Number three: Prayer is about you, not about God
This summer at camp I was with a group of eighth and ninth graders who were spending a month exploring Jewish experiences in nature. Every other day Rabbi Paul Kipnes and I would get a new group of 14 kids to take hiking. At the beginning of each hike we started with tefilat haderech—the travelers’ prayer. We talked with the kids about why, historically, we needed a travelers’ prayer and what kinds of things we would pray for today as we started our short journey up the hills of Napa. The kids went around the circle listing things they wanted protection from—like poison oak, bees and sunburn—and what blessings they hoped to find, like connecting with friends and having fun. We turned all these hopes and fears into a prayer, our own customized tefilat haderech.
I could stop here and tell you about the beauty of writing our own prayer—and it was beautiful—but that was the point of the exercise. I wanted the kids to see prayer as relevant, and to find beauty in writing their own. What I learned was that, especially for teenagers who are very vocal about their struggle with belief in God, there needed to be some other meaning in prayer aside from asking God for protection. And so we started talking about what we really expect to happen when we pray.
Nobody really expected that our prayer would protect us from poison oak and sunburn, but taking the time to talk about our fears reminded us all to watch out for “leaves of three” and to put on sunblock. Talking about our hopes set us up for blessing because we were already expecting to find it on the trail—we recognized the benefits of hiking together because we were looking for them. Our prayer was not about God, it was about ourselves.