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Prayer and Consciousness

November 11, 2009 by  
Filed under Prayer

Prayer and Consciousness

Guest Post

by Yakov Nagen (Genack)

Each day we repeat our daily prayers and say more than a hundred blessings. This repetition of the same words day in and day out can be viewed as a tedious routine. However, there is another way to relate to this reality. What we are sorely missing in life is not more information or varied experiences but the ability to be actively conscious of that which we know to be dearest, and through this direct our lives. The question is how to insure that those insights about life, which are often attained at great cost, do not recede from ones consciousness?  I have discovered that the ideas most significant for me invariably appear or can be homiletically linked to the daily prayers. The daily repetition of prayer has become for me a blessing and not a burden allowing me each day to reawaken to all that is dear to me. Each of the following examples of this approach link a particular idea to certain words said daily.

 Modeh Ani

Upon awakening, the very first utterance a Jew pronounces is

“מודה אני לפניך, מלך חי וקיים, שהחזרת בי נשמתי בחמלה, רבה אמונתך”.

This simple prayer is a means to connect the awakening of one’s body with the awakening of consciousness. In “Modeh Ani,” I thank God for returning my soul, for bringing me back to life; I express that I do not take existence for granted, but view each day as a unique gift from God. I thank God for granting me today. Tomorrow, when I receive another day, I will again thank God. In the meantime, I exist fully within the world of today.

Today is not primarily a means to another end; rather, its completion represents an achievement in itself. When I shift my primary concern from the “big questions” such as “what will I do with my life,” or “what will I do tomorrow,” and focus upon the question of “how will I live this day that I have received, and what content do I want it to have?” it is much easier to decide that today be filled will love and joy, with study of Torah and mitzvah performance, and to implement the decision in reality. In this mindful frame of consciousness, there is no room for anger, frustration or lethargy. Although today’s actions ultimately form a continuum with those of yesterday and tomorrow, one’s conscious focus must be the task for today. 

This perspective can help free us from the shackles of pain and confusion, which too often emerges from frustration about one’s past missteps and fears about the future.

A well-known Rosh Yeshiva once told his brand-new class of students that they were “the best in the world.” After the class proudly sat up erect, he explained: “Today, you are the best, because since you have not yet begun, all possibilities lay open before you.” The perspective afforded by Modeh Ani allows us to conceive of each day as a new world; it allows me to be “the best” each morning, in the sense that each day lies open before me, and the constraints of the path taken in the past need not restrain me today.

Thank You for the Thank You

“YeHuDi,” the Hebrew origin of the word “Jew,” derives from the cognate “leHoDot” (to thank). Indeed, Leah called her fourth son “Yehudah” in thanksgiving for Divine beneficence. (Beraishis 29:35) 

How appropriate, then, that the first word every Jew utters in the morning is “Modeh,” “thank you”.  ‘מודה אני לפניך מלך חי וקיים שהחזרת בי נשמתי….’, “Thank you God for returning me life”.

The secret to happiness lies in the ability to say “thank you,” for the very essence of thanksgiving implies the insight that the subject recognizes that he or she has been granted good in life — that there is a reason for gratitude. In Hebrew, the act of expressing gratitude is called “הכרת הטוב”, literally, “recognizing the good;” recognition is a key component in the mechanics of thanksgiving.

In interpersonal relationships, proper etiquette dictates that one thank a human benefactor for his or her beneficence. Whom do you thank when you find goodness within yourself or within the world? Belief in God means that there is always Someone to thank.

“Modeh Ani” provides thanks for the return of the soul, the Neshamah. And to what purpose I devote the Neshamah I have received? The answer appears in a following prayer, “Elokai Neshamah”: indeed, to say thank you!

“כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי, מודה אני לפניך ה’ א-להי…” .

Thus, ultimately, I gives thanks for the very ability to thank.

The power of thanksgiving lies in its ability to open our eyes to the good in our lives. However, there is also a deeper significance. Saying “thank you” creates a relationship between two parties, between the giver and receiver. It brings together man and wife, children and parents. To thank God for all means to appreciate every component of existence, and to use each element to draw closer to God. Don’t settle for thanking God in the context of prayer alone. See something beautiful? Say “thank you”!

