It’s been a long time since I’ve had babies around the house. So I just forgot.
I forgot how after a long night’s sleep, my rested babies would often wake up with the biggest bright eyes, sweet smiles, and happy, happy dispositions. I got a taste of that sweetness last weekend when my niece Katie and husband Brandon came for a visit, and they brought with them their 8-month old bundle of love. His name is Cole. And when Cole woke up that first morning of his visit it was clear that he was one happy guy. It was like he knew the essential truth of existence — one that us grown ups frequently forget. Cole, in all his smiley, morning enthusiasm, personified what a blessing it is just to wake up, to be alive, and to be given the gift of another day.
How would it be possible to recapture this morning joy for myself, I wondered. How can I wake up to being more like Cole? In this season of Thanksgiving, I am reminded that the Jewish liturgy offers a technology to access morning gratitude. It’s the Modeh Ani prayer.
Modeh/Modah ani lifanekha melekh chai v’kayam shehecḥezarta bi nishmahti b’cḥemlah, rabah emunatekha.
I thank you, living and enduring king, for You have graciously returned my soul within me. Great is your faithfulness.
Rabbi Marcello Bronstein, a teacher of mindfulness steeped in the Jewish tradition, does a repetitive chant of the Modeh Ani, using only the first phrase of the prayer, which offers the open arms of gratitude to the giver of life. Modeh ah-nee lifanekha. Basically translated as “Thankful am I to you,”or as in Rabbi Shefa Gold’s poetic translation….”I gratefully acknowledge Your Face.”
I came to the the Modeh Ani prayer later in life, and, looking back, it was no surprise that my “babies” taught it to me.
I grew up in a secular Jewish home in suburban Detroit and the only thing that felt Jewish about my life was that I shared a bedroom with my bubbie Sylvia until I went away to college. My real Jewish education was learned via my kids’ Hebrew Preschool, through which I felt like I was earning a dual degree in Parenthood and Jewish Literacy.
After learning the Sh’ma and the blessing over the challah, my kids and I were introduced to the morning Modeh Ani prayer, in the form of a fun and catchy song. It became the theme song for Team Dube in those hectic, early years when our kids were 5 and 3 and 1. We even had them singing the song as the message on our phone answering machine for a while…until enough of our friends told us it was a bit long to listen through whenever they wanted to leave a message.
Now, all these years later, as I revisit the prayer and its meaning, I realize in a deeper way that this was the perfect prayer to constantly be uttering during those early, lucky days of growing our family.
Modeh (or Modah for women,) Ani is a prayer of gratitude. Jewish tradition says that when we go to sleep at night God takes our soul and returns it to us when we awake. There is a midrash that likens the act of sleeping to 1/60th of experiencing death. When we recite Modeh Ani upon waking up, we are thanking God, or a higher power, or the universe, or who or whatever is responsible for enabling us to experience the unfolding of another day.
My kids are all grown ups now, and living on their own. That Modeh Ani message on the answering machine is long gone. But the morning gratitude prayer—it’s still with me. How awesome would it be if I were able to tap into this gratitude throughout my day, and let it shape the way I move through the world and encounter people and situations along my path. That may be an aspirational goal, but reciting Modeh Ani to start my day helps bring awareness to all the small moments in my life, and the blessings that are tucked into each of them.