The Spiritual Lives of Our Children

Rabbi Melissa Buyer-Witman

At the start of my career, I began leading services during Religious School for children. We set up what we call Keva – an outline of what we try to accomplish. Basic prayers, new songs, a story, and of course, time for personal prayer. My colleagues laughed at my proposal. You’re going to attempt to quiet young children and ask them to pray? I dismissed their cynicism and forged ahead. To this day, you can hear a pin drop when we stop for silent prayer, and if you pay close attention, you can witness the youngest of learners close their eyes, calm their bodies and whisper their heart’s most important and personal prayer.  

My colleagues were not simply naysayers. There have always been those that doubt the spiritual sophistication of children. Even our Torah reminds us that Pharoah himself negated the spiritual lives of babes. When Moses threatens the 8th plague or Locusts, the Egyptian people protest to Pharaoh and beg him to allow the Israelites to go and worship their God. Pharoah gives into the mounting political pressure and comes close to ending slavery in that moment. But then, he gives pause and asks, “Who exactly is going?” Moses responds, “With our youth and with our elders we will go, with our sons and with our daughters… for it is a festival to the Lord for us.” Pharoah back tracks; only the men can go, the rest must stay in Egypt.  

Why would Pharoah deny a request for children to go out and worship God? Why do some continue to believe that Synagogue and prayer are simply not the place for children? Some believe if one desires a prayerful experience then you should leave the kids behind. How can you achieve transcendence with a screaming child tugging at your sleeve? Others believe children are simply unfit to pray; they lack the maturity and sensitivity to appreciate matters of the spirit. Others might even venture that their childish perception of God is probably insulting to God. 

Here at Temple Israel, we beg to differ. If synagogue life is devoid of children today, tomorrow it will be devoid of adults. The institution of prayer is better maintained, or only maintained, when youth are involved. While children are most impressionable, that’s a reason for, not against, teaching them about such valuable things as faith, prayer, and community at such a young age. Most importantly, our sages believed that children should not only be “present” during prayer but have more capacity for pure and lofty prayer than adults do! In truth, we can learn from them. The great masters of Jewish spirituality and meditation offered the following humble and breathtaking meditation before praying: “Ani mitpallel l’daat zeh Hatinok, God, please give me the ability to address you with the innocence of a child…” In other words, in Jewish tradition our greatest rabbis believed their sophistication and maturity was something to be overcome, to the point of asking God: “Please undo the damage of my adult sophistication and help me be more like a child when I address you.” 

When I watch our children pray each week, with their eyes closed and their lips moving, I understand our sages so clearly. Even I envy their beautiful kavanah – their spiritual intention. Children have spiritual selves, that must be nurtured and cared for – but even more important, We can learn from them and they can be our guide for a better connection to our god, our tradition and to our community.  

I can only imagine the power of our collective prayer, young and old, once we can resume our T’filah (prayer) in our sanctuary and chapel. I know the space will be breathtaking and inspirational and I do believe it will help us all give voice to our gratitude for a community that values deep, connective and personal prayer, regardless of one’s age.  

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