Netilas Yadayim

The daily requirement of Netilas Yadayim, handwashing, the first act a Jew performs upon awakening, is noted by the Rashba (cited in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) to be patterned after the parallel activity of the Kohanim, the daily sanctification of their hands and feet in preparation for their service in the Mikdash. This reflects the status of the Jewish people as a whole as “ממלכת כוהנים וגוי קודש”  “a polity of priests and a holy nation.”  However, our status as a nation of priests vis-a-vis the rest of humanity is contingent upon our actions, as the previous verse makes clear: אם שמוע תשמעו בקולי ושמרתם את בריתי, “if you hearken unto My voice and guard My covenant.”

 Netilas Yadayim each morning conveys the message that each of us is a Kohen, and by extension, the world with which we interact daily is the Mikdash, the arena in which we are called upon to serve, and fulfill our Divine role.

 Asher Yatzar

The blessing of Asher Yatzar teaches a profound lesson — that the glory of God is revealed not merely in the sublime grandeur of all that is magnificent in the universe, but also in its “darker” aspects, in its unseen holes and spaces, in even an atavistic act that people generally try to conceal.  A verse in Isaiah (45:7) follows the structure of the Asher Yatzar blessing, beginning with designation of Divine activity as “Yotzer” (fashioning) and progressing to “Borei” (creating): יוֹצֵר אוֹר וּבוֹרֵא חֹשֶׁךְ עֹשֶׂה שָׁלוֹם וּבוֹרֵא רָע, אֲנִי ה’ עֹשֶׂה כָל אֵלֶּה . In the prayer, “Borei” governs Divine creation of the holes and spaces within the body. In the verse in Isaiah, “Borei” regards Divine origin of darkness and evil in the world. In the microcosm that is the human body, much like the entire physical universe, the “holes and spaces” in reality, the areas of void and of darkness, are also seen as expressions of divine wisdom, as playing an essential role in the cosmos, as the verse concludes: “…אני ה’ עשה כל אלה”.

:גלוי וידוע לפני כסא כבודך. What is this great secret that is known only in the upper worlds? Apparently,  ‘שאם יפתח אחד מהם או ייסתם אחד מהם אי אפשר להתקיים ולעמוד לפניך’. Is this not obvious? Yes, but as it happens, we are not necessarily mindful of what is basic, essential, and indeed, obvious. “Asher Yatzar” raises our collective consciousness to those basic facts that we tend to neglect, the truly significant truths that are  ‘גלוי וידוע לפני כסא כבודך’.

That which is “גלוי וידוע” is not static; rather, we must interpret the prayer in light of our dynamic, day-to-day realities. Immediately after our daughter was born, my wife Michal gave her interpretation of “אשר יצר את האדם וברא בו נקבים נקבים חלולים חלולים…שאם ייסתם אחד מהם אי אפשר להתקיים…”  — as depicting the process of childbirth; the mother must be “open” in body and soul to create the space necessary to allow new life.


The Torah designates the purpose of Tefillin as being “למען תהיה תורת ה’ בפיך””, “so that the Torah of God be in your mouth” (Shemot 13:9). The linkage between Tefillin and Torah is a multifaceted one; there are sources that view Tefillim as symbolic of the study of the content of Torah (Tosfos Rosh Hashanah 17a), observance of the Mitzvos of the Torah (Kiddushin 35a) and the actual object of the Torah scroll itself (Makkot 11a). Tefillin, which is composed of four Torah portions, represents the Torah in all of its manifestations, and thus, the wearer of Tefillin expresses his connection to the Torah.

Other sources in our tradition highlight the parallelism between the human being and the Torah; one example is the law requiring rending one’s garment upon witnessing the moment of death on the basis of this equation, העומד על המת בשעת יציאת נשמה חייב לקרוע, הא למה זה דומה לספר תורה שנשרפה  (Shabbat 105b). Another is the Midrashic parallel that links the 248 limbs of the body to the positive commandments of the Torah, and the 365 sinews to the negative commandments. From this perspective, the wearing of Tefillin highlights one’s inner essence, what one truly is.

Finally, Tefillin is viewed as a physical expression of the Name of God (Menachot 35b). This concept is reflected in multiple ways – by the letters of the name שדי formed by the tefillin (Rashi), by the many mentions of God’s name in the Parshiyos of Tefillin (Menachos 36b), by the Aggadic contention that God Himself wears Tefillin (Berachos 6a) or by the concept that Tefillin constitutes testimony to God’s presence upon  us (Tosfos Berachos 34b). In this perspective, Tefillin is again expressing what we are — a manifestation of the Divine Name, each of us created in God’s image.

The Kabbalistic concept of the singularity and identification of God, His Torah and the Jewish people is thus reflected quite beautifully in the act of wearing Tefillin, the concrete act which forges all three identities into one.

