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Reflections on Prayers Upon Rising

February 2010

I lay in bed in the morning, trying to decide, through transparent eyelids, whether daylight has truly dawned or whether I have a few more minutes to burrow back under the covers. But then the alarm clock rings and all sense of illusion is gone and I sit up, groggily groping for my glasses from my night side table, and recite aloud:

“Modeh ani le’fanecha melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nish’mati b’chem’lah. Rabah emunatecha.” I gratefully thank You, living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me with compassion – abundant is your faithfulness!

Our first words – our first attempt at speech – when we arise in the morning, are “I thank You G-d”, thanking Him for returning our souls and granting us another day to serve Him. This short prayer of thanksgiving, recited immediately upon awakening in the morning, somehow helps set the tone for our accessible relationship with our Maker, throughout the day.

People have asked if I think it’s appropriate to speak to the King of Kings, while still rumpled in bedclothes, unwashed. But I always found it inspiring to use our first waking moments in service of G-d. And because the prayer does not include the actual mention of G-d’s name, the reverence necessary during other prayers, is overlooked.

What is this “Modeh Ani” prayer? I think of it like this: At night, as we lock the doors, shut the lights, pick up the toys strewn on the den floor, and add some soap and water to the dishes we won’t get to till morning, we also plug our cell phones into an outlet to recharge over night. Think how every night our souls ascend to heaven. I think of it as a recharging of sorts. Whatever we did yesterday, whatever shape our tired, tainted souls are in as we get into bed at night, by the next morning G-d returns them to us, restored, renewed, refreshed. He is saying to us, that He trusts we are up to whatever challenge or task the new day brings. He believes in our uniqueness, in our ability to go out and illuminate a piece of G-d’s world. I find “Modeh Ani” empowering. We are being granted the gift of life day after day after day. Because in some way, sleep is a micro-death experience of sorts, and it is only through G-d’s mercy that we are given another chance at life, another opportunity to do good with our G-d-given souls.

Our first moments, as we slide into consciousness, are devoted to thanking G-d. One of the main elements of Judaism is giving thanks, showing gratitude to those who have done us good. The Hebrew word for Jews is Yehudim, or the people of Judah. Judah’s name was given in thanksgiving and indeed both “Judah” and “Yehudim” contain the root word for thanks “Modeh Ani Le’fanecha” literally means that I am grateful to You, G-d, as I pray before You. We must never forget before whom we stand.

The story is told of a United States convention of neurologists from all over the world. One of the discussions was about the phenomenon of people fainting upon getting up from bed. A Professor Linda McMaron of Great Britain maintained, that after much research and study, it was found, that such fainting is caused by the sharp transfer between lying down and standing up. Professor McMaron said that it takes 12 seconds for the blood to flow from the feet to the brain. But when a person quickly stands up upon waking, the blood gets ‘thrown’ to the brain too quickly and the result is fainting.

She suggested that each person, even one who does not have a tendency to faint upon waking up, should sit on the bed, and count slowly to 12 to avoid dizziness, weakness, and fainting. Another professor, a Jewish religious man asked permission to speak. He recounted the old tradition of Jews saying a morning prayer of thanks to the Creator of the World for providing the opportunity for a new day. He pointed out that the prayer is said immediately upon waking up, while one is still in bed. He explained that there are 12 words in this prayer and if one regulates himself to say it slowly with concentration, it takes exactly 12 seconds to say it…12 words in 12 seconds. “Modeh ani le’fanecha melech chai v’kayam, shehechezarta bi nish’mati b’chem’lah. Rabah emunatecha.” He said that only then do Jewish people swing their legs over the sides of their beds and stand up. People burst into spontaneous applause at the wonder of G-d’s all-encompassing wisdom! Spine tingling! Takes your breath away, doesn’t it?

After I finish saying the “Modeh Ani”, I shuffle off to the bathroom to answer the call of nature and to wash up and brush my teeth. Immediately upon exiting I say the “Asher Yatzar”- the He Who Forms – prayer:

“Blessed are You, G-d, King of the universe, Who formed man with wisdom and created within him many openings and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your Throne of Glory, that if but one of them were to be ruptured or if one of them were to be blocked, It would be impossible to survive and to stand before You (even for a short period of time). Blessed are You, G-d, Who heals all flesh and acts wondrously.”

