I'm speaking at a minyan on the second day of Rosh HaShanah, before shofar; here's what I plan to say. Critiques very welcome. My derashah owes a lot to Dr. David Pelcovitz of Yeshiva University, and the comments he offered on the below-cited Yerushalmi and Chovos haLevavos during a visit to our Beit Midrash. Sources are listed at the end.
"When I stand in Shemoneh Esreih, I count birds," said one.
"I count the bricks in the wall!" said another
"I'm grateful for my head, because when I arrive at Modim it bows on its own", even if I'm not thinking about the words! said a third.
No, these weren't answers to a shul poll – all of these lines came from amoraim, sages of the gemara, in a Yerushalmi.
Some chachamim have offered alternative, less indicting ways to read this gemara, but as Tosafos said, the bottom line is that even our greatest sages had trouble concentrating.
Personally, I don't count birds or bricks. I count my kollel families and their needs. I think about my kids –not necessarily in a davening-for-their-welfare way. Shiurim. Problems. Disagreements. Jobs. And so on.
The gemara says אין אדם ניצול בכל יום, no one escapes distraction during davening, every single day. The distraction may start with something worthy, like Torah, but before you know it we're in the land of birds and bricks.
This problem of distraction has a source, named by Rabbeinu Bahya ibn Paquda in Chovos haLevavos 950 years ago. It's פיזור הנפש (pizur hanefesh), scattering of the soul. Rabbeinu Bahya quoted an anonymous elder's daily prayer, "המקום יצילני מפיזור הנפש," Gd save me from a scattered soul.
We scatter our souls when we embed pieces of ourselves in a million worthy causes, in work and spouses and colleagues and learning and kids and parents and cousins and friends and vacations and organizations and sports and hobbies and investments - this is פיזור הנפש. Many of these are important – but collectively, they leave us drained and empty.
Henry David Thoreau saw the problem in the 19th century; his solution, as he wrote to Emerson, was, "Simplify, simplify, simplify!" [To which Emerson replied, "I think one 'simplify' would have sufficed."]
Think of Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort's horcruxes, pieces of his soul embedded in objects that had some significance to him, to the point that he drained his humanity.
Contrary to the counsel of many psychologists, today's multi-tasking didn't invent the problem; it's just made our פיזור הנפש worse, and we need a way out.
When I first thought about speaking about this issue on Rosh haShanah, I worried it was too pedestrian compared to more momentous themes like the Day of Judgment, Israel and the UN, and the Leafs' playoff chances. But I believe this is up there with the most important of our concerns, because פיזור הנפש is not a narrow issue; פיזור הנפש drags down every aspect of our lives.
It kills relationships. Do you know that voice someone gets when he's talking to you but he's also scrolling through his email? The longer-than-expected pauses, the repeating of the last words you said while his conscious mind catches up with his subconscious? It's not just when we're checking email, either; we hold too many goals in our minds.
More - פיזור הנפש means we have trouble sticking with projects and fulfilling commitments.
And פיזור הנפש fuels stress levels, with pressure from deadlines and concerns in too many diverse areas.
פיזור הנפש invades and undermines our spiritual, social and personal existence; it demands a voice on Rosh haShanah, when we chart our path for the year.
Fortunately, Rosh haShanah also offers antidotes for פיזור הנפש: By reviewing three different roles of the shofar, we can learn three ways to treat our distraction.
First: The historical shofar, with its overpowering blast. The shofar of Jewish history is an overwhelming, ever-intensifying, limitless assault which brooks no disruption. From the start of our Jewish national existence at Sinai, to the end of history with the arrival of Mashiach, the shofar's voice resounds, a קול שופר חזק מאד ויחרד כל העם אשר במחנה. This historical shofar crushes outside noise – specifically, the distractions and ambitions that drain our focus.
This means emulating Thoreau by simplifying our lives:
• Figuring out which involvements have become more of a drain than they are worth, and which ones we need to cut even though they are very worthy.
• Turning off our phones and external distractions whenever we need to focus.
• And here's an experiment which may sound a little odd, but it has worked for me: During davening on a weekday, or during telephone calls, or while learning with a chavrusa, keep a piece of paper and pencil nearby. As extraneous topics come to mind, jot them down - not during Shemoneh Esreih, of course. This will tell us what is occupying our minds. This will be the list of our horcruxes, the domains which hold hostage fragments of our souls, and it should give us some idea of what we need to drown out with our historical shofar.
