The Intention to Write

Posted on February 21st, by nicholas in creativity, exercises, rumination, theology, vocation, writing. 3 comments

The Intention to Write

{David Ebenbach reflects on kavannah and writing.}

In Judaism, a great importance is placed on what’s called, in Hebrew, kavannah, a word that can be translated as “intention,” or, more precisely, “focused, holy intention.” In other words, in Judaism it matters a great deal what’s on your mind as you do any and all of the important things in life: prayer, sure, but also eating, work, waking up in the morning, cleaning yourself, experiencing nature, encountering the body, experiencing loss—and, in my life, writing. These things are meant to be done not in a rote way but with the intention to make our actions meaningful.

I mentioned waking up. One nice piece of Jewish wisdom is that, if we’re going to go through the day with continuous kavannah, we should probably start from the beginning; traditionally, Jews start each day with a series of morning blessings to help us enter the day with our heads on straight. I’ve found that reciting these blessings before writing has deepened my creative process and my work.

These blessings appear in different orders, and are translated into English differently, in different prayerbooks, but in the prayerbook I use—Kol Haneshamah, by the Reconstructionist Press—they begin with this:

“Blessed are you, AWAKENER, our God, life of all the worlds, who removes sleep from my eyes, and slumber from my eyelids.”

First of all, you should know that all the blessings start like that—“Blessed are you”—and they each mention a crucial attribute of the divine. And we begin the whole litany of them by being grateful for being awake at all—for being alive, sure, but also for the awakeness that life brings us if we have kavannah. Note how emphatic the blessing is about our eyes becoming clarified by this awakening—something we surely need as writers. Relatedly, the next blessing expresses gratitude for the help we get in having “discernment to tell day from night.”

We then become aware of our physical selves, as we thank a God “who stretches forth the earth upon the waters” (an image both of solidity and of underlying fluidity, a paradox I really like), “who makes the blind to see,” and “clothes the naked.” Clearly, that last blessing also raises issues of social justice, as do the following two—“who makes the captive free” and “who raises up the humble”—which makes me aware that my writing ought to do some good in the world, a world that surely needs it.

To accomplish that, though, I need fortitude and resolve. The next blessings thank a God “who makes firm a person’s steps,” “who acts for all my needs,” and “who girds Israel with strength.” (This refers to the people Israel, not the country of Israel.)

It’s not just about strength, though—it’s about something greater. From there we go on to express gratitude for the force that “crowns Israel with splendor.” The next few blessings enlarge us still further and attach us to further paradox. I love how Kol Haneshamah imaginatively translates this one:

“Blessed are you, THE IMAGELESS, our God, life of all the worlds, who made me in your image.”

The original doesn’t actually say “THE IMAGELESS”—really it says the usual Hebrew word for “God,” often translated as “Lord”—but I love being simultaneously compared to God and being told that God is incomparable.

Writing is about mystery, and these paradoxes help me confront mystery. Immediately we confront another paradoxical pair: “who made me free” and “who made me of the people Israel”—in other words, part of a community, which entails obligations and constraints.

Yet the Hebrew for “made me free” literally translates as “made me the child of free people,” so we know that past community members navigated this paradox successfully. Of course, again we’ll need strength to do this, and so we end like this:

“Blessed are you, RENEWING ONE, our God, life of all the worlds, who gives strength to the weary.”

By this point, I have plenty of kavannah, and I find I’m ready to go.


David Ebenbach is the author of two books of short stories—Between Camelots (University of Pittsburgh Press), and Into the Wilderness (Washington Writers’ Publishing House)—plus a chapbook of poetry entitled Autogeography (Finishing Line Press), and a non-fiction guide to creativity called The Artist’s Torah (Cascade Books). He has been awarded the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, fellowships to the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the Vermont Studio Center, and an Individual Excellence Award from the Ohio Arts Council. Ebenbach teaches at Georgetown University.  Find out more at

Also, more specifically, people can find examples of my recent writing here:

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3 Responses to “The Intention to Write”

  1. Mark says:

    “focused, holy intention” Yes, fully present to this moment, watching for the Mystery, listening for direction for what to do and say in the next moment, willing to set aside our plans and thoughts and follow the unknown to new insights, to revelation, into deeper compassion, letting words come that we write down and understand later, carried along in the flowing of the Spirit, chanting.

  2. Stephanie says:

    “Blessed are you, THE IMAGELESS, our God, life of all the worlds, who made me in your image.” That’s powerful. Thanks for your post! Is there a Hebrew word that’s the counterpart to kavannah?

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