I know I’m supposed to say the Mod(e)(a)h Ani first thing in the morning. Before I get out of bed. Before I say hello to my dogs. Before I have a first cup of coffee. After all, what greater gift is there than the return of one’s soul to one’s body. It should be the first thing you think of. The problem is, I’m not always sure my soul is awake when I first open my eyes. If I’m rushing through the prayer so that I can wash my hands, and then go make coffee, has my soul reached awareness for the day?
So I’ve been playing around with new times and ways in which to pray — not just the Mod(e)(a)h Ani, but all prayer. Sometimes it works. Other times it’s a disaster. The audio version of the Ma’ariv services on my iPhone while I walk the dogs was an unmitigated disaster. It’s impossible to focus while politely asking your dogs to “just, please, don’t eat that rabbit”.
For a long time, I felt like a failure trying new times and ways of praying. I wanted to do it Right. I wanted to do it Jewishly. Even when the prayer time or placement worked for me, even when it made me feel spiritually alive and in touch with Something Somewhere, I felt like a failure.
We all do it — we become so wedded to the way something is supposed to be done that we lose the point of why we are doing it. We want it to be right and proper and true — and we forget that we also want it to mean something, be authentic, and move us towards something beautiful. I find this to be particularly true of the fixity of Jewish prayer. There are laws to be obeyed. There are times and places and ways in which one is allowed to pray. The text is (more or less) fixed. The words are set. But we also want the work of prayer to be a movement of our hearts.
So this morning, I took my coffee and a random book of Jewish essays out onto my front porch, which is quickly becoming my favorite place to be. I hadn’t said the prayer thanking G…d for the return of my soul yet, because I was grumpy and didn’t really feel like my soul was where it needed to be. Instead, I opened my book, which happened to be a book of essays on prayer, and this is what I read:
Twice daily we try to impress upon our hearts the words, uttered in Hebrew, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all they soul with all thy might. However, there are those who know the meaning but not the right pronunciation of these Hebrew words. Does perfect love depend upon the perfect pronunciation, upon proper articulation?*
As in most cases, Heschel is right. I’m not a native Hebrew speaker. I may never get the words quite right. I am not a Jew from birth. I’m still learning how the laws and rules and rituals fit into my life. But Heschel goes on to say that “prayer is not judged by standards of rhetoric but by the good intention, by the earnestness and intensity of the person. Ultimately the goal of prayer is not to translate a word but to translate the self”.* I’ve got those in spades – intention and will and earnestness.
So this morning I sat on my front porch, and I drank my coffee, and I enjoyed the sunshine and I prayed, thanking G…d for the return of my soul to my body. And it may not have been Halachic, this impromptu morning prayer, but for the first time in a while, as I said it, I felt like my soul woke up.
From Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, by A. J. Heschel, p. 16, 17