— posted in memory and honor of Jean Stapleton (1/19/1923 – 5/31/2013)
Yom Kippur Avodah Service, Fabrangen Havurah 5770
The early morning section of a Jewish prayer book focuses — with some variety in content and order (see below) — on wraps:
The focus then shifts — with the verse, “For with You is the fountain of life. In Your light do we see light” (36:10) — away from God’s universal (and one-sided) kindness toward a more specific relationship with expectations on both parts: “Continue Your lovingkindness to those that know You and Your righteousness to the upright in heart” (36:11). This is followed by verses from Hosea (2:21-22) promising betrothal “in righteousness,” “in justice,” “in lovingkindness and in compassion,” and “in faithfulness.” (More below on these verses, tefillin, and the upcoming World Wide Wrap.)
It is an age-old Jewish practice to start a day with gratitude and thanks. The question was raised in a recent study session about why tunes for the earliest of morning prayers tend to be very peppy, while not all of us awaken like that. One associated teaching is that we should approach each day with as much vigor as we have. I no of no sleepier versions, so to speak, so perhaps someone needs to compose a “modah ani for slow wakers.”
Early blessings to accompany the acts of awakening — opening the eyes, putting feet on the ground, dressing, etc. — are found in the Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included, in various orders and with different forms of address to God, in countless Jewish prayer books. Among the blessings recited earliest in the day are those focusing on the soul, body and intellect. This practice is meant to train the Jew to enjoy nothing — not even the functioning of own bodies or brains — without acknowledging and thanking God.
As discussed in Temple Micah’s first Shabbat session on the siddur, the “modah/modeh ani” prayer came into practice more recently — recent, as in the last few hundred years. It is an odd blessing, in Jewish tradition, because it does not mention God’s name. Leaving aside the reasons for this, the real power of the prayer is in practicing conscious direction of thought upon awakening (or as soon thereafter as possible).
Here are two musical approaches to modah/modeh ani. One was composed by Cantor Jeff Klepper and is frequently sung at Temple Micah; it’s performed in this video a capella by a mother and daughter. Another is Rabbi David Paskin performing his own composition. There are many other versions, but these are two I like.
Hard winter earth. Gray February days. Thank God for hidden sap!
Celebrating trees when we are surrounded by cherry blossoms — or other local tree-life — might seem more sensible than doing so on a day like today. But Judaism’s “tree holiday,” is more about the tiny bit of sap, running unseen under winter earth, than it is about visible signs of new growth. Tu B’shvat, the 15th of the month of Shevat in the Jewish calendar (Feb. 8 this year) is the “New Year for Trees.” According to Talmudic discussion, it takes place after “the greater part of the year’s rain has fallen and the greater part of the cycle is still to come” (Rosh HaShanah 14a).
Two notes in Siddur Koren Mesorat HaRav, although both offered as commentary on the morning blessings, seem particularly pertinent for this holiday.
I have heard it said, frequently from the bima of Temple Micah (Washington, DC), that a proliferation of words doesn’t always aid prayer. Rabbi Danny Zemel has often said that his own preference would be to choose just a few words on which to focus at any prayer service. I understand this perspective and do sometimes find a day’s worth of prayer in just a few words…
…Ribon kol hamaasim [Source of all Creation]
Adon kol han’shamot [Sovereign of all souls]…
— Mishkan T’filah (Shabbat Morning I), p.196
…to take just one example.
But I confess that I love words. Lots and lots of them. I am particularly fond of the psalms and of the “Nishmat” prayers which immediately precede the official call to worship on Shabbat and Festival mornings. I miss them when they’re not around.
“Nishmat” does appear in Mishkan T’filah, but Temple Micah often skips this. Psalms are generally pretty scarce in the “new” (2007) prayerbook’s morning service, and we usually sing only Psalm 150. So, I carry an extra siddur and quietly add my favorite psalms, as well as the opening and closing prayers for Psukei d’Zimrah [songs of praise, i.e., “Baruch She’amar” through “Nishmat“].
For the most part, I just hope this is not too distracting to others, and I try to keep my finger on the “right” page in case a visitor needs orientation. However, there are times when this practice creates some interesting juxtapositions, one of which I share here.