We’re on the countdown to Rosh Hashanah, which for me means preparing delicious menus for our lunch guests, trying to figure out how to make vegan honey cake for my youngest (and egg allergic) daughter, writing New Year greeting cards for our family and friends in the States, and making a bunch of will-you-forgive-me phone calls. It also means a trip to the dry cleaner, possibly buying a new frock for myself, and setting aside money from our budget to give to charity before the yom tov rolls in. I look at my to-do list with excitement; the High Holy Days have always been my favorite of the Jewish holidays. With one, minor exception: the prayer part.
Recently, I had an interesting conversation with my 3 1/2-year-old. We were talking about all of her favorite topics: school, friends, and fairies. And then, out of the blue, while going off on some tangent about princess dresses, and shoko, and what I’m making her for breakfast, she blurted out, “but, Mommy, you don’t daven (pray)!”
Instinctively, I looked toward the living room bookshelf, at the rows of unused Artscroll siddurim, and declared, “Of course I daven!”
She shook her tiny pigtails back and forth and insisted that I do not pray. She exclaimed, “you do not daven like Daddy does.”
And she was right. I do not pray like her Daddy does.
Funny, but when my husband and I were dating, I insisted that I wanted our children to grow up watching him daven. I told him that it was important to me, that our kids see him put on tefillin, drape himself in his tallit, and use a siddur to daven each and every morning. And, to his credit, he has done just that since the day our eldest child was born. Our children have frequently been in his arms while he davens three times a day; they have grown up playing with the tzitzit on his tallit, tugging gently on his tefillin while asking questions about his morning ritual, and sitting quietly on his lap as, together, they say the Shema.
But, as I stressed the importance of our children seeing their Daddy pray every day, I completely neglected to consider what they would think about Mommy and prayer.
Truth be told, prayer and I have a unique relationship that’s far too complicated for me to explain to our toddlers.
I don’t think I have ever connected with what I refer to as “organized” prayer. From a young age, I merely went along with the davening process. It was part of the curriculum of my yeshiva, and I dutifully did as I was told. As I got older, prayer became a burden. My parents would insist, Sunday mornings, that I daven before eating breakfast. And, dutifully, I did what I was told. But the words on the page didn’t make me feel any closer to my Maker. In fact, I didn’t feel anything!
Sure, I turned to prayer when I really wanted something. Like dance lessons (never happened), a family vacation (nope, still nothing), and a hurricane to come and cancel the final I wasn’t prepared for (you can guess the likelihood of that one panning out). I also remember davening so hard to get into the Machal program at Michlalah, for my seminary year after high school. And, when I was accepted, I realized that I had to really work on developing that connection with tefillah.
And I really worked hard. I carried my siddur and mini “Tehillim” with me everywhere. While on the bus, I would say a chapter of Tehillim. I started davening three times a day, whereas back in the States I would barely make it through morning prayers. I believed in the idea of mitoh sh’lo lishma ba lishma: that a deed, even if performed without the proper intent, may eventually still lead to a performance with the proper intent. I truly believed that, if I went through the motions, and said the words on the page, I would feel the connection.
It just never happened.
And, while at Michlalah, I took the tefillah class with Rabbi Nissel. It was an early Sunday-morning class that I was frequently late to and often missed. But what I do remember out of the class was learning that tefillah was comprised of three things: shevah (praise), bakasha (requests) and hodaya (thanks/gratitude). So, technically, if I incorporate all three of these elements when praying, then I was “doing it right.”
When seminary was over, and I was back in New York, I slowly stopped praying with a prayer book. Instead, when I wanted to have a conversation with God, I just did. In the privacy of my own room, sometimes without even saying a word out loud. I made sure to start off with praise, then put in my request, and then ended the “conversation” with my thanks and gratitude. And to this day, that’s how I pray. And it worked for me — until my daughter accused me of not praying.
As a mom, I’m responsible for educating my children and must be a role model to them. Do I want them to see me have my “conversations” with God? Or do I dust off my Artscroll siddur and, once again, go through the motions so that they see that I’m praying? I honestly don’t know what to do.
What I do know is that this Rosh Hashanah holiday, they will see me with my prayer book in hand. I will sing to them the melodies I grew up with, and teach them how to sing along.
And, during “Unetaneh Tokef” of Mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I will close my eyes and say the only words that I have ever had a connection with in all of liturgy. And pray that, for another year, we are not a fleeting dream.
A man’s origin is from dust and his destiny is back to dust. At risk of his life he earns his bread; he is likened to a broken shard, withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shade, a dissipating cloud, a blowing wind, flying dust, and a fleeting dream.