If sleep is one-sixtieth of death, then waking up is a miniature rebirth. As your eyes blink open to greet the morning sun, you are a newborn child, a seed of a person ready to sprout forth from under the soil, spread forth branches and grow.

That seed contains the essence of who you really are. It is your indestructible core, yet one that is often forgotten, even abandoned, in the busy, noisy life we lead. Now is the time to grasp that essence-point, to bring it into the open, so that from there you can extend outward and rebuild yourself and your day, all resting upon its firm and solid foundation.

“So why is there a dot there? You think there was just an extra one lying around the print shop?”

The two boys strolled home from school in a small town in Belarus: Beryl, a sweet and bright nine-year-old, with his older brother Zalman, about eleven. Zalman was a stickler with grammar, scrupulous about every word of his tefillah. Beryl, on the other hand, was more of a philosopher, a sensitive soul. So now and again, Zalman would scold his younger brother about how he didn’t pronounce Hebrew words correctly.

This time, Zalman demanded of Beryl, “Why is there a point after the word b’chemlah in Modeh Ani?”

Zalman was referring to a period. It seems his little brother was ignoring the punctuation and stringing words together that really should be apart, thereby convoluting the meaning—which was just the sort of thing his older brother couldn’t tolerate. But the little boy had an alternative explanation for that little point.

“The whole idea is in a point,” he answered. “And the point has to expand and spread throughout the entire tefillah.”

Now what’s an older brother supposed to answer to that?

The boys’ father was a revered grand rabbi of a prestigious chassidic dynasty. When he heard about this interchange, he summoned the teacher and told him, “Teach my Beryl all you want. Just take care not to damage what is already there.”

A short while later, Zalman asked Beryl a related question, “Why do we have to pray every day?”

Beryl had an answer for this as well. “So that this point can expand and spread out every day,” he said. “You see, that’s why this word chemlah turns up another time in the prayerbook, in the blessing before Shema Yisrael. But there, you won’t find any point! Because that’s what tefillah does—it makes the point expand.”

Years later, after he became the fifth rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Shalom Dovber explained that what he was referring to as a child is the essence-point of the heart.

—adapted from Rabbi Yosef Y. Schneersohn (1880–1950), Sefer Hasichot 5696, p. 235

Being Awake

As I explained earlier, waking up doesn’t mean cessation of REM. Waking up means becoming aware of your existence within an existence larger than your own. What we want to achieve is perhaps best summed up in a teaching of the Baal Shem Tov:

Rejoice constantly. Ponder and believe with complete faith that the Divine Presence is with you and protecting you; that you are bound up with the Creator and the Creator is bound up with you, with your every limb and every faculty; that your focus is fixed on the Creator and the Creator’s focus is fixed upon you.

Tzavaat Harivash 137

In other words, when I’m awake I am aware of myself within a greater context. The simplest, most obvious of all truths is that “I didn’t make this place”—and yet the raw ego starts from the premise that it did. In a wakened state, I would be constantly aware of an awareness greater than my own—and how that awareness is aware of me.

Envision that the Creator, whose glory fills the earth, He and His presence are continually with you. This is the most subtle of all experiences.

Tell yourself, “He is the Master of all that occurs in the world. He can do anything I desire. And therefore, it makes no sense for me to put my confidence in anything else but Him, may He be blessed.”


Which is why the classic code of Jewish law that I keep mentioning, the Shulchan Aruch, tells us in its very first rule:

“I have placed G‑d before me constantly” is a major principle in Torah and in attaining the status of those righteous people who walk before G‑d.

If I can hold on to this awareness, you see, everything else will fall into place. I won’t have to think, “How should I behave? Should I do this or not do this? Why should I do anything at all?” Everything will flow naturally out of that higher consciousness, that state of knowing that the Infinite Creator of the world is here with me.

So how do I get there? Like everything else, I need to break it down into incremental steps. The first step of all steps is the Modeh Ani.

Starting with the Essence

How important are the first words to leave your lips? Since we’re quoting so much from him already, here’s what the Baal Shem Tov had to say about first words:

It is known that the world was created with thought, with speech and with action. The beginning of everything is thought. Speech branches out from thought. Action branches out from speech.

