The iron will of Harav Dovid Povarsky, z”l, kept him from casting his gaze on anything outside the bounds of his avodas Hashem. He would never enter the kitchen of his own home, or even look in that direction to see what was cooking. Nor would he ever ask the Rebbetzin “What’s for lunch?” — for he had determined that he had no need to know. It made no difference to him whether it was scrambled eggs or tuna fish. These were distractions from the Gemara open in front of him, things to be kept beyond the periphery of his ever-working mind.
Each day, on his way to Yeshivas Ponevezh in Bnei Brak, he would pass by a kiosk on Kikar Rav Dessler. Bachurim would sometimes be standing there. When they saw Rav Povarsky coming, they would slink away.
The kiosk owner noticed this and asked them, “What are you hiding for? There is no chance in the world that he will turn his head in this direction. For years he’s been walking by here, and I don’t recall that he ever once turned his head to the side…!” (Rav Yaakov B. Friedman, Nafshi Yatz’ah B’dabro, p. 207, as told to the author by Rav Baruch Dov Povarsky)
There are numerous similar stories about Rav Povarsky, one of the great products of Kelm, and reading them can be a daunting experience. Who among us possesses such self-control? Who among us can pretend to such a level in avodas Hashem, or even try to attain it?
But even if it would be unrealistic for us to undertake such a regimented approach, Rav Povarsky can still serve as a model and an inspiration. We may not be able to block out all and any distractions as he did, but we can shrink the periphery of our awareness, taking less notice of matters which really don’t concern us.
We heard someone quip once that when the door opens and somebody enters the room, his head automatically rises up from his sefer to see, as if it were attached by a string to the door. We can try to make it a little less automatic. Say, a trial period of five minutes without looking up, no matter what. If we can’t cut the string, maybe we can loosen it a bit.
This same idea is contained in the Yud Gimmel Middos with its stirring preface, “Vayaavor Hashem al panav…,” which we recite many times during the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah.
Rabbi Yochanan said: If it hadn’t been written, it would be impossible to say it: This teaches that Hakadosh Baruch Hu wrapped Himself in a tallis like a shliach tzibbur and showed him the order of prayer (Rosh Hashanah 17b).
The Maharal explained that “the shliach tzibbur is wrapped in a tallis to prevent him from turning to the right or the left, to any side whatsoever, that is the ituf; then the kriah, the calling out, is with complete kavanah, from the depths of the heart and its truth.
“Whereas when he is not enwrapped, then it is possible to turn to other things, and the kriah is not in truth. It is called ituf because he is removed from anything else…
“‘Tefillah l’ani ki yaatof v’lifnei Hashem yishpoch sicho’ (Tehillim 102). The poor person who has no parnassah has but one thing on his mind, nothing else distracts him…” (Maharal, Be’er Hagolah, Be’er Revi’i, p. 74, Yahadut edition)
The idea appears in Parashas Ki Savo as well: “And do not turn from all the things I command you this day right or left, to go after other gods to serve them” (Devarim 28:14).
The slightest diversion from the path of Hashem can lead to serving other gods. This is the way of the yetzer hara — today he says do this, tomorrow do that, until he tells him to serve other gods, and he goes and does it. (Rav Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznayim LaTorah)
As we say those words, “Vayaavor Hashem al panav,” we wrap ourselves in the tallis. It helps us to block out distractions, to keep from seeing who’s coming in the door, to concentrate on the words, the order of prayer.
It is something that should stay with us throughout the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah and beyond: To be focused in our tefillos, in our Torah, in our avodas Hashem; to have but one thing on our mind, not looking to the right or the left.
That is the ituf, that is the kriah.