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Out of the Mouth of Babes

We had a young kollel couple with a two year old daughter over for brunch one Sunday.  The little girl was just starting to talk; so cute!  I told her father that I hope HaShem thinks of us as so cute when we try to daven.  He thought it was a great way to look at things (as, of course, did I).  I have comforted myself with that thought for years now.  I try my best to daven, but often think of that cute little two year old and how we are HaShem's children.  Something happened a few weeks ago that made me realize that I was not comforting myself, but rather was giving myself a comfortable rationalization to justify my stunted growth in davening.

What happened?  I was walking home from shul with a friend's 11 year old son.  He is an interesting young man, always asking penetrating questions (in all innocence).  For his (recent) 11th birthday, he had asked for a "Pathway to Prayer" for both weekday and shabbos.  "Pathway to Prayer" is a beautiful sefer that translates the shmone esrei prayer one line at a time.  Shmuly asked how best to use the translation; before or after the hebrew.  I told him that in my opinion it was best to look at the English first and then say the Hebrew text.  He said, "I thought about that, but then there are gaps in my praying; it isn't really like talking to HaShem anymore."  After a short pause (probably not noticed) I told him that he was right and that it would be much better to review the English before davening; then, while saying Shmone Esrei, he should just glance at the translations to jog his memory when necessary.

That pause (that I hope was not noticeable) was due to me hearing that an 11 year old was struggling with the same issues I was regarding how to daven properly.  The Shulchan Aruch, 98:1 says, "One who is davening should think about the meaning of the words that are coming out of his lips and should consider himself to be standing directly before the Divine Presence."  The halacha is also that one should dress and comport oneself all "as if" he had an appointment with an important person.  So while I like to think that I work to make my davening better and give it due importance; here is an 11 year old who is working on the same issues.  I can just picture my trial at the Bais Din shel Ma'ala:
Prosecuting Attorney: "So Dr. Allen" [dramatic pause to let sarcastic tone have its effect], "You claim to have worked oh so hard on your davening, yet an 11 year old is already contemplating the same issues that it took you 52 years to come to?"
Me: "Well... he was 11 and 1/2 at the time...." [voice trailing off as I realize how lame that sounds and really wish there was a hole to crawl into besides the one that leads all the way down]
When I first started learning I had the opportunity to listen to a series of taped lectures entitled "The 48 Ways to Wisdom" by R' Noach Weinberg, z"tzl.  While there were many important ideas I heard in his lectures, there was one statement that rings in my mind constantly (quoted to the best of my memory):
Imagine a very precocious five year old.  If that five year old is doing the same things at 10 as he did at five, it is not longer precocious -- its a tragedy.  And if a precocious 10 year old has not grown in character and intellect by the time he is 15, it is also a tragedy.  And if a 65 year old man is acting the same as he did at 60 -- if there has been no improvement in those five years -- it is no less a tragedy.
So now I worry that rather than looking like a cute little two year old when I daven, I look like a very delayed adolescent whose striving for improvement are bittersweet to his parents.  Sweet in that their beloved son is working so hard; bitter in that he has long ago fallen behind his peers.  I worry now that when I do finally look into the loving face of my Creator, I will certainly feel His love and enjoy the warmth of His embrace, but also sense the disappointment in knowing what I could have and should have become.  Baruch HaShem I am still in this world and have opportunities to improve.  B'ezras HaShem, I will actually utilize those opportunities with more honest effort going forward.


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