Similarly, when a person awakens from his sleep, he is a new creature, “new every morning,” as the verse puts it. If the first thing he says is just some everyday talk—all the more so if it is something untrue—then, although he prays and studies Torah afterwards, everything will follow after those first utterances. You see, just as speech branches out from thought and is subordinate to it, so the second utterance of a person follows from his first.

Something similar is stated in the Zohar and in the writings of the Arizal concerning the honor the Torah requires towards the oldest sibling: since the firstborn takes the main part, the rest of the siblings derive their current of life through him. They are like branches connected to the trunk of a tree. So it is with your first utterance.

Therefore, a person should take care to sanctify and purify his first utterance upon waking. He should also refine his first thought, so that it should be connected to holiness. In that way, all the words that follow will be in the same direction. Later, he will begin his tefillah with the joy of a mitzvah. Just as he sanctified his first utterance and first thought, so he will certainly be answered in his prayers.

Keter Shem Tov 212

Our first words are the trunk of the tree from which all the rest of our words will extend. The first words we utter upon attaining semi-consciousness are:

“I thank you, living and enduring King, for You have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness.”
מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה. רבה אמונתך

The Modeh Ani is said before washing your hands, while still lying half-awake in your bed. Unlike other tefillot, you don’t have to ensure that your hands, your body or the place where you are sleeping is clean before saying it. The simple reason is because it does not contain any name of G‑d or any verses of Torah. Yet there is a deeper reason: because it comes from a place that no impurity can contaminate, from the spark of G‑d within, a place where you and your G‑d are one, where not even the worst contamination in the world could come between you.

We call that level of the soul yechidah. Just as a person may have different names that he is called according to the role that he takes (father, husband, son, teacher, student), so the soul has different names according to the relationship it takes with the body. The Midrash lists five such names:

Name Pronounced Relates to . . .
נפש Nefesh Action
רוח Ruach Emotions
נשמה Neshamah Mind
חי׳ Chayah Desire
יחידה Yechidah Essence
Five Levels of the Soul

The fast-thinking readers are raising their hands already, wondering whether the first four levels relate to the four rungs of the ladder of tefillah. Well, yes they do. What is stunning, then, is that before even approaching the ladder, we already have level five, the level that transcends all others. How did we get to the top without a climb?

The answer is also found in the chart above: while all other names relate to a particular faculty of the human psyche, yechidah relates to the essence. The essence is not a particular faculty—it is the essence of all of them. It is the essence of desire, of mind, or emotion and of action. If so, it is everywhere within the person, immediately accessible at any time and in any situation. And yet it remains unaffected by any of them. Essence, like oil, has two qualities: it seeps through everything, and it always floats above.

Apple Essence

Take an apple, for example. Don’t eat it yet—we want to talk a little about it first. Let’s talk about its essence. Is the taste of the apple its essence? No. Proof is, there are parts of the apple that have no taste, such as the stem; or parts that have a bad taste, like the seeds. And if an apple had no taste, would it not still be an apple?

Is the redness of the apple its essence? No. Proof is, inside, the apple is not red. Is the greenish-yellow-white of the apple meat its essence? No, because outside the apple is not greenish-yellow-white.

Neither is the texture of the apple its essence, or its weight or size. All of these are subject to change with or without notice—and it could still be called an apple.

The essence of the apple cannot be described in any way other than to say it is the appleness of the apple. Every part of the apple is equally appley, because every part of the apple is apple. (Something we might call in modernese “an emergent quality.”)

So too, there are aspects of the soul that are easier to access and other aspects that are elusive. The essence is the absolute of both extremes: absolutely accessible at any time, and equally absolutely elusive.

Right now, first thing in the morning, I’m going to latch on to that essence. That way, it will be with me when I climb up the first rung of my ladder. And the second, and the third, and even at the fourth, highest level—everything I attain will be because I started with that essential point. Because that’s what tefillah does: it makes that point expand.

Coming Up . . .

Since everything depends on the first step, in the next installment we’ll walk step-by-step through the Modeh Ani, both in video and in written word.