What is the first thing you do after waking up in the morning? For present purposes, exclude turning off the alarm clock. In my early twenties, the first thing I frequently did was smoke a cigarette. Eventually, a friend convinced me to stop smoking. It was one of the hardest habits I’ve ever had to break. I remember my father telling me when I started smoking that it was easy to begin but tough to stop. No one knew that better than he did.
My father was born and grew up in North Carolina, one of the top tobacco-producing states in the US. He started smoking at an early age and was never able to quit. He continued to smoke even after requiring an oxygen tank beside his bed, which he used every night before going to sleep. He died seated at his desk in the office of his music school. A cigarette was burning in the ashtray on the desktop when a young student found him. He was only fifty-nine years old.
At some point, I read that the first thing a person should do in the morning is to spend a quiet moment embracing their loved one and giving them a good-morning kiss. So, I tried that. It didn’t work out very well. More often than not, my loved one was much more interested in sleeping than sharing a quiet moment at an unreasonable hour. I had to give up on the early morning idea and moved it until after my beloved had breakfast and a cup of tea.
Now the first thing I do in dawn’s early light, while still lying in bed, is to recite a prayer called, in Hebrew, Modeh Ani [“I offer thanks”]. Here is an English translation of it:
I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have mercifully restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great.Mindel, Nissan. As For Me MY PRAYER: A commentary on the daily, Shabbat & Festival Prayers. Kehot Publication Society.
In addition to being short, one advantage of the prayer is that it does not contain any of God’s names, which means I can say it without first washing my hands. I recite the prayer in Hebrew. But, as always, when I am speaking or reading something in a language other than English, I want to make sure I understand, as well as I can, the meaning of what I am saying.
I have the good fortune to live close to the gifted Israeli scholar Avi Gold. Recently, he and I spent some time talking about the Modeh Ani. I wanted to know who wrote it, when they wrote it, and why—that is, its purpose and meaning. Our first stop was an encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia Judaica does not identify the prayer’s author. It says that the prayer is of relatively recent origin, however, perhaps as late as the 17th century. If that dating is correct, Avi reminded me, then it was not recited by Moses, or Maimonides, or even by the great Kabbalist and mystic, Isaac (ben Solomon) Luria Ashkenazi. Luria died in 1572. As to the question of why the prayer was written, the encyclopedia suggests it may have been offered as a suitable replacement for another traditional prayer recited in the morning that uses one of God’s names.
In the Modeh Ani, I find the phrase “restored my soul within me,” intriguing. Avi pointed out that the Hebrew word translated as “restored” can also have the meaning “returned.” Hebrew words are often multivalent, he said. In English, “return” can mean to go back, or to come back again. If in the Modeh Ani, the Hebrew word indicates to come or go back to a place, a question arises. Where has my soul been while I’ve been lying quietly in bed all night? Note that the prayer also presupposes a distinction between “my soul,” and “me.” During the night, my soul has been away; my body has stayed put. By the time I wake up, though, my soul has returned. In his book, As For Me MY PRAYER: A commentary on the daily, Shabbat & Festival Prayers, the late Chabad Hassidic scholar Nissan Mindel writes:
Our Sages have told us that every night when we go to sleep, our Divine soul returns to its heavenly abode and gives an account of the good deeds and bad which the soul, in partnership with the body, had done during the day.Mindel, Nissan. Op. Cit.
I like the explanation Mindel cites for a couple of reasons. First, it tells me that every night my soul visits heaven. I can think of no better place to visit! I may not be ready to stay there yet, but the visits are pleasant. Second, it draws attention to the fact that my body and soul are partners in my life and that what I do every day, good or bad, is a direct product of this partnership. My body and soul are not enemies but rather allies. To do anything, they are required to work together.
The reason for reciting the prayer first thing in the morning is that I am grateful for God’s returning my soul to my body, knowing that my work is not yet entirely done. But what if you stayed up all night? I don’t know; maybe you got carried away talking to friends. Well then, perhaps you need to do some singing and dancing. It can’t hurt.
May you have a good week!
All the best,