Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Modeh Ani: An Appreciation Of Miracles

November 25, 2013

 

ImageThis week, the rare confluence of the Thanksgiving and Hanukkah holidays, each a unique tale of struggle, survival and miracles, has inspired me to present the Modeh Ani next for An Illumination Of Blessings. Here’s why: I’ve been thinking about the nature of miracles, how our perception of them has changed over time and the subtle reference to them in this blessing.

When we think of miracles, the big, cinema-worthy Biblical ones such as Noah’s postdiluvian rainbow, the parting of the Red (Reed) Sea in Exodus or the appearance of manna in the desert usually come to mind. Biblical history tells us that such phenomena  mysteriously appeared to precipitate a great crisis or in the wake of one and were meant to induce our fear, obedience, humility and faith in G-d. But in the absence of such grand miracles since post-Biblical times and the influence of our scientific understanding of nature’s laws, it’s easy to imagine those reactions fading into memory. And as we live our mundane day-to-day lives, it’s easy to blink past the one ubiquitous miracle we cannot afford to take for granted; waking up each morning.

We’ve often heard of friends, family or celebrities going to bed one night and waking up dead. News of such a passing is especially unsettling when, like me, you are a contemporary of some one lately deceased in this manner, leaving no opportunity for closure either with loved ones or with unfinished tasks.

Of course, we can’t know the extent of our own timelines, nor would most of us wish to. Nevertheless, beginning each morning with a certain mindfulness can enable us to meet each day’s challenges with the physical and emotional strength needed to recognize and accomplish our goals. Certainly, there’s nothing new about this idea; such philosophies generously pepper myriad self-help books and motivational speaker’s scripts. Yet, a simple blessing like the Modeh Ani has both the spiritual and scientific chops to make it worthwhile learning and remembering.

The Modeh Ani was first composed as a Kabbalistic (mystical) invocation among the Sephardic Jewish community in the Seder Avodas Hayom attributed to the 16th century Rav Moshe ben Makhir of Tzfat (Safed), a contemporary of Rav Yosef Karo, the compiler of the code of Jewish law, The Shulchan Aruch (The Set Table). Soon after, the blessing appeared in a 1687 Ashkenazic prayerbook (siddur) called the Derech Yeshara. Uniquely, it makes no mention of G-d’s Name allowing its recitation immediately on awakening before relieving ourselves and washing our hands. According to halakhah (Jewish law), it is not permitted to pray with G-d’s Name before washing, so the prayer was composed as a compromise alluding to G-d’s Name but not actually saying it. 

Recited each morning, the Modeh provides an opportunity to express our gratitude for the return of our soul to our bodies. Rationally, it can be said that we haven’t gone anywhere; that sleep is merely a restorative, physiological process, but that only begs the question: why were we given the ability to sleep in the first place?

The late Lubavitcher Rabbi succinctly commented on the process of soul (neshama) renewal as we sleep and its return to us when we wake (found @ chabad.org): “If we didn’t sleep, there would be no tomorrow. Life would be a single, seamless today. Our every thought and deed would be an outgrowth of all our previous thoughts and deeds. There would be no new beginnings in our lives, for the very concept of a new beginning would be alien to us. Sleep means that we have the capacity to not only improve but also transcend ourselves. To open a new chapter in life that is neither predicted nor enabled by what we did and{what we}were, up until now. {Sleep is necessary} to free ourselves of yesterday’s constraints and build a new, recreated self.”

I’ll close here with an apocryphal tale that you can take for what it’s worth. It addresses both the spiritual and physiological rationales of sleep. At an alleged 2008 international conference of neurologists, the main topic was the phenomenon of fainting when arising from sleep. A British professor presented a paper on her investigation of this issue, concluding that fainting is due to the rapid motion occurring between laying down and standing up. She pointed out that it takes twelve seconds for blood to reach the brain from our feet and when we stand up too quickly, that process is compromised causing one to faint. The professor suggested that one should sit up slowly, counting to twelve to avoid dizziness or fainting.

Her presentation was being received amidst much enthusiasm when another professor, an observant Jew, requested permission to speak. “Among Jews,” he began, “there is a traditional prayer called the Modeh Ani with which we express our thanks to the Creator of the World for permitting us to wake from sleep healthy and whole. It is recited while seated in bed immediately upon awakening. This prayer contains twelve words which takes exactly twelve seconds to say when done slowly and with sincerity.” The time, the audience’s enthusiastic response was quite likely directed at the Creator of the World…

 

Kaddish: A Blessing For Solace, Peace & Redemption

November 23, 2013

ImageMy decision to include the Mourner’s Kaddish in An Illumination Of Blessings was a rather difficult one, because, having always associated this blessing with death and mourning, I initially did not like the idea of incorporating a somber element in this book. Yet, as I reviewed the other blessings completed to date and considered those remaining to be illuminated, I felt that my task could not be complete without it.

So before I dismissed the idea out of hand, I delved into the blessing’s origins and found that the word kaddish translates as ‘sanctification’ and the prayer itself (which is in the Aramaic language rather than Hebrew) is for the sanctification of G-d’s Name. Why Aramaic? Because this was the common language spoken by Jews during the period of the destruction of the First Temple through the completion of the Talmud, nearly 1400 years ago. It was thought that the prayer was important enough to be understood for it needed to be recited by all, particularly those without formal Hebrew education.