Birchos Hatorah

Following Birchos HaTorah, the Siddur cites two texts to allow the immediate fulfillment of the Mitzvah of Torah study. The first text is comprised of verses from Sefer BaMidbar; the second is a Talmudic expansion of the first Mishnah of Peah.

Why were these specific texts chosen? The first text is biblical and the second Rabbinic, which demonstrates that the Torah is composed of both written and oral law.

On the surface, the content of the two texts differ. One is the blessing of the Kohanim for God to shine His countenance upon us, the other a list of obligations encumbent upon us. However, there is an underlying link between the sources. The biblical source has fifteen words, the numerical value of the name of God י-ה which reflects the content of the biblical passage. (see the subsequent verse, Bamidbar

6:27, ושמו את שמי על בני ישראל ואני אברכם) Whereas in the second source there are 15 items, five in the list of mitzvos that “have no measure” and ten in second list of mitzvos. The content of these mitzvos parallel elements in the blessing of the Kohamim – the commandment of “making peace between fellow men” parallels the

blessing for peace, and the commandment of “ראיון”, appearing before God in the Temple, is, at its source, the “seeing of the Divine countenance (Shemos 34:26),

” אֶת-פְּנֵי הָאָדֹן יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל שָׁלֹשׁ פְּעָמִים, בַּשָּׁנָה–יֵרָאֶה, כָּל-זְכוּרְךָ”

paralleling the blessing that God’s countenance shine upon us.

The connection between the texts demonstrate two ways in which the name of God rests upon us – from above, through the blessing of the Kohanim, or from below, by fulfilling God’s mitzvos (Devarim 28:9-10).

‘This is the day that God has Made…’ = Today!

The verse זה היום עשה ה’ נגילה ונשמחה בו  is often seen as relating to significant dates. However, this verse can be said about each and every day. Every day is made by God, and understanding this very fact is sufficient basis for “נגילה ונשמחה בו”. Life itself, more than any particular content, is the ultimate basis for joy. In Pirkei Avos (5:19), we are taught that “true love” is that which is not dependent on anything, so too “true joy.” The relationship between life and joy is a bilateral one. Life is a basis for joy, and one feels most alive when he is joyous.

The connection between life and joy appears in a prayer composed by Rebbe Nathan of Breslav:

“…ואזכה להיות בשמחה תמיד. ועל ידי זה יהיה נמשך עלי רוח חיים דקדושה…ואתחזק בשמחה גדולה בכל עת… כדי לבוא לשמחה שהיא עקר הקדושה ועקר חיות האדם”

(לקוטי תפילות, ח”ב סימן כא)

 “…and may I merit to be in happiness always. And through this, may the spirit of life of holiness be extended upon me…and I will be strengthened with great joy at every moment… so as to come to happiness, which is the essence of holiness and the essence of human vitality.” Rabbi Nathan adds a third component to the equation between life and joy; namely, holiness. He bases himself upon the Talmud, which sees joy as an essential precondition to receiving the divine:

שאין רוח הקודש שורה אלא על לב שמח, מה טעמא ‘והיה כנגן המנגן ותהי עליו רוח אלהים’. (תלמוד ירושלמי סוכה פרק ה’, הלכה א’,  נה ע”א)

“For the spirit of holiness does not rest but upon a joyous heart; what is the reason? For it states (2 Melachim 3:15), ‘and as the minstrel played, the spirit of God was upon him.’” (Jerusalem Talmud Sukkah 5:1) Joy links man to his life force, a linkage that ultimately brings him to the source of life, God. As Rav Kook writes:

  זיו אור אלהים הממלא את העולמים כולם, מחיה ומרוה אותם

מדשן נועם עליון של מקור החיים, הרי הוא נותן חיל בנשמות,

במלאכים, ובכל יצור, לחוש את פנימיות תחושת החיים.

                                                            (שמונה קבצים, קובץ ב’ פיסקה סב)                 

“The radiance of the light of God that fills all of the worlds, enlivens and saturates them from the lushness of the upper pleasantness of the Source of life – it gives succor to souls, angels, and all creatures, to feel the innermost feeling of vitality.”

 Whenever I feel sad or frustrated, I remind myself that “this is the day…” – and the heavy feeling leaves me.


* Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen teaches at Yeshivat Otniel.  Rav Nagan has published a number of books including Nishmat HaMishnah: Window to the Inner World of the Mishnah and Water, Creation and Divinity: Sukkot in the Philosophy of Halacha.


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