This is the sermon I offered this morning at the Unitarian Church of Montreal. Thanks so much for welcoming me, UU community of Montreal!
מֹודה אֲנִי לְפָנֶיָך, מֶלְֶך חַי וְַקּיָם, ׁשֶהֶחֱזְַרּתָ ּבִי נִׁשְמָתִי ּבְחֶמְלָה. ַרּבָה אֱמּונָתֶָך!
"I give thanks before You, living and enduring God.
You have restored my soul to me.
Great is Your faithfulness!"
This prayer is part of Jewish morning liturgy. It's in our prayerbook, and is often recited at the beginning of communal morning worship -- though in its most original context, it's meant to be recited before we even make it to synagogue in the morning. Modah ani is something we're meant to say upon waking up, first thing.
Some of you may have grown up reciting the 18th-century classic "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep" before bed. That prayer has its roots in the Jewish custom of the bedtime Shema. Before bed, we say a prayer reminding ourselves that we place our souls in God's keeping while we are asleep. And when we wake again in the morning -- and, mirabile dictu, we're alive again! -- we offer this prayer of gratitude. Thank You, God, for giving my soul back to me! Great is Your faithfulness!
I'm often struck by that line. "Great is Your faithfulness." Often we think of faith -- in Hebrew, אמונה –– as something we're meant to have. We have faith in God. But in this prayer, it's the other way around. God is the one with emunah. God has faith in us.
There's something very powerful for me about asserting that, first thing in the morning. Today is a new day, rich with possibility. I am awaken and alive; I am a soul, embodied. And, my tradition teaches, God has faith in me and in what my day might contain.
In the traditional Jewish morning liturgy, shortly after Modah Ani there's a series of one-liners, called in some prayerbooks the "Blessings for the Miracles of Each Day." We bless God, the Source of All, for giving the bird of dawn the discernment to tell day from night. (In other words, it's a blessing of gratitude for the rooster, or whateverwakes us from sleep.) We bless God, Source of All, Who gives sight to the blind; Who clothes the naked; Who wipes sleep from the eyes and slumber from the eyelids.
These blessings too have migrated into our prayerbook, though I like to remind my community that they were originally intended to be prayed organically. But on the off-chance that perhaps we didn't thank God for the alarm clock this morning, or for straightening our spines as we got out of bed, or for giving strength to the weary, we do so together as part of our daily liturgy. These blessings, and the Modah Ani which comes before them, are part of a daily gratitude practice. And I believe that whether or not one "believes" in "God," that daily gratitude practice has value.
A poem from my forthcoming collection Open My Lips (due from Ben Yehuda Press next year):
You bring my son's footfalls to my door
and shock me awake with his cold heels against my ribs.
You teach me to distinguish waking life from dreaming.
You press the wooden floor against the soles of my feet.
You slip my eyeglasses into my questing hand
and the world comes into focus again.
In the time before time You collected hydrogen and oxygen
into molecules which stream now from my showerhead.
You enfold me in this bathtowel.
You enliven me with coffee.
Every morning you remake me in your image
and free me to push back against my fears.
You are the balance that holds up my spine,
the light in my gritty, grateful eyes.
I wrote this poem as a kind of contemporary, and very personal, adaptation of that series of traditional morning blessings. I don't get woken up by a rooster, nor even a clock-radio: I get woken every day by my son, who is almost four. I do experience the restoration of sight to my nearly-blind eyes -- through the medium of these lenses, ground by professionals with precision and care. And so on.
There's a blessing in Jewish liturgy which praises God Who enlivens the dead. In its original context, it referred to resurrection, in which my ancient ancestors believed. I've chosen to read it differently, and I frequently recite it when I step into the shower in the morning and am awakened by its blissful heat -- or when I tip back the day's first swallow of coffee. These are some of the ways in which I experience God's presence in my day, every day, and when I stop to say thank you, I notice God more.
My teacher Reb Zalman -- Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi -- is reported to have had a conversation with someone once in which the questioner began by asserting that he didn't believe in God. Without missing a beat (at least as I've heard the story told), Reb Zalman mildly agreed, "The God you don't believe in? I don't believe in either." The word "God" can mean an awful lot of things -- even just in Jewish tradition! For me, more important than the meaning of that word is the sense of relationship which it represents. God is the One With Whom I am always in relationship.