Simplifying our lives is instrumental in reclaiming them.
And second: The halachic shofar, with its status as a mitzvas aseh, an action performed to fulfill the expectations of our Divine Creator. A mitzvah demands כוונה, it demands focus. The sages of the mishnah offered us simple advice for developing that focus: Stop and think before the mitzvah. Ask: "What am I about to do?"
About fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to hear lectures by Rabbi Maurice Lamm – author of "The Jewish Way in Death and Mourning" – on visiting the sick and grieving. For me, his greatest recommendation was actually the same advice from that mishnah: Before you enter the hospital room, before you enter the shivah house, stop and ask, "What am I going to say?"
Think of the הנני מוכן ומזומן or לשם יחוד that some of us say before mitzvos or before berachos - it's that concept, expanded.
This is a step toward establishing dominance over our lives: Before any activity, the halachic shofar asks, "What am I about to do? What is my kavvanah?"
And third: The prophetic shofar, invoked by Hosheia and Amos and Yoel and other neviim, is a siren.
• As the Rambam put it, עורו ישנים משנתכם והקיצו נרדמים מתרדמתכם, the shofar cries, "Wake up!"
• The Meiri added, "שכל שומע קול שופר הוא נזהר ומתבונן שאין תקיעתו בלא סבה," "Anyone who hears the sound of the shofar is moved to contemplation, for the shofar's blast is never without purpose."
The prophetic shofar is an alarm, calling us to cut our distractions and to concentrate before we act. But this prophetic shofar is insufficient; it's just one alarm clock, once a year, and thinking about distractions once a year will achieve nothing. If we are to eliminate our life-eroding distractions and restore our selves to ourselves, we will need such shofar reminders all through the year:
• A note for a particular day in our on-line calendar, or in our pocket calendar for those who still use such things.
• A message we write to ourselves in our siddur, "Are you still focussed?" or "This part is important." I write all over my siddur.
The prophetic shofar shows that reminders can accomplish a great deal in gaining our attention.
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch noted that Tehillim 81 links the Shofar of Rosh haShanah with the harp used in the Beit haMikdash on Succos. Rav Hirsch explained, "Only the shofar leads to the harp."
Succos is זמן שמחתנו, the time of our great joy and satisfaction – and in order to achieve those heights of rejoicing, we need to first use the Shofar to eliminate our פיזור הנפש, the dispersion of focus that keeps us from fulfilling our spiritual and personal potential.
• To channel the historic shofar by eliminating the distractions which claim pieces of our souls.
• To channel the halachic shofar by thinking and planning before we act.
• To channel the prophetic shofar by sounding the alarm regularly, all year.
If we want to keep our minds from the birds and the bricks, if we want to bow for Modim because we feel humility and not because our heads are on springs, if we want to avoid the stress and disconnection of fragmented lives, if we want to earn a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, let's learn from the shofar now, and so merit the joy of the harp in the future.
1. The opening gemara is from Yerushalmi Berachos 2:4. There are variant explanations of אפרחייא there. The Pnei Moshe suggests these amoraim were distracted by thoughts of Torah. See, too, Rav Tzaddok in Pri Tzaddik to Vayyeshev, and Belzer thoughts at http://www.temanim.org/shtaygen/dvr_tora/70/2-8.pdf. The Tosafos I mentioned is found in two places - Rosh haShanah 16b and Bava Batra 164b.
2. Bava Batra 164b says the distractions in davening are daily. For a strong rebuke on the topic of distraction during mitzvos, see Rambam's Moreh haNevuchim 3:51.
3. The Chovos haLevavos actually talked about pizur hanefesh in terms of finances, and Rav Zev Wolf haLevi of Zhitomir, in his 18th century Or haMeir, expanded it to include the other goals and ambitions which we invest with pieces of our selves.
4. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 589:8, Taz 589:3 rule that shofar requires kavvanah.
5. The advice of waiting before davening is in Mishnah Berachos 5:1.
6. The Rambam's description of the shofar as an alert is in Hilchos Teshuvah 3:4; the Meiri's comments are in Chibur haTeshuvah 2:3 ועל דעת ז"ל.
7. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch's observation, part of a great essay, is printed in Collected Writings Vol II pg. 69.