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Reflections on Prayer

School started a few weeks ago in Israel. On the first day, we don’t yet have the children’s schedules, so when I packed the boys’ knapsacks, I just put in a fully stocked pencil case, a sandwich and a water bottle. I left all of the new text books and workbooks at home until further instruction from the teachers.

The only book I did pack was a “siddur”- a Jewish prayer book. Prayer would certainly start on the first day. Avraham, already in eighth grade, graduated to a thick, pocket-sized siddur this year, Netanel took his hard-cover, thin volume with easy-to-read bold type, more appropriate for a fourth grader, and even Elitzur, entering kindergarten this year, packed his small, laminated, picture-filled siddur. Prayer hadn’t taken vacation all summer and it wouldn’t miss a day. Rabbis, teachers and parents take it upon themselves to encourage young children to pray regularly, to impress upon them the beauty and holiness of prayer, and the importance of making it habitual, making it, from a young age, a built-in part of their daily routine.

Even before my kids could speak, prayer was a part of their lives. As my husband and I would put our babies to sleep at night, we would hold their freshly-bathed bodies close and say the words for them of one of the earliest Jewish prayers—“Shema Yisrael”- Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” And when they would get up in the morning, we would again recite for them the “Modeh Ani”- the prayer upon rising, thanking G-d, our everlasting King, for enabling us to wake for the new day.

As our children got older, these, and other basic prayers, became second nature to them, the words a bit warped here and there, but the sincerity and sweetness of the desire to talk to G-d present in their high, pure voices. As early as pre-school, prayer becomes a part of the children’s day. They hold their picture siddur, turning pages at the right time, singing and chanting the words which become more and more familiar to them. Each boy waits for his chance to be the “chazzan”- the leader of the prayer service. He gets to have a mini prayer shawl spread over his shoulders and to stand importantly in front of his friends.

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to find and maintain the focus needed to pray. My daughter Leora had a counselor one summer, who taught the girls a beautiful song without any lyrics. That year in school, Leora taught it to her class and the 35 girls would hum the sweet wordless melody for a couple of minutes before they started to pray, their eyes closed, some of them swaying to the rhythm and to their internal thoughts. It was a wonderful way to start their prayers, the girls now calm, feeling the mood of quiet introspection needed to start talking to the King of Kings.

Some people prefer a livelier communication with G-d. One time, I was walking through the halls of my boys’ school during prayer time and heard young voices raised in song, the ancient chants and melodies reverberating through the walls. From where I was standing in the hallway, I heard a glorious roar of classes competing to call out to G-d, the sound a welcome affirmation that the next generation is continuing tradition.

Some synagogue services are downright energetic. The service Friday night, welcoming the Sabbath, is an especially lively time. There is feet stomping, hand clapping and some people, unable to contain their euphoria, raise their hands up to heaven, their eyes squeezed tight in concentration and joyfulness as they sing the beautiful melodies.

In Israel, when the children learn how to read in first grade, they get their first book—a siddur– covered in felt or velvet and inscribed with their names. The siddur ceremony is a very emotional one where these little people hug their siddur, their eyes alight with the joy that comes from joining the tradition of generations of Jewish people who uttered these same ancient prayers. As a parent, I watched, moved, almost jealous at the thrill my kids felt as they clutched their siddur, at the excitement they showed that they were part of a people who had a direct line to G-d. Once these children can read, teachers reintroduce the prayers, one at a time, with the kids’ fingers following the words in their siddur, some seeing how to pronounce the words correctly for the first time! Slowly, explanations are given to the prayers, offering the children a proper sense of the words’ history, reverence and solemnity. Children are taught the different parts of the prayer service – the sections where we make personal and national requests, for our families and even for the government, the parts that praise and thank G-d. There is even a part in the middle of the Silent Meditation where people mention the names of sick friends or family and pray for their recovery. But mostly, it is important to teach children what a privilege it is to have the chance to talk to G-d.

