For as long as I can remember, I have brought books to read in synagogue. Concentrating on prayer has never come easily. I struggle to find meaning in the recitation of the same words day after day, and so inevitably at some point in the prayer service I reach down sheepishly into my bag, pull out my novel, and nestle it inside my siddur as discreetly as possible. Sometimes I turn around to check who is sitting in the row behind—I would not want to set a bad example for young children sitting attentively in shul with their parents—but what troubles me most is not the people who might be observing me, but the words embroidered in gold on the ark covering that hangs before me: “Know before Whom You Stand.”
We come to synagogue to stand before God. Prayer is an opportunity to engage with the divine — to speak, or whisper, our hopes and fears, acknowledge our mistakes, express our regrets, reflect on what makes us feel grateful, and thank God for our blessings. It is also an opportunity to reach within ourselves and ask the deep and difficult questions that often get lost in the rush of the urgent, the immediate, the mundane. To focus on our prayers is to try and formulate answers to some of life’s fundamental questions: What do I regret about my behavior this morning, yesterday, this past year, this past decade? What are my dreams for this next stage of life? What are my unique talents, and how can I use them to contribute to others around me? How would I like to see the world transformed?
Granted, there are many people who make time on a weekly or even a daily basis to think about these questions. They write in a journal every morning, or meditate alone in their bedrooms, or attend a yoga class, or go off on silent retreats. But as a lover of language and as someone who has always felt deeply at home in Jewish tradition, I have set myself the challenge of trying, at least for a few hours each week, to set aside my novel, open my siddur, and draw out the connections between my own inner world—my hopes, fears, dreams, regrets—and the words of the liturgy. The siddur is the language of the human heart. The Kotzker Rebbe famously teaches that we are commanded in the Shema prayer that “these words shall be on your heart” because if we place them on our heart, then in those moments when our hearts open, the words will fall in. My heart is not always open to prayer, but when it is, these are some of the words that have fallen in.
I thank you, living and eternal King, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is your faithfulness….
The moment I emerge from sleep is generally one of anxiety. I feel the stresses of the day that lies ahead – the decisions that must be made, the tasks that must be completed, the people who are awaiting a response. I reach for my phone to see who wants my attention or needs something of me, but in that moment before the artificial light of the backlit screen casts its glow in our still-dark bedroom, I restrain myself. There is enough to take in already—the early-morning light, the warm blanket pulled up to my neck, the beep of the neighbor’s van backing out just a few feet from my bedroom window. Before inviting more, I want to turn back to those pre-sensory moments, when my eyes have not yet opened and the weight of the day has not yet descended on me. My soul shrinks from all that it has just remembered, from what poet Richard Wilbur describes as “the punctual rape of every blessed day.” I want to return to those untarnished moments when I can see the light only because I feel it dancing on my still-shut eyelids.
Wilbur imagines that the soul wakes up before the body and descends reluctantly to accept its physical form, like the air filling the blouses and bedsheets fluttering on a laundry line on a windy day. As Wilbur would have it, every day begins with the soul’s bitter disappointment at having to assume physical form once again. But the earliest Jewish prayers recited in the morning regard the restoration of the soul to the body as an occasion for gratitude and hope. And so I try to remember to utter these words before opening my eyes and before the anxiety sets in. Reciting these words serves to ward off the dread – there may be much that concerns and distresses me about the day that is dawning, but thank God I am alive to face that day. And thank God for having faith in me and deeming me deserving of yet another day.
Mornings in our home are never easy. There seems no point in setting an alarm, because one of the children will inevitably jump into our beds at the crack of dawn. My daughter Liav is generally the first to wake up –she comes into our room as soon as she sees the first rays of sunlight peeking under the bottom of her shade and snuggles under the covers with us. She knows that in our family, individual attention is hard to come by – especially since she is a twin and she shares her bedroom (and her bedtime routine) with her sister. So she has learned to steal the pre-dawn hours for herself.
Soon it is time to wake the other kids. I tread softly into their rooms and open the shades, flooding their room with light. I try not to speak a single “secular” word before singing to them the Modeh Ani prayer: “I thank you, living and eternal King…” I want my children to wake up in gratitude. Afterwards I can tell them to get dressed and make their beds and not to forget to brush their teeth. All that can wait. Better that their first image should be one of the soul descending into the body to allow another day of potential and possibility. Better that they, unlike me, should wake each day in hope and not in anxiety.
