This is a special letter for the new month of Ellul which began on Monday evening, August 9th. Ellul, the month before Rosh Hashanah, is a month which is dedicated to our spiritual renewal. In this letter, we will discuss a daily message of renewal which is found in the prayer “Modeh Ani” – the daily prayer of thanksgiving which we say upon awakening in the morning.
I dedicate this letter to an old and dear friend, the noted musician, Alan Kaufman. I met him during the period when I served as the director of the Martin Steinberg Center of the American Jewish Congress – a center for Jewish artists in the performing, visual and literary arts. Alan helped me to gain a deeper appreciation of the “Modeh Ani” prayer through an old and soulful Irish melody which he put to the words of this prayer. With the help of Hashem, I hope to share with members of our music list before Rosh Hashana a recording of my chanting the words of “Modeh Ani” to this soulful nigun – melody.
Before I discuss with you the message of renewal within the “Modeh Ani” prayer, I will review with you the following teaching: The Torah refers to Hashem – the Compassionate and Life-Giving One – as “a God of faith” (Deuteronomy 32:4). Whom does Hashem have faith in? The Sifri, a midrashic commentary, states:
“He had faith in the world and created it!”
Faith in the world includes faith in the potential of humankind to serve the compassionate and life-giving Divine purpose. When our sages say, however, that the Creator had faith in the world and created it, they are not only speaking about the Divine faith in the potential of humankind, as a whole, to serve the Divine purpose. They are also speaking about the Divine faith in the potential of each human being to serve the Divine purpose, as our sages teach:
“Each human being is obligated to say: ‘For my sake, the world was created.’ ” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)
The world was created for the sake of each individual’s unique contribution to the fulfillment of the Divine plan.
I once heard a fascinating insight from Rabbi David Aaron, which is based on the above midrashic teaching of the Sifri. (Rabbi Aaron is the founder and dean of Isralight.) According to Rabbi Aaron, the idea that Hashem has faith in us can give us a deeper understanding of the “Modeh Ani” prayer that we say immediately upon awakening in the morning. This is a prayer of thanksgiving for the return of our neshamah – soul. Below is a transliteration of the Hebrew words of this prayer, followed by a translation:
Modeh ani Lefanecha, Melech chai v’kayam, sh’h’chezarta bi nishmasi b’chemlah, rabbah Emunasecha!
“I am grateful before You, O Living and Eternal Sovereign, for You have returned my neshamah within me with compassion – great is Your faith!”
According to our spiritual tradition, the neshamah of a human being is with the Creator during sleep, and each morning, the gift of life is renewed through the return of the neshamah to the body. We therefore express our gratitude upon awakening for the return of our neshamah. Why, however, in this prayer of gratitude for the return of our neshamah, do we say to our Creator, “Great is Your faith”? Rabbi Aaron responds that we are thanking our Creator for having faith in us!
Through saying the words of this prayer, each individual is to realize the following truth:
If the Compassionate Creator returned my neshamah to my body this morning, then this means that He still has faith in me. He is telling me that my sacred mission on earth is not yet finished, and that He has faith in my ability to fulfill this mission.
There is a Divine mandate to emulate the compassionate and loving ways of the Creator, as it is written, “And you shall go in His ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Our Creator knows our weaknesses, and He is aware of the life challenges that confront us; nevertheless, He has faith in our ability to overcome these challenges and fulfill the purpose of our creation. If our Creator has demonstrated His faith in us by returning to us our neshamah, then we must emulate our Creator by having faith in ourselves.
Have a Chodesh Tov – a Good Month!
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. The brief prayer of thanksgiving that we say upon awakening does not mention any of the sacred Divine Names, and this is because we have not yet washed our hands. After washing our hands, we say our morning prayers, which include a longer prayer of thanksgiving for the return of our soul. This longer prayer opens with the following words: “My God, the soul that You gave me is pure.”
2. The laws of the Torah are known as halacha – a term which means “the way to walk”; thus, halacha refers to the detailed steps of our spiritual path. The classical code of halacha known as “Shulchan Aruch” (Siman 4) discusses the mitzvah to wash our hands upon arising in the morning from sleep. The “Mishna Berurah” is a later code of halacha which elaborates on the “Shulchan Aruch,” and in its discussion of the mitzvah to wash our hands upon awakening in the morning, it cites the following explanation of the Rashba, one of the early commentators of the Talmud, as to why we wash our hands in the morning after waking up:
“Because in the morning after sleep, we become like new creatures, as it is written: ‘They are new each morning, great is Your faithfulness!’ (Lamentations 3:23).”
3. When we wake up in the morning, we thank our Creator for returning our souls, and we conclude with the proclamation, “great is Your faith!” An alternative translation of these words is, “great is Your faithfulness.” This can be understood as an affirmation that our Creator will be faithful in the fulfillment of all the Divine promises regarding the reward awaiting us for our mitzvos. It can also be understood as an affirmation that our Creator will be faithful in the fulfillment of all the Divine promises regarding the future redemption in the messianic age – a collective redemption for all creation and a personal redemption for each of us. The awareness that these Divine promises will be fulfilled can help us to get out of bed in the morning, especially during periods of collective and/or individual stress.
4. It is written: “They are new each morning, great is Your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:23). The Midrash Rabbah on this verse cites the following explanation in the name of Rabbi Alexandrai:
“Since You renew us each and every morning, we know of Your great faithfulness with regard to the (future) revival of the dead.”
The “Siddur” is our classical prayer book. There is a commentary on the “Siddur” known as Anaf Yosef, and it is found in the anthology of commentaries on the Siddur known as Otzar HaTefilos. The Anaf Yosef explains the above teaching of Rabbi Alexandrai in the following manner:
We deposit our souls at night in Your hand, when they are tired from the burdens of the day, and You return them to us in a strengthened state as if they were new. From this we know that there will be a revival of the dead, for this daily revival from the sleep of the night is a semblance of the revival of the dead. (Commentary on the “Modeh Ani” prayer which we chant upon awakening)
5. The Psalm for the Sabbath Day states:
“It is good to thank Hashem and to sing praise to Your Name, O Exalted One. To relate Your loving-kindness in the morning and Your faith in the nights.” (Psalm 92: 2,3)
“Your faith in the nights” – According to Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, a noted Torah educator, the psalmist is saying: “I believe that God believes in me!” Rabbi Feuer adds that the psalmist is saying to Hashem:
“When good days dawn, sunny and bright, it is good to relate Your loving-kindness, O God, and to sing Your praises. It is even more meaningful, however, to sing of ‘Your faith in the nights,’ when I stumble in the gloom of failure and adversity. Then I reach out to You O God, and I grab hold of Your hand. How good it is to know that Your hand is always there because Your faith in me is forever, even in the nights of dark misfortune.”
The above teaching is found in the book: “Tehillim Treasury” – Inspirational Messages and Uplifting Interpretations of the Psalms of David. The author is Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer, and it is published by Mesorah Publications: www.artscroll.com .