Harry Zeitlin
Grateful Every Day, Modeh Ani Lefanecha!

Modeh Ani — Daily Thanks

You don’t always get a second chance and should never count on a “do-over”. When you are graced (and I use that word deliberately, referring to the Hebrew word, Chen, which is associated with Chesed, loving-kindness, and Rachamim, compassion) with one of life’s rare second chances, you should feel obligated to be grateful (obviously related to, and returning Grace).

Although it’s also an obligation (Shulchan Aruch HaRav א:א:ו) for a Jew to begin every day reciting the phrase, Modeh Ani L’Fanechah Melech Chai v’Kayam, I acknowledge and am filled with thanks, before You, Living and Eternal Majesty…., there is reciting it and there is reciting it. In other words, it can become an habitual mumble just before you run to the bathroom, fully devoid of any meaning other than, “There! I said it. Next mitzva coming up…..” or it can, and should be and profound awareness of the grace of our soul returning to our body, to the awakening, for one more morning, of our consciousness.

In addition to that, it has taken a personal meaning for me these last almost three years. While I have recovered from serious health challenges, and I am also daily thankful for those miracles, I have a special awareness that I have been graced with the opporutnity to have made what I call Aliyah 2.0.

I first moved to Israel in 1982 and intended to remain here for the rest of my life. I married, began a family (two of my four children were born in Jerusalem), bought my first (and second) home, planned and designed (along with my then-wife) a brilliant apartment remodel. I found a Rebbe who got me over the hump to be able to learn Gemara with intense pleasure, I found a loving and supportive community of close friends. Although I missed my US family, I was intensely happy. But it came too easily and, almost imperceptively, crashed into disaster.

Serious problems with neighbors (i.e., nextdoor neighbors who shared the common  staircase with us and whose front door was less than a meter from ours, escalating to physical threats and actual attacks (setting their dog to run over my oldest daughter, just beginning to walk, on these stairs), moving to the Israeli legal system and learning that as American immigrants we were at serious disadvantages, led to our returning to the US for what was originally intended to be a two-year sabbatical to cool out.

For me, it lasted almost 30 years until I returned home, to Jerusalem, divorced, physically distant from my children, a senior with significant health issues (which seriously complicated in my first six months here). I also returned here ecstatically happy to be back home in Israel. And in spite of almost immediate health challenges which froze all my ambitious plans and dreams, and which had taken all of the subsequent two years to substantially recover from, it now gives a second, double meaning to my Modeh Ani — my first waking thought is that, somehow, against all odds (and half the time I think agaist my better sense and judgement (again, so intensely missing my children and grandchild)), having expending most of my fortune and strength) here I am. The first air I breath is Jerusalem! The first light that washes my eyes, Jerusalem! The first sounds, the first bird-calls, Jerusalem!

And it’s not at all what I anticipated nor what I had thought was motivating me to make this my home. Of all the old friends I had expected to fill my new life, at most I regularly see two or three families. The various Torah opportunities I was sure would be here just for my taking, many of them went by the wayside when I was physically and health-wise incapable of learning to any profound degree (I’m only, in the last six months, returning to my former mental abilities, but as I learned to focus my efforts to only that which I intensely want to study (these days, mostly Ramchal, Zohar and Gemara), I find that relatively few people I can find here are as exclusively interested in them as I am.

Looking forward to Aliyah, especially at the time that film and enlarging paper had left the world (and, especially, the world of photography), I hoped to change careers (even at this late, post-65 age) and enter, perhaps the technical writing, or something else related to the tech-boom here, field (my earliest background, for those who don’t know, was math, fledgling computer science and linguistics). But, again, health issues, leading to bureaucratic ones (I was unable to register, let alone complete an approved Ulpan, a prerequisite to most technical-writing entries) intervened.

