep us on our toes during those ten days of the year.” “Pay Attention!” they seemed to scream from across the millennia, “Don’t operate on automatic, at least not during these few days. Surely you can focus yourself for this little blip of time!” It conjured up visions of an old Cheder Rebbe urging their young charges to keep their finger on the place. While I have always especially loved the addition of LeDavid Hashem starting in Elul, those pesky little one- or two-word changes stress me out.
As the chagim continue to unfold, and our daily routine continues to be tweaked in ways both big and small – as they have for thousands of years – that original amusement has turned into a different kind of emotion. It has made me pensive, which, I guess, is part of the purpose of Mindfulness.
Secular sources might attach the origins of the concept of Mindfulness to Buddhist philosophy, but long before then Hashem built Mindfulness into Judaism. Periodically, at almost exquisitely timed intervals, we are reminded to pay attention. It makes me think of something that I learned in a Child Psychology course, the concept of intermittent reinforcement. It is the strongest form of reinforcing desired behaviors. With intermittent reinforcement, you don’t reward the desired behavior consistently, but frequently enough so that the subject is encouraged to keep doing the behavior in the hopes that the next iteration will reap the reward.
What are we paying attention to in this “Jewish Mindfulness”?
Well, for example, to what we eat. Sometimes we must leave our homes and go into a Sukkah to eat. Sometimes we turn our entire kitchens upside down and eat only unleavened products. Sometimes we cannot eat meat. Sometimes we should have wine and meat. These rules keep us on our toes. These are different than the background, ever-present hum of Kashrut, which becomes so routine that it can almost operate on automatic. These kinds of changes force us to Sit Up Straight and Pay Attention. To be Mindful.
How about Shmitta and Yovel?
These years force us to pay attention to far more than just the food on our plate. We become mindful of the entire life cycle of food, and all the implications and corollaries. How do farmers who keep Shmitta survive? Making a simcha? Which venues keep Shviit? Heter Mechira? Yuval Nochri? Where did the cut flowers come from? The Lulav and Esrog? What do I do with the leftover vegetable on my baby’s plate? On my plate? Can I give them to my neighbor who has a hamster? Can I compost them? Can I drag a bench across a grassy area? How much can I water the grass? These are years that are designed to keep us mindful of almost every facet of our lives.
Taking the four walls around you and roof over your head for granted?
Go out to your Sukkah. Taking your nice warm daily shower and freshly laundered clothes for granted? Enter the Nine Days. Love to listen to music? Not during Sefira, oh, but how wonderful it is when you can once again listen! If you look for it, you will notice the myriad of different ways that Judaism keeps us Mindful.
In Judaism, Mindfulness serves a very important purpose.
Mindfulness, if you let it, leads to gratitude. And if you follow the process to its ultimate conclusion, the gratitude will lead you to Hashem. What other People gives thanks upon exiting the bathroom? And the words of the prayer! Right down to the molecular level, if an opening stays closed when it should open, or open when it should close, we wouldn’t be able to survive for very long. The wisdom of our Sages ritualized it into a prayer. Be Mindful, even during the most base of moments. Be grateful. And know to Whom to direct your gratitude.