The oldest known version of the Mourner’s Kaddish comes from the ninth century prayerbook Siddur Rav Amram Gaon. Rav Amram was the first rabbinic scholar to arrange a complete prayer liturgy for home and synagogue use. However, regarding the prayer itself, Shira Schoenberg at the Jewish Virtual Library site notes: “The first mention of mourners saying Kaddish at the end of the service is in the Or Zarua (literally “Light is Sown”) a 13th century halakhic (legal) writing by Isaac ben Moses of Vienna. The Kaddish at the end of the service then became designated as Kaddish Yatom or Mourner’s Kaddish (literally, Orphan’s Kaddish).” Most enlightening however, was my discovery at the Chabad site that the Kaddish prayer was meant to praise G-d and express the profound desire for the perfection of all Creation (a detail of which is illustrated within the image of the Torah); it was never intended to be about the finality of death at all!

Although the Mourner’s Kaddish prayer is recited during every traditional prayer service and at funerals, it is only one version among five; each of which has been modified over the centuries for use at different occasions. The others include: the Half-Kaddish (Chatzi Kaddish) read between sections of a prayer unit, the Whole Kaddish (Kaddish Shalem) which concludes the main section of a prayer unit, the Rabbi’s Kaddish, recited after a public lecture on the Torah to honor communal scholars, and the Kaddish HaGadol, recited on completion of reading a tractate of the Talmud or an order of the Mishnah (Torah commentary). It is also part of a siyyum, the ceremony held by a community when a new Torah is completely written for them. Again, none of these ever mentions death or dying; they are prayers for life, peace and redemption as they affirm the greatness of G-d. Indeed, each version of the prayer ends with “He who makes peace in His High Places, may He make peace for us and for all Israel and let us say, Amen.”

My illustration for the Mourner’s Kaddish in the book includes two sources of light and remembrance shown in the lower left corner; an ancient clay oil lamp and a sturdy candle impaled on a medieval pewter candlestick. These reflect an allusion found in the Book of Proverbs (20:27) which considers the soul of man to be G-d’s candle. In Judaism, candles are the universal symbol for the divine spark (nitzotz) which enlivens our bodies. And in spiritual meditation, we are encouraged to to allow a space in ourselves for G-d’s Light to illuminate us for our own benefit and for our interactions with others. 

Perhaps this idea can be understood as a reflection of the process of ‘tzimtzum’ or contraction, explained in Kabbalah, in which G-d, during the process of Creation, made a space within Himself for us and our world to exist.

Floating above the clay oil lamp is the Hebrew letter zayin which corresponds to the number seven in gematria or the system of Hebrew numerology. The zayin illustrates that the seven words beginning with the first ‘Amen’ in the Mourner’s Kaddish are comprised of twenty-eight letters. When the ‘Amen‘(which means ‘so be it’) is included, the verse contains eight words. This may seem like an obscure nit of information, but in esoteric Jewish philosophy, the number six represents our material world while the number seven represents the spirituality contained within that world. With traditional belief maintaining that our material world was created in six days, then the Sabbath or the seventh day became the spiritual catalyst that would complete it, while the number eight represents the idea of that spiritual catalyst’s ability to move beyond that world as we comprehend it. Finally, the number twenty-eight is the numerical attribution of the Hebrew word ‘koach’ or strength, which tells us that when we say the prayer with all of our strength, we can connect to the spiritual dimensions that allow us to virtually transcend our material world.

I decided to include this version of the Kaddish for the book because I wanted to emphasize that while the Mourner’s Kaddish resembles the other versions, I feel it best serves two universal purposes; to enable spiritual continuity (as symbolized by the ancient oil lamp and later medieval candlestick) while it bonds the generations together through ritual and memory.

 

Kickstarter Update #8: A Blessing For Body & Spirit

August 18, 2013

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Dear Backers and Imaginarius Readers,

Today,  for the eighth update on my Kickstarter project, I have posted the ninth of the thirty-six blessings that will comprise my book, An Illumination Of Blessings. With the illustration above, I’ve chosen to interpret the Mi Shebeirach (May the One Who Blesses). A full explanation on the visual symbolism in this illustration will be in the book’s commentary. But for now, here is an excerpt:

The Mi Shebeirach is recited for those in need of healing, whether spiritual, physical or both. The first recorded appearance of this blessing/prayer was in the 12th century French prayerbook, The Vitry Mahzor compiled by the Talmudist Simcha ben Samuel of Vitry. It’s original intention was to petition for the well-being of the  community and indeed its essence is preserved in the Amidah, as one of the set of prayers recited three times daily. But in recent times, in Reform and Conservative practices it is recited after the Torah reading and includes names (usually their Hebrew names) of specific individuals in need of healing by those praying on their behalf.

As I thought about the significance of this blessing/prayer and why it has changed over time, I realized that the Mi Shebeirach also tells us that we must partner with the G-d Who is The Source of Life by participating in our own recovery or in that of a loved one(s) to the best of our ability, whether it be through seeking medical intervention or by recognition of an ailing spirit that can manifest as physical illness. Forgiveness of oneself and/or others is one of the elements at the core of this process. Although the future outcome of serious illness is often unclear and sometimes all we can ask for is strength to endure, I feel this blessing  speaks for all of us living and working together as community to understand the bigger picture of life and our role in it.

For those of you and those within your extended circle in need of healing, I  wish you a full and speedy recovery of body and spirit.