As I write this d’var Torah, we have just entered the Hebrew month of Elul, the month that precedes the High Holy Days, a month when the shofar is sounded at the conclusion of our morning prayers. The shofar acts as our spiritual alarm clock – it’s time to wake up, time to prepare for the Days of Awe that are coming very soon.
Maimonides, the medieval scholar who was one of the most influential Jewish thinkers of all time, teaches that the sounding of the shofar “has an allusion to a deeper meaning, as if saying, ‘Awake O sleeper, from your sleep; O slumberers, arouse yourselves from your slumbers; examine your deeds, return in repentance, and remember your Creator’ ” (Hilchot Teshuvah 3:4).
In truth, Jewish prayer invites us to practice “waking up” every morning of the year in the prayer Modeh Ani. The words of this prayer are: I gratefully acknowledge your face; Spirit lives and endures; You return my soul to me with compassion; How great is your faith in me!
One of my teachers, Rabbi Shefa Gold, has a smartphone app, called Flavors of Gratitude, that offers 49 different chants for Modeh Ani. She’s obviously very serious about this prayer and its practice. She unpacks the prayer this way:
“With the first phrase of the prayer – Modah ah-nee lifanecha – I open to the miracle embedded in the day that is being given to me. For the second phrase – Ru-ach chai v’kayam – (I substitute ru-ach/spirit for the traditional melech/king), I acknowledge that although my whole world is in flux, there is something beyond and within me, a great spirit – eternal and enduring, moving through all of it.
“With the third phrase – she-hechezarta bee nishma-tee b’chemlah – I become receptive to the gift of consciousness from the compassionate one and I open to the sense of being seen, known, loved and fully accepted by the great mystery that embraces me this very day.
“The last phrase of the prayer – rabbah emunatecha – is taken from the Book of Lamentations 3:23. When I experience God’s faith in me, I receive a glimpse of the widest, longest perspective. In that glimpse, I am calmed. I relax my frantic grip. I stop trying to figure it out. I begin to trust the flow of inexorable change.
“This divine faith in me is what grows my own fragile faith. When I am known, seen and loved completely through this divine faith, I can dare to rise to the challenge of loving this world with all that I am and with everything I’ve got.
“The fact that this final phrase comes from the saddest text of our tradition bears a profound teaching. It seems to be saying that our gratefulness and faith don’t come from denying our suffering, but rather by moving through that suffering and getting to the other side.”
Neuroscience teaches that human beings have inherited a brain from our stone-age ancestors that is particularly alert to the possibilities of danger. They call this negativity bias. We are programmed to first notice what’s wrong. But every spiritual tradition that I know of acknowledges that how we begin our day matters, and that certainly seems to be the intention of Modeh Ani.
Each day I wake up with an intention that when I open my eyes I will see and recognize God’s face in the details of the day I am about to encounter. If my very first expression is gratefulness, rather than seeing what’s wrong today or obsessing over how much I need to get done, then I step onto a path of blessing. I prepare myself for wonder.
The poet Mary Oliver captures this intention in her poem “Why I Wake Early.”
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the miserable and crotchety –
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light –
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.
Gratefulness connects us to the great flow of receptivity and generosity. When we begin the day in gratefulness, we step on to the path of love.
May our hearts be open with generosity and gratefulness to the blessing of wonder this day and throughout the new year.
ALAN FLAM is on the Steering Committee of the Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty and is the organizer and rabbi for Soulful Shabbat, a Saturday morning service that emphasizes silence, chanting, gentle stretching and meditation along with traditional davening and Torah study. He can be reached at email@example.com.