Today was the grade 1 siddur ceremony at RJDS, and I mean it with all sincerity when I say each and every year that it is the highlight of my year. The ceremony, lovingly prepared by our Morah Bat Sheva Michaeli, is really such a beautiful moment in the yearly life of any Jewish Day School, and is filled with meaning and hope and ruach. Apart from grade 7 graduation, it is the one ceremony that is guaranteed to leave parents in tears (the good kind!). To see these beautiful students happily sing tefillot in front of the assembled guests, and proudly go up to accept their new siddurim is to sum up and distill the entire raison d’etre of the Jewish education experience into one amazing moment.
The students began the ceremony by singing Modeh Ani, then thanked Hashem for the basics of life with Birchot HaShachar, praised Hashem with Ashrei, davened Shma (with an intensity I am envious of), asked Hashem to take care of Israel and the Jewish people, and then their parents had a chance to come up and recite the Birkat HaBanim (Blessing the Children), repeating the words and tefillot of our Patriarch Ya’akov. Then, before I handed out the siddurim to the students, I shared with them that knowing how to pray and talk to God is the easiest thing in the world to do, and yet, the hardest thing to do as they get older. While the grade 1 students looked at me like I was from Mars, most parents in the room nodded in agreement, understanding exactly what I was saying. When you’re a kid, talking to God is like talking to your parents – easy, simple, matter-of-fact… natural. All that gets more challenging when you get older, as life and doubts and stress set in, and the siddur and its structure and language can often get in the way of talking to God like we did when we were kids ourselves.
Which brings me to another great school event – last night was the final performance by the grade 5-7 cast of the musical Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat. The amazing production, organized and directed by Vice-Principal Lisa Romalis, and supported by great teachers and incredibly hard-working parents, was fantastic, and the kids were beyond brilliant. All the musical and dance numbers told the story of Joseph (Yosef), being tossed into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers, and then finding his true purpose and calling in Egypt.
One of the more interesting verses in the story of Yosef, is when he is thrown into the pit. The Torah states that:
“And they took him and cast him into the pit; now the pit was empty there was no water in it.”
Rashi, in his commentary, focuses on the the strangeness of the verse – if the pit was empty, did it have to also say there was no water in it? Rather, drawing on a midrash quoted in the Talmud, he writes, it was full… with snakes and scorpions.
When the play wrapped up last night, I shared this verse with the students, and gave them the following blessing – there will come a time when you will feel yourself to be in that proverbial pit, sometimes even because of your closest friends and your family. And you’ll feel all alone, trapped with your thoughts and your feelings, with your own snakes and your own scorpions. It’s in those moments, those hardest moments, that remembering to pray and talk to God in the easy way a kid in grade 1 knows how to pray and talk to God will find its truest expression. The trick is to be like Yosef, to look up always to the Heavens from the pit, to be with God in your hardest times, and to trust in God and that there is a plan for you in this world.
Shabbat Shalom u’mevorach.