Whether it’s said in school with your classmates, whether you go to synagogue to join a communal prayer group or whether you’re standing as an individual in your own living room, prayer is an automatic part of a Jew’s day. It is very meaningful to pray in a synagogue, especially since there are certain parts of the service that can only be said in synagogue, like the reading of the Torah from the hand-scribed Torah scroll. During the week and especially on Shabbat and holidays, the Houses of Prayer in Jewish communities become the bustling heart of the neighborhood. And it doesn’t matter if the synagogue is a glorious model of beautiful architecture or a small basement room, though some communities will invest in the building of their synagogues even before they complete their own homes. Synagogues are a rite of passage, as children brought to services in strollers by their mothers, grow old enough to sit quietly near their fathers. The young boys become the ones to open the Holy Ark when it’s time to take out the Torah Scrolls for the Torah readings, elated to pull the tasseled cords which open the curtain, revealing the rich wood of the ark doors which are opened to expose the Torah. As my son Avraham grew, he waited for each stage that allowed him to lead different parts of the service.

G-d doesn’t need our words of praise and thanks. But we need to say them. To reach out. To make that connection with our Master. Traditionally, there are three prayer times during the day. Morning Prayer is the best way to start a day. A spiritual power breakfast of sorts, a half hour of involvement in our devotion to our faith before we get distracted by studies, work and the pettiness of every day life. Morning prayers include a list of blessings, thanking G-d for feeding us, clothing us, cloaking Israel with glory, giving strength to the weary, for offering us the chance to study His Torah and serve Him. There are also hymns of glory to G-d, praising him as Master of the Universe, as everlasting, as deserving of our praise and declaring him as the one and only G-d.

The Afternoon Service is short; it only takes a few minutes to recite. But sometimes it’s the most meaningful, perhaps because it can be the most difficult, catching you in the middle of the day– in the middle of an important business meeting, a shopping spree or running to your next university class. How many times have we been on a hike with our family, caught on a rigorous forest trail, climbing out of a rushing river, when we check where the sun is in the sky and find it is time for Afternoon Prayers? What’s beautiful is that we find we’re not the only ones finding a nice spot under a tree, wrapping ourselves in a towel, grabbing the siddur that everyone keeps in the car and taking time out of our day to pray. Praying with a quorum—which is a group of ten or more men – is preferable. Often my husband will roam the wooded area after a family picnic, looking for a group of men to make up a quorum. And he will usually succeed!

That’s the beauty of the timelessness of Jewish prayer. The same words are said across the world, across generations, and wherever you are, anywhere in the world, you can find the local synagogue, open a prayer book and join the services. One time we were vacationing in Safed and driving back towards our hotel when we saw a man, standing in the street, hailing down cars. We pulled over to see if we could help and found it was a man looking to complete his synagogue’s quorum. The sun was setting quickly and my husband Kuti was happy to be the Tenth Man.

The Evening Service is special because it comes at the end of the day. It can be said anytime after sunset and until late at night and it’s a wonderful way to finish off your day with G-d. Sometimes, my daughters will already be sprawled on the den couch, having fallen asleep in front of the T.V. and I’ll wake them to go up to bed. Automatically, though, they first wash their faces, slide their shoes on their feet, grab a prayer book from the book shelves and say the Evening Service.

We are now in the Hebrew month of Elul, the month before the Jewish New Year, a time of introspection as we near the High Holy Days culminating with the Day of Repentance. Festivals are days of feasting and celebration. But these holidays specifically are mainly days of prayer. It is said that this season is a time when our G-d is especially near—He comes down to where the people are and gives them a chance to speak directly to him without reservation or hesitation. As King David writes, “Close is G-d to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him sincerely.” (Psalms 145-14-19)

In any moment and in any place, He listens to the supplications of our heart. He hears us. I pray for my family, for the people of Israel and for good people the world over. May my prayers for good health and happiness for us all and for the Redemption be answered speedily.

Shalom,

Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities

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