Modeh Ani: “Renewed Every Morning”

12 11 2008

The words “שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה” “for you have restored my soul with mercy,” are not easy for one who has difficulty believing that her soul is taken away at night and is returned in the morning.

Fortunately, the end of the Vilna Gaon‘s commentary on Modeh Ani (in סידור מאורי הגר”א) points out another possibility. First, he explains the traditional belief that every morning, we get a new נְשָׁמָה, or soul. However, when he quotes, as his proof, a verse from Lamentations (3:23), he goes in a different direction. That verse is not about our souls being new every morning, but, rather, about God’s mercies being renewed every morning.

I’ve included both that verse and some surrounding verses, since I find them to be particularly beautiful.

כא זֹאת אָשִׁיב אֶל-לִבִּי, עַל-כֵּן אוֹחִיל. 21 But this do I call to mind, therefore have I hope. {S}
כב חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא-תָמְנוּ, כִּי לֹא-כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו 22 The kindness of the Lord has not ended, His mercies are not spent.
כג חֲדָשִׁים, לַבְּקָרִים, רַבָּה, אֱמוּנָתֶךָ 23 They are renewed every morning–ample is Your faithfulness!
כד חֶלְקִי יְהוָה אָמְרָה נַפְשִׁי, עַל-כֵּן אוֹחִיל לוֹ. 24 ‘The Lord is my portion,’ I say with full heart; ‘Therefore will I hope in Him.’ {S}

(Lamentations 3:23 also seems to be the source for the phrase “רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ,” the last two words of the Modeh Ani that I wrote about here.)

According to the Vilna Gaon, just as God’s mercies and compassions are new every morning, so are our souls. I wonder if I can try to think about that when I wake up every morning, and burn that as fuel, as it were, to propel myself out of bed in the morning.

The phrase “כִּי לֹא-כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו,” “His mercies are not spent” reminds me of a line from MaimonidesMishneh Torah:

וּמְצֻוִּין אָנוּ לָלֶכֶת בִּדְרָכִים אֵלּוּ הַבֵּינוֹנִיִּים, וְהֶם הַדְּרָכִים הַטּוֹבִים וְהַיְּשָׁרִים, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר “וְהָלַכְתָּ, בִּדְרָכָיו” (דברים כח,ט).  [ו] כָּךְ לִמְּדוּ בְּפֵרוּשׁ מִצְוָה זוֹ:  מַה הוּא נִקְרָא חַנּוּן, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה חַנּוּן; מַה הוּא נִקְרָא רַחוּם, אַף אַתָּה הֱיֵה רַחוּם…
רמב”ם, משנה תורה, הלכות דעות, פרק א, הלכה ו

We are commanded to walk in these middle ways, and these are the good and straight ways, as it says, “And you shall go in his ways” (Deuteronomy 28:9). Thus we learned to interpret this commandment: Just as [God] is called compassionate, so should you be compassionate. Just as God is called merciful; so should you be merciful…
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot 1:6

I feel that just as it is  important to emulate not only God’s kindness to others in our interactions with others, it is also important to emulate God’s mercy and compassion on us when we relate to ourselves. When I wake up in the morning, and finish Modeh Ani with the words “שֶהֶחֱזַרְתָּ בִי נִשְׁמָתִי בְחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ” I will try to remember both that we get a new chance each morning, just as God’s mercies are renewed each morning, and that we are allowed to be compassionate and kind to ourselves, just as we praise God’s ever enduring mercy.


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.