As I was rushing up the stairs to religious school one Thursday afternoon to prepare my lessons for my fourth grade class, one of my friends and fellow religious school teachers, Miron, sticks out his hand and places a folded piece of paper in it remarking as he walked away, “Just read it.” Curious over the contents on this piece of paper, and knowing that Miron never disappoints, I nodded with a smile and continued up the stairs. I had a feeling I was going to enjoy reading this.
After religious school finished, when the classroom was finally empty and quiet, I absentmindedly reached for the folded piece of paper, unraveled it, and began to read it out loud— something I never do. My friend Miron, a sixth grade religious school teacher at the same school, loves to challenge his students in fun ways, usually beginning with an idea or a quote. Here is what the paper said:
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel had a great appreciation of the embodiment of truth in tradition. He was fond of telling the story of a woman who approached him in the synagogue, complaining that the service did not say what she wanted to say.
“Madam,” he responded, “you have it precisely backwards. The idea is not for the service to say what you want to say, but for you to want to say what the service says.” -Richard John Neuhaus
I had to read it a second time to make sure I understood what the quote said. I began to chuckle out loud, not because the quote was funny, but because I know that feeling. In fact, I’ve felt that way for a long time. Being a longtime product of Jewish day school education, I’ve often wondered why there weren’t any of the prayers I wanted in the Siddur, such as a prayer for the Cubs to win the World Series, or a blessing for growing three inches taller, or to get blond hair. Now I realize that it was I that needed to find some meaning, that it would not appear out of thin air or be handed to me on a silver platter. It was not long after that I began to read the translations of many of the daily prayers with much voracity. Now, I didn’t believe as a young boy that people were forcing me to read these prayers, but I did question their value and meaning in my everyday life. But once I was exposed to it and learned about how it connected to me, I began to feel something meaningful when I prayed. I may not be able to say all the things I want when I pray, but I do control the feelings I feel when I pray from the heart. I pray knowing that there has already been 2,000 years of praying from Jews all over the world, that when I speak these words I am participating in a tradition that stretches back, a tradition that has deep meaning and value to those that appreciate it.
How often do we try to mold and manipulate the world or the things in it for our benefits? When we do this, are we thinking of only ourselves and personal gain? Why do we bother with traditions? Pretty heavy questions for sixth graders to tackle, let alone someone with an MA in Education and 25 years of Jewish education.
I didn’t get a chance to ask Miron afterwards why he chose that quote, or what lesson he planned to teach his sixth graders. Maybe he was just trying to get them to appreciate the meaning of services and prayer by showing them the significance of inner faith and inner motivation. Maybe he was trying to open their minds, to fully commit themselves to the experience of the service, to feel that desire rather than perceive it simply as words and melodies forcefully shoved down your throat without question or hesitation. Or maybe, he just wants them to give tefillah a chance.
You never know what you might experience if you never give it a chance.