It’s pretty much impossible to imagine the feelings of Funchu Tamang, a 101-year-old man who was pulled alive from under the rubble of his home a full week after the recent devastating earthquake that ravaged Nepal. But what went through his mind as light met his eyes for the first time in days and he realized that he was being rescued is ideally what should go through our own heads every morning, when we are pulled from the depths of sleep into a new day of life.
That’s what Modeh Ani is for, of course. That short statement of gratitude uttered by every observant Jew upon waking up is meant to focus our thoughts on the fact that, just as some earthquake victims are not rescued, so do some sleepers never awake. And on Chazal’s description of sleep as a taste of death. In a way, no matter how many times we may have arisen, we greet every morning as beneficiaries of techiyas hameisim.
And there are other resurrections, too, that we experience but don’t always fully appreciate. For several weeks this winter, I was homebound and in considerable discomfort with a, baruch Hashem, non-life-threatening but debilitating illness. As I recovered, I came to understand something I had never given much thought to before. I gained a sudden comprehension of why the phrase “rofeh cholim” is included in the brachah of “mechayeh hameisim” — why Hashem’s healing of the sick falls under the category of His resurrection of the dead.
When one is ailing, in distress and depleted of energy, appetite and even the ability to concentrate or do much more than hurt, it really does feel as if he isn’t really living, just sort of present in the painful moment — and that the moments are endless. And when the illness passes, it’s like re-entering the world, like being born anew.
The capacity to fully function again provides an appreciation of normalcy. When asked by people who knew that I was laid up how I’m feeling now, I respond with two words: “wonderful” and “normal.” Because normal, I now keenly know, is wonderful.
That’s a lesson that living an observant Jewish life drives home daily. From Modeh Ani, those first words out of our mouths when we arise – to brachos like Asher Yatzar and those of Birchos Hashachar and Shemoneh Esrei and Hamapil (among others), we are guided to recognize the blessing of life and health and being, “Your miracles that are with us every day …” in the words of Modim.
And it’s not just life and health and the normal functioning of our bodies and minds that we are enjoined by our mesorah to pause and be thankful for each day. What happens to us each day, what we experience, is no less worthy of our grateful focus.
A young woman of whom my wife and I think very highly — we’d think the same even if she weren’t our first-born daughter — has a wonderful custom. Every night, before sending each of her children off to bed, she asks him or her to identify “the best thing that happened to you today.”
Each of us (and, presumably, those children) have days that we tend to think of as “bad ones,” as having afforded us nothing really to feel positive about. But we’re wrong. There’s always a “best thing.” It might not rate anywhere near the top of the list of our personal “best things that ever happened to us” list. But everything’s relative; there’s always something we can identify as the high point of even the most dismal day. It might be a small thing, even something that happens often. But identifying it nightly and giving it some thought focuses one’s mind to appreciate it when we otherwise might not.
Not a bad idea even for those of us who aren’t sent to bed by our mothers, who retire for the night of our own accord. Before Hamapil, we might look back over our day not only, as many are accustomed, to make a cheshbon hanefesh, to identify things we did that we might have done better or might have better not done, but also to identify the best thing that happened to us over the hours since we last said Modeh Ani.
As a result, we might find it easier not only to fall asleep peacefully but to focus and feel appreciative when, the following morning, we say that next Modeh Ani.