Discovering Prayer

It’s Sunday morning and I am engaging in the same internal battle that many parents experience:

It’s the one “day off” of the week. My kids sleep late, take their time walking around in pajamas, make fancy breakfasts, skype with Grandma. The hour is getting late but what’s the rush? No school to run off to, no shul to attend.

But it comes to a point where it’s time to get moving. And so I tell them all to get dressed and get ready for the day. And I remind them to daven. Often I don’t get complaints but there are those days when I am greeted by a suffering look and me, the tough Mom who rarely gives in to my kids’ complaints, wonders whether I am doing the right thing by pushing them to pray. On one hand, this is our family value; there is no day off from religious observance and I hope that the act of davening will become as habitual to them as brushing their teeth. On the other hand, when I see that look of annoyance, I worry about turning them off.

And I understand them. It wasn’t so long ago that davening was meaningless to me, as well.

Like most people, my relationship with prayer has functioned in waves, waxing and waning over the years.

I grew up thinking that davening was a weekday activity; something we had to do at school. But daven on a non-school day? That was only for very religious people. Like teachers.

As I grew older, I became interested in becoming more observant, opting to wear only skirts and dressing in a modest way, but davening never became part of my daily routine. It was too hard to wake up early, it was another thing to do; whatever the reason, it wasn’t something I ever considered.

Until my waning days as a senior year in high school. I was on the verge of embarking on an intense year in Jerusalem, where I would be spending my days in seminary, studying Jewish texts. It was an intense time, much of it spent in analytic conversations with friends. And one day, one of those conversations centered around davening. A friend said  to me they believed that the gage of a person’s religious sincerity was not how they dressed, but whether they prayed. After all, they reasoned, the way a person dresses is a symbol to the world of a person’s religious stature but whether or not a person davens is only between themselves and G-d.

The words hit home.

So in typical Ariela style of never doing anything half-way, I started to daven. Three times a day. With a minyan.

I went off to Israel that year, spending a year in study and minyan fell by the wayside. But davening three times a day continued. I would often walk to the Kotel in the early morning hours as dark turned to light, listening to the birds greeting the day, standing at an empty space at the Wall, pouring out my heart in prayer. Sometimes I would daven Maariv on the roof of my seminary’s building in the wee hours of the night, alone with my Creator. Davening was meaningful and beautiful.

But following that year, it wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always meaningful. Nonetheless, I stuck with my commitment to davening three times a day through college, through my first three years of work, through my wedding and through the birth of my first baby. Sometimes it was a mumbling of words, sometimes I only remembered to daven Maariv late in the night, sometimes I even woke up in the middle of the night as it struck me that I forgot to daven and hurriedly ran to my siddur, but I stuck with it. It was a duty. And not much more.

After the birth of my second child, it became just twice a day.

After the birth of my third child, it became a struggle to daven even once a day. I knew there were justifications in Jewish law, that for a mother, taking care of a child comes first. But I also knew that I had time to go on social media. I had time to talk to friends. I had time to read. Most days, I did daven, sometimes squeezing it in right before mid-day, but there were also times when the day would go by, prayerless.

By the birth of my fourth child, I was working at a new job at our school and juggling the duties of being a Rabbi’s wife and taking care of four children with my husband often not home. It was a struggle to get to work on time while getting my four kids dressed and ready for school; it seemed like an impossibility to find time to daven in the morning. And so davening became relegated to a feeling of guilt of something I should do… but didn’t.

And then two years ago, I stood before G-d on Rosh Hashana and admitted the fact that I was in a downward spiral. While I knew I was not obligated to pray three times a day and according to some opinions, not even a formal once a day, I asked myself what was my religious life and inspiring others worth if I couldn’t make room for G-d in my day, even once? I repeated the conversation I had had with my high school friend long ago and asked myself how sincere my religious convictions were if I could find time for everyone else in my day, but not the G-d that I taught about all day. And so I committed to daven.

That commitment has changed my life.

Starting my day by laying out my concerns and anxieties before G-d has given me a new perspective on life, in a way that I could never have appreciated when I was seventeen. When frustrations are overwhelming, I now realize that I don’t have to carry it all; nor can I control it all. I can do my best and leave the rest for Hashem. When I’m tired, I ask G-d for strength and energy. When I don’t know what the best decision is with regards to parenting, to working with colleagues or congregants, I ask G-d for clarity and after davening, somehow, the answers seem more tangible. When things seem impossible, I ask G-d to carry me through.

I won’t say that every day is an experience that moves Heaven and Earth and there are definitely days that I mumble through. What I can say is that more days than not, I find tremendous meaning in the words of the prayers, in a way that I never have before. I find tremendous meaning in starting off my day by making room for G-d. On days that go well, prayer teaches me humility, that luck and fortune comes from G-d. On days that don’t go so well when I’m overwhelmed in the chaos of life; balancing children, work, keeping my house in order and community work, when I am constantly feeling that I am falling behind in something, prayer is truly my anchor.

And so I look at my children, and hope that even if they can’t appreciate it now, that they can see how meaningful davening has become for me. That even on days when they are not in the mood, that they can somehow see the value. And I hope that one day, when they are ready, they too may discover the treasure that is prayer.

About the Author
Ariela Davis is an Israel/Jewish educator. Before making aliyah with her family in 2020, she served as a Judaic director and communal Jewish leader in the U.S. and currently serves as the Menahelet of Ulpanat Orly in Bet Shemesh. She is a freelance writer, editor and speaker about Israel and Jewish topic.
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