Modeh Ani to Shema: Waking up with a roar, retiring at night with gratitude

Welcome to Term 3, although it is not the Term that we anticipated just a few short weeks ago.

It’s obviously going to be an interesting and quasi-unknown haul for all of us. The positive energy that we feel here as a College, staff and students across all of our campuses is extraordinary. Many children have already given us feedback, in a strange way, many are actually looking forward to online learning. Yes, they will miss being face-to-face with their friends, but online learning can be fun! Once again, it’s really important for us to reframe the situation in which we find ourselves, as an opportunity. We can’t control whether we are online or not, but we can control how we respond. It’s an opportunity to learn to engage and do things in new ways, and to really look after and watch out for each other.

Routine of Jewish life

I wanted to share a couple of very short thoughts about order and routine within Jewish life and how important it is for our wellbeing. The Jewish day is structured with prayers at each end, and a brief mincha prayer in the middle of the day.

Awake with a roar – Modeh Ani

As we awake each day, we face a series of battles or challenges to overcome. The very first battle occurs as soon as our alarm rings. The alarm is the first shot fired. We often need to overcome that first battle of what I ‘want ‘, and what I ‘should’ be doing. What I ‘want’ to do, is to push the snooze button, and stay in bed a little longer, to stay nice, cosy, and warm under my blanket. What I ‘should’ do, is to be ready to be jump out of bed and take on the day with courage. As it says in the Code of Jewish law, quoting the Mishna in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, Rabbi Yehuda Ben Taima says, ‘ We need to arise in the morning like a mighty lion’. Be strong and courageous like a lion as we get out of bed, or as we say, ‘rise with a roar’.

As we get out of bed, the very first thoughts and words that cross our lips in Jewish life are supposed to be the twelve words of the Modeh Ani prayer – thanking Hashem for returning our soul and for giving us another day. Even whilst we are still in bed, as we cross the border into consciousness this prayer makes us aware that we are in the presence of our Creator. It may help to picture lying in front of a King, President or Prime Minister, or perhaps on a zoom conference with all of our friends, family and colleagues. That awareness gives us the encouragement to be ready and present to face the day confidently. That realisation and acknowledgement of Hashem helps us be ever so appreciative for refreshing us and giving us another day. It helps us surrender ourselves to His will, accept what needs to be accepted, and being empowered to take action and do our part in influencing the world around us for the positive.

My nephew Mendel’s appreciation

Modeh Ani awareness empowers and energises us for the entire day. This coming September will be seven years since the passing of my nephew, Mendel Cotlar, a few weeks after his Bar Mitzvah. Please click here to view the very last speech he gave at his Bar Mitzvah, just before he fell into a coma and passed away. He spoke about the power of Modeh Ani and compared it to the Bikkurim – the first and best fruits that farmers brought to the Bet Hamikdash in Temple times. People were very happy when they brought this gift. They felt the joy of expressing gratitude for everything they have, and showing gratitude makes you happy. We begin each day showing gratitude and bringing our ‘first fruits’, by saying Modeh Ani. This sets the tone for the day, the week, month, and year. A tone of joyous appreciation. 

The Modeh Ani prayer has been the way in which, we as Jewish people, start our day with gratefulness and thankfulness, for thousands of years. It is not new knowledge since the psychologist, Martin Seligman, popularised Positive Psychology, that expressing gratitude is instrumental to our wellbeing. It has been built into the Jewish psyche for many generations, waking up and saying ‘thank you Hashem for restoring my soul, fully rejuvenated’ as an expression of our gratitude from our deepest selves. No matter who we are, or what circumstances we find ourselves in, we are grateful for our lives.

Modeh Ani, says my late nephew Mendel, has four principles embedded in its 12 precious words. 

The first is that Hashem is everywhere in our lives. 

The second is that waking up each morning is an expression of Hashem recreating our lives continuously. 

The third is that Hashem returns our soul, our body, our life to us, despite our imperfections, showing us His ultimate kindness, which we must emulate, showing kindness to those around us, despite theirs and our imperfections. 

The fourth is that we are thankful for having our specific souls, specific lives, and specific circumstance return to us, despite our personal challenges and advantages. We are of unique importance to Hashem and His plans. We matter! And as we start our days, we thank you Hashem for all the good in our lives.

The ‘R’s of Shema before bed

We then go through our busy days and lives, whether in person or online, at work or school. As we get ready to retire for the evening, we carve out a few moments before bedtime to say the bedtime Shema. 

I would like to look at the R’s of Shema.

  • Relax – don’t rush the Shema, be mindful; saying Shema from a Siddur, even though most of us know the words off by heart, helps us clear our minds and focus on the prayer and its meaning.
  • Review and re-examine our day – think through something that went well today; focus on something that we can improve upon; recall all of the blessings of our day; seek the sparks of beauty in our lives, deal with the negatives of when we or others have messed up and commit to doing it right next time. Shema is a great time for Reflection.
  • Refresh – the few minutes of Shema are a special time for us to refresh our attitude; to forgive others and allow ourselves to move on. The Talmud says that those who ‘easily forgive’ or are ‘more easily forgiven by Hashem’, those who ignore the impulse to get even, are liberated. Their sins are ignored on the heavenly ledger. But remember before we can fully forgive others, we need to forgive ourselves. Many psychologists and counsellors recommend a total forgiveness formula: before you go to bed each night, forgive everyone in your life, especially our closest family members, especially our spouse.
  • Refocus – on the knowledge that it is Hashem who guides us; He guides every aspect of our lives and designs everything that happens each today. That mental focus and realisation, that Divine Providence is guiding every detail and experience in our lives, cleanses and helps us surrender our soul, tired as it may be, with purity and innocence to Hashem, and sleep is then sweet.
  • Repent and Return – ponder Hashem’s kindness; He always allows us to start afresh each day. Hashem bears no grudges. 
  • Re-entrust – entrusting our soul into Hashem’s faithful hand, praising Him for what we have experienced today, for illuminating our world and our lives. We entrust Him with a tired, worn-out soul each night, knowing that in the morning we will wake up full of energy, ready to rise like a lion to greet the day.

As we visualise all of these thoughts, as we sing the words Shema Yisrael Hashem Eloheinu Hashem Echad, as we focus on the words of Shema, (it’s far better than counting sheep), we go to bed faithfully and we wake up ready to face another day, with bravery. The words Modeh Ani are then the natural progression of appreciating and faith.

Rising with thanks, going to bed with faith

Throughout this time of lockdown, however, long it may be, having that daily structure of a Modeh Ani, gratefulness awareness each morning, and a Shema recognition of total faith upon retiring each night, helps us as we face our challenges and opportunities every day.

Wishing you and your families a safe and successful Term.


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About the Author

Rabbi Yehoshua Smukler is the College Principal at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.

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