This post is part of my Amidah Project series–an attempt to examine my personal experience of the core prayers of the normative Reform Jewish liturgy. For more, please browse my Amidah Project archive.
In the Reform Jewish tradition, there are some prayers we say almost with our tongues in our cheeks–usually ones that deal with the radical amazement of our personal or communal relationship with God. In Reform circles, God language can be controversial, especially since the movement spent so many years trying to distance itself from traditional expressions of worship and observance. Those years are long gone, but many of my fellow RJs remain skittish about publicly discussing–much less declaring–a heart-to-heart relationship with Deity.
Beginning in the 1970s, musicians such as Kol B’Seder and Debbie Friedman (of blessed memory) began to reclaim the traditional language of our liturgy, giving it new (or, really, renewing its old) meaning by setting prayers and psalms to popular music. The RJ teen summer camp movement taught those songs to generations of young Jews, and the new musical motifs eventually entered the sanctuary, where they remain today beside more traditional settings.
We teach our children the popular motifs in religious school and camp, trying to instill in them an authentic and heartfelt sense of Judaism. But in many sanctuaries on Friday night and Saturday morning, the same motifs are treated as children’s “camp music”–we may use the modern settings on a regular basis, but not with the same honest ruach (spirit) with which our children approach them. Unless you’re an adult song leader (which almost by definition means you spend your summers at camp, anyway), the average RJ tends to be wary about displaying publicly an emotionally unfettered celebration of Deity in song.
If the Jewish journey has a personal goal, beyond connection with God and our fellow human beings, that goal would be self-realization. I’ve often heard rabbis say that their real job is to help people discover and express who they really are. Without fear. Without feeling self-consciousness. With heart. Popular motifs make it easy to figure out where fellow congregants might be on this journey.
Look around the next time your congregation is chanting a popular version of a blessing or prayer and you’ll see what I mean. Some people won’t be participating at all. Some people will be singing with a smirky smile. Some people will be singing with abandon and totally meaning it. And some people will be on the verge of opening their mouths, if only they could release the fear that connecting with God for real, out loud, and in public was somehow not valid normative Reform behavior.
Not only is it normative Reform behavior, but I would suggest getting to that place of fearless being is one of our greatest Jewish goals.
The Modeh Ani (Modah Ani for women) is the short prayer that begins the morning service. (It’s so short, it’s often the first prayer Jewish parents teach young children after the Shema.) In fact, many Jews (myself included) say the Modeh Ani as they wake up in the morning, before getting out of bed. There’s a reason for that. It’s the prayer for thanking God for giving us another day.
(There are two additional prayers of gratitude near the Modeh Ani in the morning service that also tend to get get short shrift–the Asher Yatzar and Elohai N’Shama, prayers very tenderly thanking God for our very bodies and souls. I’ll get to them in future posts.)
Here’s what the Modeh Ani says:
Modeh (Modah) ani l’fanecha, Melech chai v’kayam,
She-hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla, rabba emunatecha.
(I offer thanks to You, ever-living Sovereign,
that in mercy you have restored my soul within me, great is your faith.)
Not many words, but many ways to unpack them, depending on the level of your own personal radical amazement at being alive, or being at all. I’m awake again, and I’m still here. And how did I get here in the first place, and how does this waking-up thing happen successfully every time, anyway?
I mean, after all, I’m not the smartest, or most loving, or most worthy person on the planet. Far from it. I go through my day making mistake after mistake, always hoping, swearing (praying), that I won’t do the same thing again tomorrow. As often as I sense the love and compassion I’m capable of achieving and transmitting to others, I also see my imperfections, and limitations, and ability to be hurtful, and hateful, and dishonest.
And I know you see them, too. From you I can’t hide anything inside of me. And I don’t understand it, and maybe I wouldn’t if I were you, but you always, somehow, seem to be pulling for me. I know you’re there throughout my day. I can sense that and I’ll thank you for that, too, later this morning.
But right now, as always, I know you haven’t given up on me, because once again you’ve given me the greatest blessing of all. You’ve given me life. I don’t know how that’s possible in the first place and I don’t know what it ultimately means, but you created me. And as faithfully as the sun rises, without words you tell me how much faith you have in me and my ability to become, and do better, and abide by my Yetzer Hatov instead of my Yetzer Hara. How much faith you have that I’m worth it no matter how many times I fail, simply because I’m your creation.
And the way you let me know all of that takes my breath away. You do it amazingly and simply, by letting me wake up to another day of life. With all the possibility of allowing love and all the worthiness of living that another day of being one of your conscious creations entails.
I don’t have words to express how that makes me feel. I don’t have any ability to repay you for this miraculous kindness. But there’s something I can do. I can do it with every fiber of my being, and I mean it.
I can say thank you. Modeh ani’l’fanecha. Your faith in me, truly, is great.
In this video I chant the Modeh Ani with Kol B’Seder’s familiar, upbeat tune. It often sounds like a country song to me. You know what? That’s okay. Gratitude takes many forms.
And it’s never anything to be embarrassed about.
(Can’t see this video in your news feed? Watch it here.)
Michael Thaddeus Doyle
I'm a NYC-native, Latino, Jew-by-choice, hardcore WDW fan in Chicago with an Irish last name. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I do nonprofit development. I've written this blog since 2005. Believe in the world you want to live in.