This week at the New Orleans Jewish Day School, in response to some parental concerns about the difficulty of "teaching" prayer to very young children, we changed our venue and our structure at morning tefillah (prayer).
We went outdoors to take in the miracles of nature. We sat in silence to concentrate on our own breathing and found that it was almost impossible to completely prevent the invasion of outside noise. We learned again the complexities of keva (the fixed) and kavanna (the spontaneous) elements of prayer.
We sat in the grass in the shape of a heart as each child offered a personal prayer of thanks, petition, or praise. Had you looked down at us from a high window on Tuesday morning, you would have seen right into the heart-shaped space encased by our children in prayer on the lawn. After listening to all of the prayers, each of us selected one prayer from the "heart" offered by someone else to bring home with us and keep for the rest of the day—the prayer that resounded for each child.
I hugged a child who had offered, "I pray to be more responsible from now on," and told all of the students, "I am taking his prayer with me. I often pray to be better at remembering everything I have to do. Thank you for sharing your prayer, and for the chance to make it mine, too."
That's what prayer should do, I thought, it should elevate you, make you feel better, and link you with others with whom you share your physical and spiritual lives.
The fears that “prayer” or “understanding our partnerships with God and humanity” might be too complex, are not new. These have been Jewish concerns for centuries. For children, prayer can be the most natural thing in the world. The structure and the routine of prayer as it is learned impose routine and order toward the goal of creating a space in which human emotions can be safely expressed.
Parashiot (Torah portions) Nitzavim-Vayelech resound with a message of community and the critical roles that responsibility to one another and to God play in our Jewish lives. Communication with our Creator requires no oaths of silence, no self-imposed seclusion, but rather, encourages the sharing and extension of our collective consciousness.
In the grammar of the confessional prayers we offer on Yom Kippur, we see the singular and the plural equally represented. Through the recitation of Kol Nidre, a 15th century supplication expressing the pained apology of Spanish Jews forced to utter vows of conversion, we continue to empathize even today with what it means to betray our ancestral covenant.
The text of parashiot Nitzavim-Vayelech explicity tells us, "The word is not too far from you – it is in your hearts and in your minds." Our NOJDS experiences this week helped us understand this a little more deeply, and I pray, relieved some parents of their worry that prayer might be too demanding.
Wishing you a tzom kal (an easy fast), and gamar chatima tova - may you be inscribed for a year of goodness.
Naomi Chase, a newcomer to New Orleans, has been jointly hired as the Jewish Educator at the New Orleans Jewish Day School (NOJDS) and Educational Director at Shir Chadash Conservative Synagogue. She writes a weekly D’var Torah for students and parents.