Modeh Ani is a relatively late addition to the Jewish liturgy – it is first found in prayer books from the sixteenth century. But it echoes many of the themes of Elohai Neshama, a prayer mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud (Berakhot 60b) and included at the very beginning of the siddur:
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure.
You formed it within me,
You breathed it in me,
and You guard it while it is within me.
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come.
As long as the soul is within me, I thank You
O Lord my God and God of my ancestors,
Master of all worlds
Lord of all souls.
Blessed are You O Lord,
Who restores souls to lifeless bodies.
David Abudraham, a fourteenth-century Sephardi commentator on the siddur, points out that each line in this prayer echoes a biblical verse. The opening lines, about God fashioning our souls, hearkens back to the sixth day of creation, when God created Adam and breathed the spirit of life in him. Every morning hearkens back to the creation of the world. We wake up and our souls are placed back inside us in much the same way that God first breathed life into Adam’s nostrils. “My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure” – as if every night God launders each soul and returns it clean and fresh. Abudraham connects the notion that “You formed it in me” to a verse from Zecharia (12:1): “The Lord, who stretches out the heavens, who lays the foundation of the earth, and who forms the human spirit within a person.” The Hebrew term used for “spirit” is ruach, which also means wind. The spirit fills the body much like the wind filling the clothing on Wilbur’s laundry line, and once animate again, the body can move and dance like the laundry in the breeze.
“One day You will take it from me,” we acknowledge in Elohei Neshama. Abudraham links this line to a verse from Ecclesiastes: “Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God Who gave it.” We remind ourselves of our mortality immediately upon awakening because if our lives were not bounded—if we had all the time in the world—then we might be tempted to crawl back under the covers and do nothing at all. Like many parents, I am constrained by my children’s school hours, yet without that time pressure, I might never get anything done. It is the knowledge of how short the day is that propels us forward. We speak the words of Elohai Neshama to remind ourselves that we cannot know how many mornings we have left—we don’t know how many more times God will faithfully restore our souls to our bodies. But we have been granted this morning on this day in this life, and so let us arise and embrace it.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a heathen.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a slave.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the Universe
Who has not made me a woman. (Women say: Who has made me according to His plan.) (Alternative version: Who has made me in His image.)
In the traditional liturgy the morning benedictions begin with three blessings of personal status in which we thank God for not making us who we are not – a heathen, a slave, and a woman. More progressive prayer books word these blessings in the positive form – thanking God for making us a Jew, a free person, and someone created in God’s image. But the shadow of their precursors enables us to appreciate the fates we have been spared.
One morning when I was in a synagogue that follows the traditional liturgy, I heard the male prayer leader recite the words, “Who has not made me a woman.” At the time I was five months pregnant – I had just begun feeling the baby kick, and though I did not yet know that she would be a girl, I could swear that the fetus thrashed violently in response to hearing the words of that blessing. And I recoiled as well, not in disgust but in surprise. I realized for the first time that the prayer I ought to be saying every morning was not thanking God for making me according to His plan—which suggests a sort of second best—or even thanking God for making me in His image, a prayer that both men and women can recite together. Rather, I wanted to thank God for making me a woman.
So many of my most profound spiritual experiences would not have been possible if I had been born male. In carrying human life inside me and bringing children into the world, I have felt closest to God as creator. I’ve prayed with the most intention and fervor throughout my pregnancies, conscious of how much was beyond my control even as it is was taking place just millimeters beneath the surface of my skin. Especially in those early months, I could not know with any certainty from hour to hour if the baby inside me was healthy, or even still alive. In moments of doubt or concern, there was nothing to do but place my hand on my belly and plead with God. And then, on those most joyous days of my life, amidst the terror and elation of birthing my children, I felt so blessed to have this role as God’s partner in creation. The Talmud describes the terror and elation with which the high priest entered and exited the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, with the whole nation waiting outside in fear and trepidation. It is not an experience any woman will ever have, let alone a woman living in the modern era—but in giving birth, I feel I have been granted a glimpse of that sacred enclosure.
Had I been born in the era of Temple worship, presumably I would have a different attitude. After all, for much of human history, the vast majority of women experienced a clear social and political disadvantage. Think of Virginia Woolf at Oxbridge, who was sternly reminded that “ladies are only admitted to the library if accompanied by a Fellow of the College or furnished with a letter of introduction.” When reciting the morning benedictions, I think about not just how grateful I am to have been spared the fate of being someone I am not, but also about how fortunate I am to have been spared the fate of being born a woman in virtually any other era. I am blessed to be a Jewish woman in the twenty-first century, when the texts I love studying and the religious roles that infuse my life with meaning are freely accessible to both men and women. Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who has made me a Jew, and a free person, and a woman of our time.
