The Power of Modeh Ani

Posted on February 29, 2024

By Hazzan Jacob Sandler.

Last week I returned from Song Leader Boot Camp – a national conference that focuses on Jewish leadership, education, and music. Having attended 9 of the last 11 conferences over the past 10 years, it’s come to be more than just a conference but a community of fellow songleaders, educators, clergy and musicians alike. In addition to many wonderful sessions, and prayer experiences, it provided me time and space to reflect on my own life, my work, my passions and those not so pleasant areas where I’d like to improve. 

Coming back from the highs of such intentional communal gathering to an overflowing inbox of emails (some of which, I’ll admit, were already piling up before I left), I had a tough transition back to ‘normal life.’ There are real things I want to do better, and real ways I want to be better.

If I can get vulnerable for a moment, I thought about how grateful I ought to be for this wonderful community – I work with incredible professional partners and lay people, I’m well compensated and I feel so loved and embraced by the community. I also thought about how despite the truth of that, it’s hard work and it’s relentless. And I’ve gained weight since I’ve started and though I’m not asking for suggestions, I’ll admit it would be nice to start that family and plant some deeper roots. So, what do I do with these really big feelings? 

I had a moment I imagine is familiar–I woke up, groaned, and started the daily wrestle with myself to get out of bed and face the day. I wish I could sleep in… but instead of rolling over to snooze that one extra time (that I don’t really have time for), I thought, “what if I actually said Modeh Ani?” You know that short prayer you sung in Hebrew school to the tune of “You are my sunshine” or maybe Jeff Klepper’s tune at camp (look it up you’ll recognize it). 

I decided to say it. I said each word really slowly. I recognize I have the privilege of knowing word by word how to say it and also what each word means–but it went something like this:

Modeh – thank. First gratitude, even before

Ani – I or I am. It means ‘I am grateful’, but really it means ‘grateful am I’ — gratitude first, then ego. 

Lefanecha – before You – that is in the presence of God. 

Three words in, and I’m very aware that first thing in the morning I am grateful, then I’m myself, and then I’m in the presence of God. Who by the way is:

Melech Chai VeKayam — Eternally Living Sovereign. Imagine a King, or your boss or anyone in charge is just right there, ready to be thanked and you’re still in pajamas… It’s a wild practice. Deeply humbling.

But to be fair, there’s good reason to be thankful, even when you want to sleep in or snooze. Why am I thanking God?

Shehechezarta bi nishmati — that You have returned to me (literally in me) my soul. And the word for soul Neshama is related to the word for breath, Neshimah. It’s no coincidence that this waking up breath parallels the breath of life God breathed into the very first Adam in creation. We wake up and are created anew. But why?

B’chemlah – with compassion. We recognize the gift of this day is a kind gesture from God. But also,Rabah Emunatecha — great is Your faith. Not emunati – not on the merit of my faith, which may come and go with the weather. Not because I believed hard enough was I given this day. Rather, because God has great faith. God believes in us. 

I’ve been saying Modeh Ani each morning for almost a week now. And it continues to amaze and inspire me that God believes today could be the day we do something amazing. Today we might turn it all around, today we might make a good choice, say a kind word, or any number of amazing things. God believes in us, and we can take that vote of confidence with us into our day. 

I’ve felt the difference it makes. Beginning the day with gratitude (even if it’s a little forced or contrived at first), flips the script. I don’t think it’s the magic of the words but the power of the ideas they express. So, if any of this resonated for you in your own busy life, I hope you’ll carry these ideas and give it a try. Let me know if it helps. And if nothing else, I hope you gained a deeper understanding of these words that you’ve known so long.