Waking with Gratitude

I remember the first time I tried to understand positive psychology. I was reading a book in line at Disneyland. What, I’m the only one who passes her line time reading nonfiction?

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I remember my first few times wrestling with the idea of virtues, I had to push aside my internal prejudice. The only context in which I had previously heard the word was as an antonym for “vice,” and my only context for “vice” was Catholic / European history with a side of horror movies. In other words, it all sounded very goyish to me.

In reality, there is a deep tradition of positive psychology built into Judaism. Morning blessings, Birkat HaShachar, are succinct meditations on gratitude, mindfulness, and intention. Traditionally, Jews said the words soon after waking up, before gathering for communal prayer.

Traditionally, the first meditation is Modeh Ani, which translated in the word order of Hebrew is: “Thank I” (as in “I thank,” the subject often comes after the verb in Hebrew). In the Koren Sacks siddur, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks explains: 

On waking, our first thought should be that we are in the presence of God. Since we are forbidden to speak God’s name until we have washed our hands, the following prayer is said, which, without mentioning God’s name, acknowledges His presence and gives thanks for a new day and for the gift of life.

Here is a translation of Modeh Ani, combining words chosen by Rabbi Sacks and the Mishkan Tefillah translation, along with my own interpretation.

I thank You, living and eternal Sovereign
for returning to me my soul in mercy
Great is Your faithfulness.

Meditating into the Presence of the Divine

Focusing on the description in this prayer allows me to sink into gratitude for the blessing of life. 

מלך חי וקים, Melech Chai V’Kayam. The flow of Living and Eternal Sovereignty.

The spark of life, the flow of time embodied. What is Alive and Eternal? What is my being oriented toward? What is Sovereign in my life? How can my transitory life become a vessel for the flow of eternal life? 

Thinking about the Living and Eternal Sovereign pushes me to wake up to the Wonder of Being. I try to allow that to be the first fully chosen thought of the day.

I know that Goodness is faithfully with me at all times. Holiness and Awe are my companions on this journey. We can choose to make room for them, or we can focus on mundane, dying darkness. The petty and the cynical are death traps.

Living into רבה אמונתך, Rabbah Emunatecha, the breadth and fullness of Your Trust / Faithfulness is my holy calling.

When we weave faithfulness into the fabric of our days, we coach ourselves to be vessels of holiness. Being conscious of the precious soul within me and the unique souls who surround me. We are each made B’tzelem Elohim, in the shadow of the Divine. We are each mortal shells wrapping a spark of eternity, the Divine who resides within each of our souls. Each individual contains worlds, each individual is worthy of whole-hearted attention and love. I am worthy and my journey is an important part of the sacred march of time.

None of us remain fully aware and awake, even when our eyes our open. I have lost countless hours to mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and watching YouTube. The Divine is not troubled by our forgetfulness. In mercy, She restores our knowledge of our souls. The gentle kiss of eternity that continuously moves with us as we walk through the world reminds us to live with empathy and trust in ourselves.

May today and every day be a day of thankfulness for me. May I forever remember the holiness at the heart of my consciousness. And may I sink into the Faithfulness Who guides me on my journey. Amen.

V’Etchanan: I pleaded with HaShem

Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Consolation, just ended. Last week’s Torah portion began with the word “v’etchanan,” I pleaded.

Image by Grae Dickason from Pixabay

Our sages say that Moses was praying for the ability to pray. The original fore-prayer. The term fore-prayer was coined by Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi to describe the need to prepare oneself for prayer.

The ultimate version of this is the prayer that is not a prayer, a line from Psalm 51: “Adonai, s’faitay tiftach, ufi yagid t’hilatecha;” traditionally translated as “O Lord, open my lips, so that my mouth may declare Your praise” which is the opening meditation before the formal beginning of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer, known simply as Prayer / Tefillah in Judaism’s oldest surviving discussions of liturgy.

Still, it feels like getting ahead of myself to speak about that beautiful line of poetry. The first fore prayer I say in the morning is a command to my soul from Psalm 104:

Bless, my soul, HaShem. HaShem, my God, You are very great; clothed in majesty and splendor, wrapped in a robe of light; spreading out the heavens like a tent. [Based on Rabbi Jonathan Sacks‘ translation in the Koren siddur.] Barchi nafshi, et HaShem, HaShem Elokai, Gadalta Me’od, Hod V’Hadar Lavashta; Oteh Ohr Kashalmah, Noteh Shamayim Kariyah.

Or as Rabbi Mordecai Finley translates it:

My soul, Bless HaShem! HaShem, my God — very great; clothed in majesty and splendor; wrapped in light like a robe; spreading out reality like a map.

I cherish beginning my davvenen with this line of poetry. It is the most beautiful description of The Cause of Being that I have: the Essence of the Universe that is wrapped in light. Try to sink into the idea that reality is unfolding like a map and you may never read another word of prayer.

These are the words I utter before I prayer; specifically, before I say the blessing for my tallit and wrap myself in it, imagining that I am wrapping myself in light — as I wrap myself in the light of the tradition, the light of holiness, the light of goodness. I also try to remember that I cannot see all of reality. That whatever I am upset about or anxious about or enjoying is just a fraction of the reality that exists in the world.

And yet, I continually fail at these meditations because I fail at the most basic aspect of the life I yearn for: consistent, daily prayer.

I looked into a lot of aspects of last week’s Torah portion in preparing to speak about it at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park. Ironically, I failed to mention anything about fore prayer during my d’var Torah.

There is so much to say as we embark on that seven week journey toward the High Holy Days. What is sovereign in your life? What do you revere? How do you show your reverence on a daily basis?

They say that the Haftorah portions for this period reflect the ascent to the holiest days of our calendar, rather than being related to our Torah portions. And yet, I find them to be intimately related. I cried out to HaShem and She answered: “Comfort, oh Comfort.” Nachamu, nachamu – the words from Isaiah that begin the prophetic portion are a clear response to the anguish we feel. Anxiety for failing to meet our own expectations of ourselves. Shame that, as Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk said, we put our ego between HaShem and ourselves. Embarrassment that we still worship idols; we covet physical things and focus our energies on material reality, ignoring the palaces in time calling to our souls.

It is all okay. Ain od. There is nothing else. The Divine is everywhere, experiencing everything alongside us. And She will suckle us through the narrow places and we will arrive into ourselves when we are ready to take our place and heed the call to our own depths.