These days, I often feel overwhelmed by an onslaught of bad news. I’m not alone. On a recent episode of his eponymous new cable-television show, CNN commentator Van Jones listened as his guest Oprah Winfrey —perhaps the closest equivalent to a Queen we have here in the United States — advised him to persevere through darkness and despair and “stay as a warrior of the light.”
Easier said than done.
“I need your help,” Jones replied. “I wake up in the morning, I am trying to be a warrior of the light, and I reach for my cellphone, and I look at it, and I just start freaking out. And I freak out the whole day….”
Unfazed, Oprah elaborated with a glimpse into her own ritual. When she starts her day, she said, “the first thing I say is, ‘Thank you.’ Even before I’m awake, even before my eyes are really fully open, I say, ‘Thank you.’ I can feel the gratitude like, ‘Woo, I’m still here. I’m in a body. Thank you so much. I thank you for that.”
I couldn’t have been the only one who experienced Oprah’s words with a particularly Jewish jolt of recognition. For what she described as her practice sounds remarkably similar to the recitation of the Modeh Ani prayer.
As the My Jewish Learningwebsite succinctly reminds us: “Traditionally, Jews begin each day with Modeh Ani, a short, two-line prayer which opens by referring to God as the eternal and living king. The prayer speaks of sleeping as a minor type of death in which the soul leaves the body to spend the night with God. The prayer thanks God for returning the soul to the body, enabling the individual to live another day.” Notably, the prayer “is generally said when one first awakes, while still in bed.”
For many Jews, saying this prayer is a lifetime habit. Not so in my case. My introduction to it came not at home, but rather in a classroom, when I was seven-years-old, participating in a weekly “religious instruction” programme offered by Chabad rabbis in Brooklyn, New York. Even before I’d mastered all the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, I learned to recite the transliterated words: Modeh ani l’fanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she-hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemlah, rabbah emunatecha.
Two years later, my family relocated to the suburbs and joined a Reform congregation. There, I became familiar with the vibrant rendition arranged by musicians Dan Freelander and Jeff Klepper in the 1970s. But as with adhering to Jewish dietary laws, observing fast days apart from Yom Kippur, and many other practices, reciting Modeh Ani each morning never became integrated firmly into my routine.
With one notable exception. Over the past decade I’ve journeyed to Israel twice, on visits guided by the aforementioned Reform congregation. (I’ve written about one of those trips in these pages.) On these tours, our group would assemble each morning and begin the day’s activities with a collective Modeh Ani recitation. Thus I’ve discovered one textual modification since my childhood days: Women may now be encouraged to replace the masculine form of the word “modeh” with the feminine “modah.”
But those trips ended. I returned home, and the recitations ceased — until Oprah appeared on Van Jones’s show. And I decided to give her advice a try.
I’ve been told it takes at least 21 days for habits to take hold, and I’m not even two weeks into this. But if it’s not yet automatic for me to pronounce the prayer the second I awake, I’m already less dependent on the reminder note I’ve placed by the alarm clock to prompt me.
There’s much that I don’t understand about the subtle changes that I can sense already. But here’s what I know for sure: Modeh Ani helps me start my day in the light. It ensures that my earliest thoughts each day are positive — and directed toward the Divine.
The Freelander/Klepper melody is now lodged in my head; I find myself humming it a few times each day. And each time that happens, I relax, and I smile, even if only inwardly, even if the day brings more darkness to contend with.
I may never become a full-fledged warrior of the light. But thanks to Jewish tradition — and Oprah Winfrey — something, somewhere, is aglow.
Erika Dreifus is a writer in New York.