This week our school community shared its final communal tefillah for the academic year. At the end of services, I felt compelled to share with our students a send-off into the summer. I began by telling them that I often reflect on two scenes, each from a different story I first heard when I was little, and both about prayer.
I have always been a big fan of stories, a collector of stories. Now, as an educator, I have realized that all learning, all subjects, have stories at their core. The first story that I shared with our students I don’t recall in its entirety, really just the punchline. But its imagery is emblazoned on my imagination, a bit hauntingly in fact.
The story ends with a person going up to shamayim at the end of their time on Earth, and finding themselves in a grand and endless beit midrash. All around them are bookshelves filled with sefarim containing all the words of Torah they ever learned, and siddurim filled with the words of every moment of prayer during their life. As the person looks at each siddur, one after the next, they see missing pages and words that are written incorrectly. Some books are simply empty. Instinctively, the person knows that these are their prayers, their incomplete, imperfect, and incorrect prayers, said with only a modicum of concentration. As I said, that idea haunts me.
The second story is more popular and more often retold. A young boy who does not know how to pray finds himself in the back of the synagogue during tefillot on Yom Kippur. Feeling a desire to communicate with his creator, he strikes a deal with G-d. Depending on the retelling, he either asks G-d to take the aleph bet that he does know, or the notes of his small flute, and arrange the prayers so that they are organized correctly. That story usually ends with the rav of the community explaining that the prayers of this young boy are the most precious to Hashem, and are surely traveling directly to the very throne of the King of Kings.
Two stories. Two versions of imperfect tefillot. One induced a young me to feel guilt and some degree of sorrow over my failure. The other message is empowering and hopeful – that my imperfect effort is precious and beautiful in the eyes of our creator.
How do these two feelings coexist in my imagination and with my dialectic understanding of how I relate to prayer, and how can this inform and inspire all of us, students, parents, and administrators alike, at the end of the school year?
What I shared with our students this week was that while seeming diametrically opposed, these stories create an emotional tandem that helps motivate and support me, and hopefully now our students, each day as I engage with my creator.
I do not believe it is healthy to conceive of a relationship with prayer from the vantage point of either one of these stories in isolation. Telling a tale of “woe is me,” and saying that I will never pronounce every word correctly, understand each phrase, or concentrate fully, is a message that would not sit well with me nor with the modern day school student. However, it is equally unhealthy and unhelpful to simply sit back and bask in the self-satisfaction and complacency of celebrating a mediocre effort with minimal results.
The Aristotelian golden mean, also the Maimonidean shvil hazahav, creates a balance that helps form a healthy outlook on prayer, one that uplifts us while simultaneously motivating and pushing us forward in our self-improvement efforts. The Rav zt”l noted that the Hebrew word for prayer, l’hitpallel, does not mean simply “to pray” but rather “to cause oneself to be self-judged.” The work lies in being a fair judge of ourselves as we attempt to grow.
During the summer we lead busy lives and our routines are changed. Each new day is an opportunity to be empowered by the importance of tefillah b’tzibbur, praying with a quorum, for our young men and women, and the importance of the daily act of putting on tefillin, even when our teachers and classmates are not there to require it or remind us.
If each day is not an unqualified success, does that mean it was an unqualified failure? We must remind ourselves at every grade level, and even when we are no longer marking the years by grade levels, that success is born from celebrating ourselves and our accomplishments while using that which we have not yet achieved to motivate us, inspire us, and push ourselves to reach even greater heights. If I attain only 80% of my goal, I should feel proud of all I have done, and simultaneously thirst for the 20% yet unaccomplished.
I will celebrate all the sefarim and siddurim in that imagined beit midrash, the ones that are filled and the ones that have gaps. I will take pride in my process of self-reflection and honest self-judgment. I will work to motivate myself and feel proud of myself. My hope and bracha for all our students heading into summer break is that we will motivate and inspire these dual senses, working in tandem within every student and within every Jew.