The “Asher Yatzar” prayer is mentioned in the Talmud as one of the blessings compiled by the Sages of the Great Assembly during the period of 410-310 BCE. I find it so awesome that the great sages of the Great Assembly, holy men, so involved in intricate, vital points of Jewish law and Scripture, took the time to compose a prayer to be said upon relieving oneself in the bathroom! If you think about it, it falls under the same theme of gratitude, as “Modeh Ani”, of wonder for a Master who has formed us, created the human body with all its complexities, all its fascinating mechanisms, and Who performs the daily, even hourly miracle of taking care of its proper functioning.

So much has to operate just right for even a simple bathroom visit to go smoothly. How often do we feel out of sorts when our systems are incapacitated? How irritable, how grumpy do we get when our most basic bodily functions are in fact not functioning? Did you ever see a baby trying to drink his bottle when his nose was stuffed? Did you ever watch your kid trying to remain calm during an attack of asthma? Did you ever read of a hemophiliac who bruises himself, cutting a vein and the bleeding won’t stop? “You, G-d … Who formed man…and created within him many openings and many cavities … that if but one of them were to be ruptured or if one of them were to be blocked, it would be impossible to survive…”

“Asher Yatzar” is recited every morning as part of the Morning Service and again, every time after using the bathroom. Many schools have a sign with the words of the prayer hung up right outside the bathrooms. I get a kick out of seeing kids running out of the bathroom, hands still wet from a quick rinse, ready to rejoin their friends at the game in the courtyard… and then they stop, raise their eyes to the eye-level sign, mumble the words hurriedly, then race off. Maybe we don’t internalize the words every time we say them, maybe we don’t always say them with the proper devotion and intent, but sometimes, especially the first time in the morning, the description of what can go wrong makes me think of all the things that are working right, and just for that moment I appreciate the gift of good health.

Dr. Kenneth Prager of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, talks of his experiences in medical school when, what he saw, brought home the terrible consequences of even minor aberrations in the structure and function of the human body. He writes, “After seeing patients whose lives revolved around their dialysis machines and others with colostomies and urinary catheters” he realized how much wisdom was contained in that 1600 year-old prayer. “The text refers to catastrophic consequences of the rupture or obstruction of any bodily structure.” Could the Rabbis have foreseen that “blockage of the cavity, or lumen, of the coronary artery, would lead to the commonest cause of death… some 16 centuries later?”

Dr. Prager thinks that physicians, especially, who are exposed to “the ravages that illness can wreak”, should find comfort in this means of expressing gratitude for one’s well-being. His own son Josh, at the age of 20, suffered a fracture of his cervical vertebrae in an automobile accident and was initially totally quadriplegic, intubated, and put on a ventilator. After a long period of therapy, rehabilitation, motivation and prayer, Josh improved and was able to walk with a leg brace and cane. But for a long time, Josh required catheterization, and the urologists were not optimistic after such a severe spinal injury, that that would ever change. Miraculously, the impossible happened and doctor Prager was in his son’s room when the catheter was removed permanently. As Josh recited the ancient prayer of “Asher Yatzar”, the good doctor cried.

You may say that both these prayers that we recite upon rising are inappropriate – one said in bed, the other after a visit to the bathroom. But no! It is the height of appropriateness. We are taking the mundane, the matter-of-fact, and raising it to the realm of holiness through blessing and benedictions. True, prayer has its place in the synagogue – a most important place. But prayers are not reserved solely for there, or solely for holy days and extraordinary acts of deliverance. These two prayers make me feel that I can reach out to G-d whenever and from wherever I am. He wants to hear from me… buried under my comforter and leaving my ceramic tiled bathroom.

Just think… by the time I wake my kids and lay out their clothes, before I check my e-mails, turn on the morning news or have my first cup of coffee, I have already prayed. I have already started my day by making a connection with G-d.


Shira Schwartz
Christian Friends of Israeli Communities