Choices, Habits and Changes

hero image
27 Dec 2017

People are often amazed to discover that I still daven regularly – twice a day – even with one, two, three, four kids. I would hate to misrepresent myself or my spiritual devotion, though, so I think it’s important to share just what my “prayer” looks like.

Once, when my oldest was a toddler, I noticed her pretending to wash dishes in her toy kitchen while mumbling under her breath. Because she knew that’s how I washed dishes: mumbling to myself.

Once, when my youngest was a toddler (she still is), I was sweeping and she looked at me and said “Ima, daven!” Because she had only ever seen me sweeping while saying words of prayer.

Once, when number two was two, we dropped his sister off at school before I’d had a chance to daven, and there were errands to run on the way home. So I said berachos and pesukei d’zimra while driving, then pulled into the store’s parking lot and stood next to him in his car seat to say shemoneh esrei.

I don’t know if this sort of multi-tasked prayer is common or if I’m the only one. I do have other friends who prioritize davening no matter what, but I choose to assume they manage it better than I do and have never taken a poll. I also never asked a shaila to determine whether I’m on sound halachic ground, though I was very excited several years ago to come across a mishna in Berachos (2:4) that says workers in a tree or up on a platform can say shema (though not shemoneh esrei) without coming down. “That’s me!” I exclaimed to my husband. “My whole life is up in a tree! I have precedent!” Rambam even indicates they can keep working while praying in the tree, except during the first paragraph of shema (Hilchot Kriyat Shema 2:4), but I can’t claim enough expertise to determine whether it’s really justified to apply that halacha to my situation.

So why do I do this? Is there really value in davening this way?

I had this conversation with number 3 recently, when he told me he had discovered at school that day that he shouldn’t do something else while bentching – his teacher told him. I gulped. I knew where he got the idea that it was okay, and I knew it wasn’t his teacher who needed to tell him it wasn’t.

Is it confusing to sometimes you see me doing other things while I daven? Do you know why I do?  Because Hashem gave me four very special jobs (he smiled, recognizing himself and his three siblings as my “jobs”), and when they need me, that’s the most important thing. But there are also other things I need to do, like talk to Hashem. And I don’t know if I do it the best way; it’s a mitzvah to daven, and it’s also a mitzvah to take care of my family, and some people would say to daven much less while the special jobs are little and there’s so much to do. But I decided that it’s important to me to keep talking to Hashem as an important part of every day, even if it’s not the best kind of davening, because I want to keep the habit, to always be a person who davens. And when you get big, you’ll figure out the best way for you to do all the things that are important to you – but right now, you don’t have any jobs to worry about when you’re bentching!

Habits are funny things. Of course, we don’t ever want our prayer to be habitual, because that implies that it’s dry and rote, that we’re just going through the motions. And in large part, that is often what my davening looks like: just saying words while I sweep, pour cereal, pack lunches, etc.

But “habit” also means something you keep up. I try to be in the habit of going to exercise a few times a week. If I miss a week, it’s a little harder to get back into it the next week. When I missed months for pregnancy and while my babies were little, it was much harder to get back into the routine – not just getting out the door, not just the workout itself, but scheduling it. It became that much harder simply to remember to make it a priority to put that time in my plans and make it happen.

Yes, I’ve learned the Magen Avraham that many use as halachic basis for women to daven the barest minimum. Yes, I’ve heard about the gadol – the Chafetz Chaim, I think it was – who reported that his mother didn’t daven at all while her children were young. But for myself, I was afraid that if I didn’t maintain the habit of twice-daily prayer, then I wouldn’t notice when my kids were old enough and self-sufficient enough that I could really manage all my responsibilities and add tefilah back in. It might be completely legitimate to cut certain corners in certain circumstances – but what if we forget the corners are supposed to be there?

I had experience with this, after all – also in the realm of prayer but long before I was a parent. When I was in high school, we were allotted twenty minutes for shacharis, which was not enough for me to say everything. So, I prioritized. We had learned in halacha class which prayers were the most important when short on time, and since I was short on time every day, I figured out how far down the list of priorities I could get within twenty minutes, and that’s what I said. That became my habit.

I still remember the day, two full years after graduating high school, when I actually laughed at myself during shacharis one day because I suddenly realized I was still in the same habit. I had been learning in Israel for two years, with plenty of minutes available to me for shacharis, but was so deeply in the habit that it never occurred to me to change. Two years immersed in Torah, and I didn’t notice that I could – and should – be saying all of Pesukei D’zimra.

That experience taught me something about both the value and the danger of habits. I realized how important it is to create and maintain good habits, and I realized how challenging – and important – it is to reevaluate habits as circumstances change.

The second part of that conversation with my six-year-old was not about his future as a busy adult, but about mine. I told him that I had been thinking lately about how I daven, and that he and his siblings are getting old enough that I should really be able to start navigating things better. I told him I was worried that years of letting myself do other things while davening, because I didn’t know how else I could manage everything, might have gotten me into a habit that would be hard to break – but that the time was coming to work on it.

I’m not one to pay much attention to the secular new year, other than trying to remember to write the date correctly (talk about habits!), but new resolutions are always good, right? So, in 2018, I am going to try to remember that my kids are old enough to help out, that I don’t have a newborn who might scream for me at any second and make it impossible to do anything if I don’t grab whatever minutes I can, and most of all, that my kids are watching me and learning from me. A year from now, I hope they will have no reason to associate sweeping or dishwashing with mumbling, or think it’s okay to play while bentching, but instead will have a strong role model for dropping everything periodically to check in with G-d and focus on relating to Him.

With G-d’s help, I hope to be climbing down from the tree a lot more.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.