HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal

Storytelling: Inspiration for Kavannah

by Israel (Billy) Lewkowicz Issue: Tefillah
TOPICS : Tefillah

There are a variety of techniques that prayer leaders can use to harness student energy and focus their attention on tefillah. This article describes one powerful method: storytelling.

It’s 8:00 am and the students surge into the beit midrash of our school. The students are relaxed, happy, and content; there are no grades, homework or assignments expected. The students don’t have to take notes or worry about their agendas or deadlines. They just have to be sixth, seventh and eighth graders. They seem to enjoy this different status in a controlled environment.

Then the tefillah challenge begins. I am faced with seventy-five students, some staring and waiting with anticipation, some filled with curiosity, and others having that early morning “spaced out” glare and uncertain apathy. In their hands they are holding the siddur, a book compiled of sections and readings from our sacred literature: the Tanakh and the Talmud. The order of these prayers is the creation of our divinely inspired prophets and sages. In their hands they hold the infinite word of God.

They look to me as their rabbi, teacher, and maybe philosopher. I am aware of the responsibility that my actions and ethics must convey meaning. The young people look to me for guidance and example via my transmission of meaning and hope. How do I maintain this potentially good atmosphere? How do we make the siddur that has endured with us over thousands of years still relevant? How do I make this informal encounter meaningful and inspirational as it should be for the student?

For this daunting task, I have drawn inspiration from my teacher and mentor when I was studying in a yeshiva in Israel. Early in the morning, Reb Mendel would teach a class in chasidism. It was here where we would learn the mystical teachings of Kabbalah and how to apply this knowledge to practical Halakhah and refinement of our character. At times it was difficult to comprehend the full impact of the lesson.

Reb Mendel would sum up the main objective of the lesson in a story. Through a well-told tale, he made a bridge between his messages on an intellectual level to the actual level of experience. Cognitively, one can teach the divine traits of compassion, sincerity and heart. Actually conveying this to the student on the emotional level is much more difficult. A story can help one identify with the experience, “feeling” the teachings even more than “understanding” them.

Reb Mendel would say, “There is a Torah of parchment and ink and there is a Torah of flesh and blood, and the latter is what the stories are.” He would tell us to take all these stories and put them into some kind of a freezer in our minds, taking them out to defrost with the warmth and enthusiasm of our words. Reb Mendel would say that a story has the power to reach out to the listener and communicate ideas of greater depth and profundity than are to be found in any other form, whether in the realm of Torah or even in its hidden mystical aspects.

I decided to use my “freezer-full of stories” in the tefillah class. The results were astonishing. The body language of the students transformed from blank stares and restlessness to leaning forward and actively engaged. I could feel and see the magic of storytelling at work. With the students’ interest rekindled, we would revert back to tefillah. This time there was a difference. The routine of saying the prayers by rote or mechanically seemed to fade away.

I could see the story do its work. It opened up closed places and it awakened the students’ imagination as the kavannah of the tefillah took form. The students were able to understand how the character in the story was struggling just as they were. But in the end, he or she succeeded in accomplishing just what we are striving for. The student can relate to the story and think, “If this person could do it, maybe I can, too.” This, I feel, can give the motivation and focus that we strive for in prayer.

After a few good sessions of storytelling in prayer, I started hearing the difference. Now when students entered the beit midrash and we exchanged greetings they added, “Hey rabbi, what’s today’s story going to be about?” or “I can’t wait to hear today’s story.” The biggest reward is when I received phone calls and emails from the parents telling me that their child has been very enthusiastically sharing stories with them at home and how this has changed the conversation around the dinner table. The responses have been wonderful and ranged from being grateful to wanting to know more about the message from the story on a deeper level.

It was after these responses that the fun began. I started researching stories from whatever I could get my hands on, and there are plenty! We have a heritage that is rich with stories. However, not every story is applicable; in a whole book of short stories, only one or two might work. If the story inspired, moved or spoke to me, then the chance of the storytelling being successful is virtually guaranteed.

Stories can be drawn from personal experience, the newspaper or a magazine. One can convert a scene from a movie and relate it as a tale. The beauty about it all is that one can twist or shape all the stories and mold them into the theme that one wants to explain during tefillah. Stories don’t need to be conveyed exactly like the words of the text. One can manipulate them to bring forth the message and objective of the lesson. Stories have many layers of meaning. One can play with them, turning them inside out to discover all the hidden messages.