The point is that my experience and joy of living in Israel has little to do with anticipated conquests or successes. I’ve also learned that meaning is rarely synonymous with “profundity”, I’ve had almost zero epiphanies, flashes of insights, lightning bolts or what might be described as “peak spiritual experiences”. Rather, the profundity for me, the daily joy, is the simple joy of being part, a very small part, of an historic and universal miracle, the rebirth of Am Yisrael, the Jewish Nation, in our hereditary homeland, Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel. The revival of an all but ritual or academically, dead language (even if my participation probably does more to “kill” than to revitalize Ivrit…)

Yes, I’m able to occasionally (actually, almost as often as I’d like) to ascend Har HaBayit, to feel there the strongest available experience of “divine vibes”, that inexpressible, intangible but nonetheless real experience of God’s presence on Earth), but that comes at a price of intense cognitive dissonace from the enforced (by our own Israeli/Jewish Police) prohibition again Jewish prayer or any other visible religious expession (I’m astounded we’re allowed to cover our heads)) and the often vocal radical Moslem protest. Perhaps my personal lesson is that the hope for a peak experience isn’t really why I’m here, but it’s really the simple, prosaic, day-to-day of walking with, bus-riding with, talking (even with immense grammatical mistakes) Hebrew with fellow Jews who, only a generation or two ago were just as unskilled in this language (as a daily language–obviously many of us had ritual or academic fluency, but I’ve always likened that to arriving in the US from Eastern Europe with a college degree in Chaucer, thinking you could “make it on the street”…..).

It’s the good-natured daily life with, finally, my people. The sense that whatever my successes and failures, even with the frequent childless loneliness, other types of aloneness, coming to terms that so many former goals will never be reached, that I am finally, actually, at home, with my people, most of whom I don’t know and will never know, but who are, nonetheless, my people.

And for all that, I can’t begin my day in any manner other than full and profound, fully-felt joy and gratitue that, each day both a fresh and a continuing miracle, that I am here.

Modeh Ani Lifanech, Melech Chai v’Kayam….

These began as my thoughts for Av, the Hebrew month that begin today, on the ninth (Tisha) of which we remember and commemorate the violent destruction of our Holy Temple and the beginning of our seemingly endless Exile (Galut). But I experienced (as I do yearly) and finally, this year, admitted to myself, the cognitive dissonance of mourning a Jerusalem “abandoned and bereft”, a “collection of the shells of destroyed buildings”, poverty-filled, eternally sick and depressed while observing and experiencing daily the most dynamic place I’ve ever encountered. Not only are there building and employment and income and tech booms, but there are more Jews seriously studying Torah right here, within the precints of Yerushalyim than any time in history! That, although our access is still imperfect, we are able to ascend Har HaBayit, the Temple Mount, almost at will, and that an ever-growing number of Jew as well as people of all faiths have ascended this year (remember, the Temple, when it re-manifests, is specifically to be a House of Prayer for All Nations (Bet Tefilla l’kol haAmim))!

Although we’ve a ways to go, I doubt if Jerusalem has ever been as great as it is today. Sure, I’ll take a day to mourn that we haven’t yet achieved our long-dreamed goal, as well as the pain, torture and horror so many of our people have endured over the millennia, but I’ll also take the rest of the year to celebrate that we’ve never let that dream die, that throughout our high points and our lows, we’ve stedfastly and stubbornly maintained our goal, that we’ve come as far as we have and that I, against all odds, am here to participate, to contribute and just to enjoy.

Modeh Ani Lifanecha……

About the Author
After almost 30 years, Harry Zeitlin returned home to Jerusalem! Growing up in Denver, CO, he began Torah studies at an early age. He also had the privilege of knowing and studying with Rabbi Shloime Twerski zt"l. He graduated from Yale College (BA 1974) with an independent degree in communications, theory-and-practice, focusing on filmmaking and linguistics. Harry had a 45+ year career as a professional artist (photography, to which he is just now returning!) and has played guitar for more than 50 years, in addition to his 30+ years as an orthodox rabbi teaching Torah across the denominational spectrum. He lived in Israel from 1982 - 1989 and returned in 2016. I'M BACK! Grateful every day! Follow his spiritual adventures. He is always available to speak, teach, present a Shabbaton or other workshop. ......or to serenade your group with his guitar.
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