Modeh Ani: Overnight collection of feelings

12 11 2008

I have been thinking a bit about mornings, and how difficult I find it to get up and out of bed almost every morning. Someone suggested to me that it is because all of my psychological defenses are down when I wake up in the morning. I have not yet put on all of the armor that I wear during the day, against feelings of impotence or hopelessness or other negative emotions that might threaten my being. It’s not that I am so happy-go-lucky at night, but in the morning, I really feel like a sloggy mess.

I have been reading the “סידור מאורי הגר”א,” the prayer book commentary written by Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, a.k.a. “the Gra,” a.k.a. the Vilna Gaon (17201797). He describes what happens at night in his commentary on the words “שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִי נִשְׁמָתִי,” or “for You have restored my soul”:

Because all of the feelings come from the brain…and the heart sends them out to the [rest of] the body….At night…the brain collects all of the feelings to it, and similarly, the whole spirit is gathered to the heart, and then, when he sleeps, the power of imagination is active…and then morning comes and the person awakes.
[Translation mine. This bit includes some medieval metaphysical notions that I don’t understand, see Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilḵot yesodei ha-torah 3:1; available in English here and thus all the ellipses. I would rather leave out what I don’t understand.]

It’s true, isn’t it? At night, the brain getting clogged with subconscious feelings that are repressed during the waking hours and the imaginative powers take control and run wild. In the morning, upon first awaking, I am forced to deal with the consequences of that. Thought about in those terms, it’s not surprising that I would rather go back to sleep than wake up!

The Vilna Gaon explains that a person’s soul does not return to her body until the morning, and brings textual proof for that, which will be the topic of a separate post. But it seems to me that this explanation of the brain collecting all of the feelings and then getting stuck there at night is reason enough to be grateful for daily the return of the soul, which helps disperse feelings throughout the body and thus moderates them.

This commentary helps to explain to me why mornings are difficult: It’s because transitions are hard and, upon awaking in the morning, we undergo a major transition of our emotional states: from being trapped, alone, and cocooned to being open and having to deal with the world around us. We need this difficult transition, though, for the night to stop. Otherwise, it would go on forever, and that’s no good, either.

I am not quite sure what to make of this commentary by the Vilna Gaon. This bit does resonate with me, however.


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