These days, mornings for me often start before dawn, when my toddler wakes and clamors to be picked up. I can roll over and try to go back to sleep, but his insistent cries make relaxing impossible.
Whereas I used to groan as I glanced out the window into the semi-darkness, lately I have found a way to make waking up a more joyful experience, even when it happens at 5am.
As soon as I open my eyes, I say the one-line, ancient Jewish prayer thanking G‑d for waking me up: for reuniting my soul with my body this (and each) morning. Judaism always urges us from the mundane to the holy, from the oblivious to the aware. This morning prayer, called the "Modeh Ani" or the "I Thank" prayer, is no exception. At the very moment when most of us are feeling distinctly un-spiritual (think of your own state of mind when you hear the annoying buzz of your alarm clock first thing!), Judaism urges us to force ourselves to think of the enormity of what has just occurred.
How often do we get the chance to stop and thank G‑d for the miracle of our own existence?In this brief prayer, we thank G‑d for returning our souls to our bodies once again, for not having let us die in our sleep, for letting us exist. It's an obvious source of gratitude, but one that we often lose sight of in our hectic days. How often do we get the chance to stop and thank G‑d for the miracle of our own existence?
There was once a great rabbi, who had many students who hung on his every word. One morning, the students were surprised to find their rabbi was not at breakfast. Later on, they were shocked to discover he did not come to the classrooms, either. The students missed their rabbi and wondered where he was. Finally, they knocked on his door, wondering what had befallen their beloved teacher. The students opened the door, and were surprised to find their rabbi, still in his night clothes, sitting up in his bed, a dazed expression on his face. "Rabbi," cried his students, "are you ill? Where have you been all day?" The rabbi gazed at his students and explained. "This morning, as every morning, I awoke and immediately said the prayer upon arising: I thank you, Eternal King…. And then I stopped as the words hit me. I thank G‑d? I…thank…G‑d? Students, do you realize what a privilege this is, to commune with the Almighty? I realized the power of this statement! And I have been sitting here pondering the greatness of this ever since!"
This is an old fable that hints at the power of prayer. Most of the time, prayers are rote, maybe even a little boring. But every so often, their power hits us, and transforms an ordinary moment into a magical instance of complete clarity and connection to G‑d.
Many of us today are not in the habit of prayer. I have heard many people note that they do not find it meaningful to mumble a bunch of rote words. The Jewish view is that while we always try to make our prayers meaningful (this is called having "kavanah," or being "directed" in prayer), we will not always succeed. We nonetheless have an obligation to say an extensive array of fixed prayers, however, in the knowledge that these kinds of spiritual moments will eventually ensue. We cannot know exactly when we'll have those sudden moments when we say "Aha!" and feel our connection to G‑d, but in a lifetime of praying to G‑d, there will be many.
I am named after Bubbe Yitta, and often as I say this beautiful prayer early in the morning, I think of her, of her devotion...My own affection for this first prayer of the day goes even further. Years ago, when I first began to say the traditional Jewish prayers each day, my mother mused to me that her "Bubbe" (grandma) Yitta, who was born in a small shtetl, or Jewish village, in Poland, used to say these traditional Jewish prayers each day, as well.
"She used to say a prayer as soon as she woke up in the mornings," my mother recalled one day. "It went Moidey Anee Lifanecha…." My mother said it in the very strong, sing-song-ey Yiddish accent that marked her childhood, and I had such a jolt. Here were the words of this morning prayer, the "Modeh Ani" that I had just learned, as it was said by the last member of my family to live the timeless Torah-observant lifestyle of our ancestors: my last relative to speak Yiddish as her first language, and to pray these timeless words in the same thick Yiddish pronunciation of millions of our ancestors!
Hearing my wonderful mother repeat them was like a message delivered directly to me across the generations. I am named after Bubbe Yitta, and often as I say this beautiful prayer early in the morning, I think of her, of her devotion, of her faith in G‑d, and of the beautiful, traditional Jewish life that she led. Our ancestors have been reciting this early-morning prayer for thousands of years. For thousands of years, saying "Modeh Ani," "I thank," to G‑d as soon as we open our eyes in the morning has defined who we are as Jewish people. It is a profound statement of faith, of self-awareness, and a beautiful way to be the next link in the chain of Jews who have said this prayer for millennia.
Here are the words of this short prayer and a translation.
Modeh ani lifanecha, melech chai vikayam, she-he-chezarta bi nishmati be-chemla – raba emunatecha!
I thank You, living and eternal King, Who has returned my soul into me with compassion – great is Your faithfulness!