Got Me Thinking…

how life can teach us about life

Just Plane Amazing: How first class got me thinking about teaching prayer

on October 16, 2013

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ….get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.” 

Abraham Joshua Heschel 

Right now I am sitting on the steps of a school in lower Manhattan where I just finished teaching Hebrew school. I am the song-leader at this school, which means I get to have an awesome time singing and dancing with the kids. It also means that I have the difficult task of teaching and running t’fillah time, our little (20 minute) prayer service at the end of the day. Now when I first got the job, I was terrified. 20 minutes to do t’fillah? For kids that don’t go to shul, and don`’t really know Hebrew? What shall I do?! I’ve taught t’fillah many times, and had ideas for programs, discussions, readings, and the like. And those are all well and good, but the head of the program only had one criteria: fun. Make it fun. Unlike, it might have been implied, t’fillah in other schools, and in shul, and anywhere else. Make it fun. So we sang and we danced and we moved quickly, and I know the kids had fun. I saw it on their faces. But it wasn’t enough for me. 

Prayer is a difficult subject for many institutions because it is so hard. The first step is to admit that it is hard. It’s hard to say these words that we’ve been saying for hundreds, if not thousands of years (and for some, to say them every day.) It’s hard to speak words from someone else’s mouth, and on the other hand, to come up with something to say ourselves. It’s hard to ask for things when we’re not sure if something is listening. The list is endless. But yet, we pray. It is a crucial part of what it means to be Jewish, to live a religious Jewish life (and, in some cases, a cultural one. I have a friend who doesn’t believe in God and still goes to Friday night services, and I’m sure he isn’t the only one.) We want to pray with our students, to teach them them how to pray, what the words mean, and why we pray. That last one is crucial, but also tough. “Because we have to” doesn’t cut it for me. But neither does just singing and having fun. Without going into crazy theological discussions or shutting questions down, how do we begin to teach kids about prayer? To answer that, I first had to ask: Why do I pray? I think my answer started with a plane ride a few months ago…

Because my brother was going to Israel for the year, I decided to pop by after camp to see him and my mom before moving from Boston to New York for graduate school. My mom already had a ticket up to help me move, so we went on separate flights. Hers was direct, and mine had a layover in Atlanta. I really hate layovers. Mostly the going up and down part (I have allergies and sinus issues. Not so fun for the ears.) And to top it all off, I was flying Airtran. I hate Airtran! Argh. The first flight sucked. Small seats, not enough time to sleep, and my ears popped the whole time, even with my earplugs. I got to Atlanta, dashed to the next terminal, and plopped into my seat with an exasperated sigh.  (we’re getting back to prayer soon, I promise)

As soon as I sat down I heard a voice from the desk: “Will passengers Light, Smith, and Daniels come see the clerk please?” I have to get up? Argh again! I pull my stuff over to the woman at the counter, who takes my ticket, rips it up, and gives me a new one. “We need to empty seats from standby passengers so we’ve moved your seat.” I looked down at the ticket. 3B. 3B? That means…. first class! My whole demeanor changes instantly. “Thank you!” I say, a bit confused why I, of all people, got to fly first class. “Thank you so much!”

The “thank you’s” didn’t stop. I said thanks to the woman who took my new ticket as I headed onto the plane, thanks to the woman who took my drink order (I got a complimentary beverage, and not the soda kind!) thanks to the man who brought me that beverage, and so on. And everything was so surprising! The woman next to me was also bumped up, and we kept exclaiming and cooing, “Wow, these seats are so big! There’s so much legroom! I’m so comfortable!” We couldn’t stop smiling. And while most of the people in first class looked bored and so over it, we were absolutely giddy. We couldn’t believe it. Us, of all people, got to fly first class. Imagine that. 

Being bumped up to first class was a gift. I did absolutely nothing to deserve it. Maybe they wanted an L name, maybe they did a random lottery, but in any case, none of that was my fault. I didn’t work for it, I didn’t try for it, it had nothing to do with me.  After the plane touched down, that’s all I could think about. It could have been anyone else, but it was me. That seemed, after repetition, like a statement about my life. I didn’t need to be born. I did nothing to deserve my existence. It could have been anyone else. 

And because I didn’t deserve it, everything was so amazing! The normal, worn, torn, blue leather seats became miraculous. So big! So comfy! Wow! I’d read so much about Abraham Joshua Heschel’s idea of “radical amazement,” but I never got it until that plane ride. Everything becomes amazing when you realize that it could all be gone, it could all be different, it could all disappear. It’s a miracle! The folks that flew first class all the time did not seem to experience the same ecstatic interest, because they were used to it, while my row-mate and I saw the world with new eyes. Living in “radical amazement” is seeing the world for the first time every time you open your eyes, recognizing how incredible and inconceivable the very nature of our existence is. 

But is this something we can teach? Can we really inspire radical amazement in others? It begins, I think, by cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” from a young age. One family service a few months ago, I started by asking the kids, “What do you do when someone gives you a gift?” Answers included giving a gift back, saying thank you, writing a thank you note, giving them a hug. “But that’s for small gifts. What do we do for big gifts? Like our families, our lives, our earth?” 

“We pray! We thank God!” They got it immediately. And that’s the beginning. Recognizing that a) there are always things we are happy we have, big or small, and b) we are so lucky and blessed to be alive on this earth; these are things that can begin in childhood and build for the rest of our lives. Looking closely and being more observant can also help us recognize the beauty and miracles around us. Ever seen the spiny veins of a leaf? The shapes the clouds make as they pass by? The different shades of blue in your own veins? They’re amazing! Kids already have that wonder; it’s called “child-like” for a reason. But it needs to be cultivated so it won’t be lost; or, at least, so it’s easier to find when they grow out of teenager-hood. 

So back to the beginning: Hebrew School. This week I decided to do something different. I told the kids that we were going to have some silent prayer time, and that during that time, I wanted them to think of something they are thankful for. From the big to the small, I said, everything has something they are grateful and glad that they have. I wasn’t sure how many responses I was going to get, but everyone raised their hands!

Thank you God for video games!

For my brother!

For the internet!

For food!

For clothing!

For being awesome!

And the list goes on and on.

This is a good start, but it’s not radical amazement just yet. Maybe it does need to come from the inside. But there are things we can do, for others and especially ourselves, to cultivate that radical amazement. Recognize that you did nothing to deserve your birth, that your existence is a miracle, that you are on this world by the grace of God, say Thank-You every once in a while. See the world for the incredible, beautiful, surprising place it can be. Even if you don’t get to sit in first class. I can get into a giant tube in New York, fly through the air, and be in LA in 8 hours? Now that’s amazing. 



One response to “Just Plane Amazing: How first class got me thinking about teaching prayer

  1. Amazing post!

    Also, I’m actually trying to teach this sort of thing, too! Last class, I wrote “What is God?” on the board and we had a discussion about it, and the kids asked me lots of questions I couldn’t answer, but I think that’s a good thing.

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