Here's another from Open My Lips:
Some days I say good morning
while the hose splashes into the kiddie pool
and the cat sniffs curiously at its curls
my lightest tallit
a sweep of blue silk
across bare shoulders
Blessed are You
Who straightens the bent, I sing
as I reach for the heavens
and blessed is the One
Who speaks creation into being,
walking across a patch of wild thyme
the mosquitoes want to rejoice in me
so I swish my tzitzit
inscribing letters on the air
then swirl my tallit off
like a bullfighter's cloak
blue rippling around my fingers
it's time to go inside
I turn off the faucet
but Your abundance keeps flowing
The metaphor which depicts God as the cosmic source of blessing, and our prayers as the act of turning on the spigot so blessing can flow, comes from the sages of my tradition. My teacher Rabbi Marcia Prayer teaches, in her tremendous book The Path of Blessing, that this is one way of understanding the traditional "blessing formula," the formulaic way in which most Jewish blessings and prayers begin.
בָרּוְך אַּתָה יי אֱֹלהֵינּו מֶלְֶך הָעֹולָם -- these words are usually rendered something like "Blessed are You, O Lord our God, sovereign of all creation." But Rabbi Prager notes that the word baruch, "blessed," is related to breikha, "fountain", and berekh, "knee:" what might that tell us about the act of blessing, the flow inherent in the practice, or the emotional/spiritual stance it might require?
She writes: "Jewish tradition teaches that the simple action of a brakha has a cosmic effect, for a brakha causes shefa, the 'abundant flow' of God's love and goodness, to pour into the world. Like a hand on the faucet, each brakha turns on the tap."
Jewish tradition holds that we should make 100 blessings each day. Imagine that: in every day, one hundred opportunities for mindfulness and gratitude!
A poem of gratitude from Waiting to Unfold:
ONE YEAR (MOTHER PSALM 9)
A psalm of ascent
When the doctor brought you
through my narrow places
I was as in a dream: tucked behind
my closed eyes, chanting silently
we are opening up in sweet surrender.
The night before we left the hospital
I wept: didn’t they know
I had no idea what to do with you?
Even newborn-sized clothes
loomed around you, vast and ill-fitting.
I couldn’t convince you to latch
without a nurse there to reposition.
But we got into the car, the old world
made terrifying and new, and
in time I learned your language.
I had my own narrow places ahead,
the valley of the postpartum shadow.
Nights when I would hand you over,
mutely grateful to anyone willing
to rock you down, to suffer your cries...
But those who sow in tears
will reap in joy, and you
are the joy I never knew I didn’t have.
I have paced these long hours
bearing a baby on my shoulder
and now I am home in rejoicing,
bearing you, my own harvest.
Sometimes we offer words of gratitude because we are already feeling grateful. And sometimes we come to feel grateful because we are offering words of gratitude. This is something I learned from my teacher Rabbi Jeff Roth many years ago: that when I'm not able to access the gratitude with which I want to invest my Modah Ani prayer, I can instead pray the traditional words in the hope that someday I might be able to feel gratitude again.
This morning we've entered together into a service of thanksgiving. One might ask: what is the relationship between thanksgiving and gratitude? It seems to me that gratitude is an attitude which may be a precursor to giving thanks... and sometimes giving thanks is a way of cultivating gratitude.
When we give thanks, we place ourselves in relationship to something greater than ourselves. Our prayers of thanksgiving and mindfulness carve channels of gratitude on our hearts, and the more frequently we carve those channels, the more easily our spirits flow in those directions.
A blessing for all of us who are here today: that in our prayer and fellowship this morning we might truly connect with gratitude and thanks -- and that as we offer thanks and praise, we may find ourselves changed by that practice; more open to recognizing daily miracles; more able to inhabit the gratitude with which we seek to imbue our days.
I spoke earlier about אמונה, the Hebrew word which means faith or faithfulness. The root of that word, א/ מ / נ, spells out a word with which some of you may be familiar; a word with which many of us have learned to seal our prayers. That word is Amen.
In Hebrew, Amen means something like: right on! I affirm that! So be it! It could mean: I believe that. Or perhaps, as Fox Mulder used to say, "I want to believe." If you'd like to affirm something you've heard this morning, or to offer a wish that you could feel some of what I've been describing, please join me in this practice from my tradition:
And let us say: Amen.
The image which illustrates this post is a print of the Modah Ani blessing, available on etsy, which hangs in my rabbinic office.