Now, I must admit that I haven’t read Kierkegaard’s book in its entirety, but I’ve never forgotten its title, which I first heard in college. Kierkegaard (1813–1855) was a Danish thinker, one of the pre-eminent sources of Christian Existentialism in the nineteenth century. Even before I was aware that his title reflected the words of Messiah Yeshua, “Happy are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:8), purity of heart spoke to me amidst my troubled journey through the late-60s California counter-culture.
Purity normally means free from pollutants or foreign objects, as in the old slogan for Ivory soap, “9944/100% PURE—IT FLOATS” (which always left me wondering just what that other 56/100 percent could be). But that understanding of purity is frustrating. If purity of heart means that there’s nothing at all in my heart except love for Hashem and love for my neighbor, I’ll always find some element of temptation or distraction that ruins it. If loving Hashem with all my heart, soul and resources requires that I never give space to any other interest or preoccupation, I’m bound to fall short most of the time.
Kierkegaard’s saving insight is that purity of heart doesn’t mean the utter and complete absence of all pollutants—a negative definition—but concentration on one positive thing, love for God.
So, the remedy for temptation and double-mindedness, for not loving God wholeheartedly, isn’t to try to get rid of every distraction—which can be maddeningly frustrating—but to concentrate on the one thing that matters most, Hashem himself. Purity comes through positive concentration rather than through the negative elimination of all that’s impure.
Techniques and methods for enhancing concentration appear throughout the mussar literature, including here at rivertonmussar.org, so I’ll add just one thought. Different people find different ways of concentrating. The various techniques and methods are essential resources, but we shouldn’t become bound to one single way. I’ve found, for example, that my concentration in prayer is enhanced by spending some time in Scripture study before I pray. I start with the blessing over the Torah, but instead of limiting myself to the brief excerpts from Scripture and rabbinic literature provided within the siddur, I get into a more extended time of study. After I’ve reached a point of focus or concentration, I move on to the other prayers, including the recitation of the Shema. I’m sure that others have different practices that work for them. The goal of it all, whatever the specific practice, is to “will one thing,” to concentrate on knowing God, as Yeshua reminded one of his friends, “Marta, Marta, you are fretting and worrying about so many things! But there is only one thing that is essential” (Luke 10:41-42, emphasis added).