HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


Why Pray?

TOPICS : Tefillah

Seven years ago, a kindergarten teacher brought a student to my office. The children were supposed to be davening, but this young man, whom we shall call Gavi, refused to participate. This had been going on for a few weeks, and the teacher was now turning to the administration in an effort to get the student to comply.

Seven years ago, a kindergarten teacher brought a student to my office. The children were supposed to be davening, but this young man, whom we shall call Gavi, refused to participate. This had been going on for a few weeks, and the teacher was now turning to the administration in an effort to get the student to comply.

As always, I began by asking the student what was going on and why he did not want to pray. He explained to me, in adult terms, that he did not believe in God, and therefore saw no reason to pray.

I was not caught completely off-guard, as I had had many conversations with Gavi’s older sister—herself a 3rd grader at that time—about the existence of God. The two were very close, and I was not surprised that Gavi, also, was now questioning the existence of God.

Gavi, even as a young child, reveled in shakla ve-tarya, the thrust and parry of intellectual dialogue. I did a quick mental calculation and decided that engaging in a conversation about the existence of God was not the way to go.

Instead, I told Gavi that I respected his intellectual view that there was no God, but that there were two cogent reasons for him to learn how to pray and to engage in it with his classmates.

First of all, we could disagree about the existence of God, but it was impossible to disagree about the existence of the Jewish people and their long tradition of prayer. Even if one did not participate for religious reasons, one needed to participate out of respect for the community. Jewish culture and the very heart of Jewish civilization would fall apart if there were not some kind of routine community activity, and in our school as in the larger Jewish world, this activity often involved tefillah.

Further, I questioned, what would happen if he changed his mind down the road and decided that there was indeed a God and therefore wanted to pray? He would not know what to do or how to do it unless he received the basic training which begins in kindergarten.

He sat there for some moments, finally looked at me, and said, “You’re right. I’d better learn how to daven just in case and to be a member of the Jewish community.” (Remember, this is a conversation with a kindergartner.)

Fast forward 6 years. Gavi decided that his sister was wrong, that there was a God, and that it was really meaningful for him to pray in the morning as it set his head straight and clarified his place in the universe. He became not only one of our regular prayer leaders, but a true role model for the other students.

Before he completed his academic life at JPDS-NC, he came to me and thanked me for making him pray in kindergarten and for not making the issue about God. He said that, if I had made it about belief, he would have dug in his heels and continued to refuse to pray. The logical arguments I made went beyond any belief system; he took them as pragmatic pieces of advice (yes, in those words) and could respond by backing down from his rebellion.

The good thing about this story is that it has a happy ending. The frightening thing about it is that everything we say and do may have an impact on a child that he or she remembers long after we have forgotten it. Hence, the tefillah in Shulhan Arukh Orach Chayyim 110 that Hashem should save us from “all stumbling blocks and errors” when we deal with young people in our charge.

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Tefillah

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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