When I heard a respected educator apply these words to prayer, my jaw dropped. But after the shock faded, the precision of the phrase started to play on my imagination. Given that I share the sorrow and fear over the “field situation” which provoked the comment, but not its hopelessness, I figure some reflection is in order, so – why Vietnam?!
Educators and community members rule the day, unengaged students rule the night. Our children are not absent from prayer; we can make a minyan and the shuls are full on Shabbat. But we grade prayer as attendance, and praise the appearance of focus. It’s true, sitting quietly is a praiseworthy habit in today’s culture. But we are not teaching them to cultivate silence, but to pretend to say words.
What are we fighting for anyway? Only a real soul-search after Gd and a lot of prayer can answer this question. How many teachers and parents have a mature, living relationship with Gd and an active engagement with our soul? How many of us find strength in prayer and have tasted its pleasure? If these are absent from us, or not deemed relevant, then what are we asking from our students? Teacher’s prayer groups are the weapon of the next generation.
In context of the liturgy, this conversation becomes a minefield. Tracing a path through questions of doctrine, obligation, authority and tradition without losing your company seems hopeless. And yet, these very issues form the backbone of the Eighteen Blessings. Perhaps prayer is the primary context created for this struggle and we should encourage our students to take the fight there. If they don’t feel safe struggling with Gd, Torah and Am Yisrael then what kind of relationship can they build?
In asymmetrical warfare, victory is not achieved through force. Prayer is not an act to be imposed, it is a lifestyle to be cultivated. Teaching it is a battle of hearts and minds. We must invest in the context of prayer as well as its content. This means devoting more time for praying and more resources for learning. It means developing a model of mutual awareness and spiritual mentorship between all members of a school – staff, faculty and students. At its core prayer is the pursuit of relationship, and as such is the ultimate communal effort.
Awakening the emotions in service of prayer is essential. Are our classrooms vessels where students feel safe to share their hearts? To we encourage journaling, spiritual chevruta, giving and receiving of blessing?
The siddur is a complex and powerful tool for awakening the soul, connecting to Am Yisrael and turning to Gd. It must be engaged as an instrument to be mastered, and not as a book to be read. Repetition becomes practice when the students sense they are picking up a relationship where it left off each time they pray, and just not doing it all again.
The attempt to reduce prayer to a deliverable educational product is bankrupt. It must be replaced by a critical dialogue meant to cultivate consciousness over the question of prayer. In order to accomplish this we have to be prepared to take risks, and even lose battles. But that’s what you do when you’re committed to winning the war.