We are living during a time when a vast majority of people are experiencing extremely high levels of anxiety. We worry about COVID-19, we worry about the results and aftermath of the elections, we worry about the safety of our children and the state of schools. The list could go on ad nauseam. There is simply no escaping the fact that 2020 (or 5780 and beginning of 5781) has been an anxiety-ridden year. If you are a person who already grappled with the sometimes-relentless clutches of anxiety, this past year has probably done nothing but exacerbate feelings of doom, fear, and dread.
Many of you can empathize with the feeling of waking up with your heart pounding out of your chest, hypervigilant, overly alert, and panicked for no particular reason. I count myself as one of those who is prone to waking up in this abrupt and disturbing manner. What a way to start the day, right? How can you wake up on the right (or even wrong) side of the bed when it feels as if anxiety has sprung you straight out of it? Anxiety is the alarm that wakes us, and it does not do so with kid gloves on.
What can be done? I can only share what has been working for me, and perhaps something similar might be of benefit to you. Enter the Modeh Ani. I make a conscious decision to recite this blessing every morning as soon as my eyes open. When I feel that anxiety and fear start to rear its ugly head, I immediately begin chanting or simple recitation:
מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיךָ רוח חַי וְקַיָּם שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ
Modeh ah-nee lifanecha, Ru-ach chai v’kayam, she-hechezarta bee nishma-tee b’chemlah rabbah emunatecha.
“I gratefully acknowledge Your Face; Spirit lives and endures;
You return my soul to me with compassion; How great is your faith in me.”
This translation comes to us via Shefa Gold. I find particularly meaningful the change to “Ru-ach” from its original “Melech.” Ru-ach, meaning “Spirit,” leaves this blessing open to more interpretation than the more narrow “Melech,” which translates to King, and seems a bit limiting and gendered. It makes sense that we would thank the Divine for returning our souls to us, as it is customary to recite the “Hashkiveinu” in the evening. When we recite The Hashkiveinu, we request that God allow us to lie down in a state of peace and wake up with our souls restored to us. I try to look at the Modeh Ani as a direct extension of our evening plea. We ask at night, and say thank you for having our request fulfilled in the morning.
What is this of our souls being returned to our bodies? Where did my soul go?! Oy Vey! Kabbalah and the Talmud give us some beautiful answers. According to Kabbalistic thought, God (who Heschel always reminds us is longing for human contact) cannot stand to be away from us for too long. When we sleep, at least a part of our soul ascends to the heavens, where our spirits attain a nest egg of nourishment for the next day. We return to our physical bodies with a spiritual thirst quenched just a bit more from our nightly journey. The Talmud tells us that sleep is actually 1/60 of death. Our souls depart from our bodies during sleep, but return upon waking. When we finally die, our souls simply do not return.
We express our thanks to the Divine not only for having given us the gift of another day, but also for having spiritually nourished us during our sleeping ascension to more Divine closeness. Perhaps you are thinking, “When I wake up, I definitely do not feel like I have just ascended, attained any sort of closeness with God, and then returned.” When we awaken full of fear and anxiety, we are back in our earthly bodies, which can often feel anything but perfect and restored. The last line of the blessing, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ “rabbah emunatecha” actually comes to us via Megillat Eicha, which is more widely known in the English-speaking world as the Book of Lamentations. For anyone at all familiar, this is neither a pleasant nor happy book, in that it deals with the theological crisis surrounding the aftermath of the First Temple’s destruction in 586 BCE. “How great is your faith in me.” We get such an uplifting bit from a book that is anything but.
What to make of this? Even when we feel down, tired, drained, like we need to lament, or simply cannot get out of bed, perhaps we can take some time to be thankful for just being alive. The 100 mitzvot per day can wait for a breath or two. Sometimes just being present in the moment is enough. When our eyes open, we have our first gift of the day. Since I have begun to chant the Modeh Ani, it has actually brought me a sense of calm that I had a lot of trouble experiencing upon waking prior. Many people try to begin their day with mindfulness or gratitude practice. Perhaps this is just another way of doing so, but in a specifically Jewish manner.
If you are struggling, give the Modeh Ani a chance, and if it does not work for you, keep trying until something does. Waking up with Divinity is such an amazing way to begin a good day. Even when we don’t immediately feel it, God and His gifts are there. It is our job to seek them, just as the Divine seeks us. Perhaps we can meet in the middle. May your mornings be calm, and your days long and full of light and wonder.