A psalm of David… I will exalt You, Lord, for You have lifted me up, and not let my enemies rejoice over me. Lord, my God, I cried to You for help and You healed me. Lord, You lifted my soul from the grave, You spared me from going down to the pit…. At night there is weeping, but in the morning there is joy… You have turned my sorrow into dancing. You have removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, so that my soul may sing to You and not be silent. (Psalm 30)
This psalm transports me to one of the darkest and bleakest moments in my life, when I was deep in the pit. Recently divorced at age 26, my life had been completely derailed. I wasn’t sure where I should be living—on one side of the Atlantic, where I’d grown up, or on the other side, where I’d recently made my home—and I was in between jobs, trying to distract myself with freelance gigs while fretting about the future. Then one day I had coffee with a friend who looked me squarely in the eye and told me something that has stayed with me. It was a platitude, and I’m almost ashamed to admit what an impact it had on me, despite my scorn for self-help literature and my snobbish insistence that the best advice for how to live one’s life can be found in the novels of George Eliot. And yet there I was, profoundly shaken when my friend told me, quite simply, that the only constant in life is change.
My friend went on. Everything in life is in flux; our reality is never static and unchanging. And given how horrible I was feeling then, she said, chances were that with time I would feel better. She made me feel so much more hopeful. To be in the pit does not mean that we will forever be in the pit. If we are wearing sackcloth now—it was so hard, in those days, to even get dressed in the morning—there is always the hope, and possibility, that at some time in the future we will be clothed in joy. (I was glad, six years later, that I had saved my wedding dress.) And though every night I wept, perhaps at some point for me, as for the psalmist, the morning would bring joy.
The sentiments expressed by the psalmist are echoed in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29:
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate…
The speaker is in distress and cries out to God, cursing his sorrowful fate. By the end of the poem, though, the thought of his beloved and her “sweet love” brings him such joy that he avows that he would “scorn to change my state with kings.” Since that moment in the café with my friend, I have recited Psalm 30 thousands of times in my morning prayers. In moments of joy it has served as a humbling reminder that surely there are others whose distress I can help alleviate; and in moments of sadness, it has reminded me that this too shall pass.
Happy are those who dwell in Your House…
The Lord is close to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth. (Psalm 140-145)
I have a hard time making time for prayer. In the mornings I am always in a rush to start my day, and so generally I pray while walking to work. In the afternoons, when I am counting down the minutes until I have to pick up the kids, I am loath to interrupt my work to take a few minutes for minchah. And at night, by the time the kids are in bed, I collapse in exhaustion and cannot imagine standing up before God in prayer.
Every so often, though, I am reminded of why it is so important to pray regularly, even when it’s the last thing I want to do. When we pray regularly, we ensure that we have an open channel of communication with God. To invoke a modern metaphor, we might say that by engaging in daily prayer, we ensure that God is always at the top of our Contacts list, so that in moments of acute distress, when we need to cry out, we don’t have to start searching for God’s contact information. Nor do we have to start with a long and awkward preamble, the way we might if, say, we broke a bone and called a distant orthopedist friend: “Hi John, I know we haven’t been in touch in decades, but we went to college together, you know, I was friends with Steve and Linda…. Anyway, I’m calling because I think I have broken my arm, and I’m wondering if I could send you the x-ray.” When we speak to God on a regular basis, God knows who we are and we know how to talk to God, and so God will be close when we cry out in our brokenness.
Over time I have developed a deep appreciation for the transformative power of prayer, and yet even so, I continue to bring novels with me to synagogue. Sometimes I simply don’t want to confront my own inner demons and desires, and I’d rather lose myself in someone else’s fictional world. Other times I am tired of reciting the same words day after day—I don’t know what will happen on the next page of my novel, but in the siddur I don’t expect to find surprises. And then I’ll be sitting there absorbed in my book and hear the prayer leader recite a phrase that jumps out at me, catches hold of me, and perhaps even takes my breath away, and I return to the siddur with renewed determination to lose myself—and ultimately find myself—in its pages. I surrender to the inevitable moments of monotony with the faith that in the boredom comes the unbidden. I know that the siddur will never have the same appeal as a novel, but I hold out hope that by integrating the person I am into the liturgy each day, I can find my own way to make the ancient prayers and blessings feel just a bit more novel.