Yesterday was "step-up" day at the Solomon Schechter Conservative day school at which I teach prayer.Younger classes had the opportunity of seeing what it's like to be an older student in a more advanced class.
The daily prayer service was visited by the Kindergarten. The children sat in the first row and were immediately struck by something they had never seen before and didn't understand. I wear the phylacteries, "tefillin," during prayer-a black leather box on my left bicep held in place by a leather strap wrapped along my arm seven times, and another black leather box which rests on one's forehead. Each box contains Scriptural passages inscribed on parchment similar to how a Torah scroll is written.
I proceeded to explain the purpose and function of these objects of prayer, and in so doing held up my hand and displayed the letter "shin" that was formed with the final piece of strap around the middle of my hand. The reason for this letter formation is that a name for God-"SHADDAI"-begins with a "shin," and tefillin makes more tangible the presence of God during prayer.
Rather than revealing the reason, I asked the class for the answer instead. " What does the "shin" stand for I asked? Curiously , it was the kindergarten children whose hands immediately shot up in the air.
With bouyant self-assurance one child yelled out: "Sheket"-which means,"Quiet." Students and teachers alike burst into good-natured laughter.
"Shema" was another answer, approaching the correct one in association and meaning. The "shema" prayer declares the unity of God; this little boy by accident or instinct understood the "shema's" importance.
Another kindergarten voice confidently called out:"Shem, " name which indeed refers to God in ordinary parlance.
Finally the funniest response of all. "Shokolad"-chocolate in Hebrew. This time the laughter exploded into an uncontrollable roar. After some minutes we settled down and an older student provided the correct answer-"shaddai."
We finally got around to praying and I am convinced that the delightfully innocent yet insightful answers of these six year olds added a dimension of such good feeling to the service
that the participation that morning was at its best.
As we prayed I thought: The "shin" does embrace many things-The "sheket," the quiet deep within us necessary for attentive prayer; the "shema" insists on our listening with our hearts to the sacred words of Torah and Tefillah, words of the mind and the heart; the "Name,"an identity of God that hopefully filters into our own sense of self, our own identities as having been created in God's image; and finally "shokolad"-chocolate.What a superbly sweet and delectable metaphor for God!
"Out of the mouths of babes"-I was so grateful for those few moments of light-hearted prayer. Never again will my daily practice of donning the tefillin be the same. The "shin"will now become a sign of the innocence of children who can show adults a purer and simpler way to the divine. Thank you , children, for your magical gift of human spontaneity and simplicity.