Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Of Prayer Breakfasts and a Chag Hasiddur

I was invited to attend the inauguration of our new Governor, Ron Desantis. (Thank you Teach Florida for scoring me a ticket.) The inauguration festivities kicked off with a Prayer Breakfast, at which faith leaders from across Florida and from a range of religions gathered together to offer prayers on behalf of the State of Florida and our new Governor.

There is a long tradition of incorporating prayer into political figures’ inauguration festivities. It is based on the Judeo-Christian foundations of our country. Our founding fathers were careful to separate church and state, and that is why America has no state religion. But separation between religion and state is not the same thing as a divorce or barrier between the two. America has always been a country that values religion. And prayer is an integral part of religion. In the 1960’s, the Supreme Court ruled that school prayer violates the First Amendment. The Lubavitcher Rebbe was very concerned with this decision. He preferred that the school day begin with a non-denominational prayer. The Rebbe felt that children need to be aware of a Divine Being, who cares about them, watches their actions, and to whom they are accountable. In the absence of a prayer, the Rebbe advocated for public school days to begin with a moment of silence, where each child could reflect, meditate, or pray in accordance with his/her values and faith tradition.

Though I would have liked to attend the inauguration festivities, I had a more important prayer event to attend. On Wednesday I sat in the audience as a proud Abba at Brauser Maimonides Academy to watch our son Eitan’s Chag HaSiddur. Eitan and his first grade classmates have been learning tefilot since early childhood. They have learned the Hebrew alphabet and how to read words in Hebrew. Now they are the proud owners of their very first siddur, from which they will daven every day in school. It was a pleasure to see so many smiling first graders. Eitan was one of those smiling faces, and the way he tightly clutched his siddur with so much pride and love is an image I hope to never forget.

Adults could also use a Chag Hasiddur. Many of us have complicated relationships with prayer. Perhaps our childhood experiences with prayer were not the loving nor nurturing types that 1st graders enjoy in our local Jewish day schools today. For Torah to stick, there needs to be a mastery of knowledge coupled with a sense of joy and love. While the first step is to appreciate the power of prayer, the more important step is to apply that knowledge to our own lives.
In Parshat Bo, Hashem brings the plague of locusts. Pharaoh quickly finds Moshe and Aharon and asks that the plague be removed (10:17):

“entreat the Lord your God, and let Him remove from me just this death.”
Pharaoh appreciated the power of prayer. That is why he asked Moshe to pray on his behalf. But since he was not the one actually praying, these prayers never impacted him for the better. That’s why soon after Moshe prays for the locusts to leave, we read:

“But the Lord strengthened Pharaoh's heart, and he did not let the children of Israel go out.”
Prayer has the potential to be an important source of comfort, strength and identity in our lives, if only we lovingly and proudly clutch our siddur tightly and appreciate the power that prayer can have on us.

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