At times I would start the story before tefillah and weave different episodes between the prayers. It kept the curiosity, interest and momentum going. Other days I would just tell the story at the end. If the story was working well, I would leave it unfinished, building anticipation for the next day’s tefillah encounter. The students would leave on a positive note saying “Rabbi, you have left us hanging by our nails! It’s such a cliffhanger!”

I must tell at least 300 stories a year. The rewards are priceless. Alumni enthusiastically say to me, “Rabbi, the one thing I remember most from my school days are those stories you would tell at tefillah.” The best feedback comes from meeting former students who tell me that they are sharing the stories with their children. Some of my students have become teachers themselves, and they contact me asking for the same stories for their lessons. I feel that the stories enhanced the quality of the students’ overall school experience.

The holy Rizhiner rebbe said, “How does the Torah, the five books of Moses, start? With the Master of the World telling us stories.” Before God taught us all His laws, statutes and judgments, He started first by telling us stories. A good story during tefillah has the power to raise the students to a higher level. It can give inspiration and strength.

I heard the following from a very effective teacher, the well-known educator and consultant Dr. Harry Wong.

I am not in the restaurant business. I am in the hospitality business.

I do not sell clothes. I dress successful people.

I do not sell insurance. I help people solve problems.

I do not teach history. I teach students.

I do not teach third grade. I enhance the quality of lives.

Storytelling can enhance and inspire.


A Tefillah Story


In the morning blessings, Birkhot Hashachar, the first brakhah says, “Blessed are You … Who gives the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.” At a glance this blessing seems strange and begs the question, “Why do we start the day with a blessing over a rooster?” Normally we should have to make this blessing only when we actually hear the rooster crow, just as we make similar blessings when we see or hear any phenomenon—thunder, lightning, a rainbow. One must always strive to see God’s hand in every one of the wonders of nature. Therefore we praise God for giving the rooster the understanding to sense the breaking of dawn and automatically crow. However there must be a deeper reason.

Day and night, light and darkness, are synonymous with good and bad, knowledge and ignorance, happiness and misery. The Hebrew word for the rooster in this blessing is sechvi. The Talmud tells us that this word also means heart. The heart is the seat of feeling and understanding. Now, while God has given the rooster a special sense to distinguish between day and night, He has given man a special sense to distinguish between good and bad. For God has endowed man with a Divine Soul which enables him to think and to feel what is right and what is wrong.

Here is the story:

A ruler in Spain by the name of Saladin was arguing with many of his advisors of whose religion was the true one. They called a Jewish scholar named Ephraim Santizi to decide who was right. They said, “Tell us, who has God’s true religion: the Christians, Muslims, or Jews?” Not wanting to shame anyone, Ephraim thought deep and hard, and answered by telling this story.

There was a large and precious ruby that had a wonderful power. Whoever held it close to his heart found that his life was blessed with kindness and understanding. It was owned by a jeweler who cut and polished it so perfectly that everyone was astonished by its beauty.

The jeweler had three grown sons. Each one wanted the ruby more than anything else. The time came for the jeweler to go on a long journey. Each so begged him for the jewel. As he was about to leave, the jeweler met with each son separately. He gave each one a ruby, saying, “This is for you and for you alone.” When he was gone, the three sons were surprised to see that the three rubies looked identical. They said, “Our father must have owned two other rubies. He cut and polished them to look exactly like the true one.”

Each one claimed that he had the true jewel and that the other jewels were false. They argued and accused each other of lies and trickery. Finally they went to a judge and told him the whole story. They then asked him, “Which is the true jewel?”

The judge studied all three rubies, but he could not see a single important difference. Finally, he said, “I cannot tell you. Only your father knows the answer.” The sons were deeply distressed. They were about to leave when the judge spoke again. “I can tell you how to prove that your jewel is not a false one.” “Tell us!” They begged.

He told them, “Whoever holds the true jewel close to his heart finds that his life is blessed with kindness and understanding. Live your life in such a way that you always act with kindness and understanding. Then the whole world will say that your jewel cannot be false because your life is truly blessed.”

When we recite the blessing “Who gave the rooster the ability to distinguish between light and darkness” we must reflect on this story and ask ourselves if we are worthy of the gifts that Hashem has given us. Are we living our lives with a true understanding heart?

Rabbi Israel (Billy) Lewkowicz

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Most day schools are committed to cultivating Jewish prayer, tefillah, as a spiritual practice. In practice, they often find the obstacles formidable: lack of curriculum, knowledgeable and passionate prayer leaders, student interest, awareness of goals, to name a few. Articles here aim to help schools clarify their approach and strengthen the educational bases of school tefillah.

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