Dan Ornstein

Waking Up

Our ancient ancestors believed that we experience a sort of mini-death when we go to sleep. Though they were astute observers of dreams and of the body’s many functions, they had no understanding of how sleep works. In their imaginations, sleep and dreams fall upon us when our souls leave us to travel to the highest heavens and to the deepest places below the earth and the sea. When we wake up, our souls return to us refreshed, affording us new strength as if we had just been created.

Had the ancients understood the science of sleep they would have been no less amazed by it; for whether it’s interpreted through the lenses of spiritual metaphor or science, sleep is indeed a miracle. As people deeply sensitive to the extraordinary embedded in the ordinary, they were just as amazed by the miracle of waking up.  Since they lived in a world mostly devoid of life-saving medications and medical procedures, they nudged uncomfortably close to the cold body of impending death and understood that waking up each day was not an experience to be treated lightly. One of the sages of early Jewish tradition was so touched by the unpredictability of living through the night that he composed Modeh Ani, a brief poem of thanks to God to be recited in the morning:

Modeh ani l’fanekha, Melekh ĥai v’kayyam, she-heĥezarta bi nishmati b’ĥemlah.  Rabbah emunatekhah.

In Your presence, everlasting Ruler, I thank You for returning my soul to me with compassion. Great is Your faithfulness.

Modeh Ani, is one of the first prayers that religious Jews teach our children and it’s the first expression of gratitude that we offer God upon awakening each day. We open our eyes, breathe, and acknowledge with simple thanks that we’re alive.

I wake up each morning and recite Modeh Ani before jumping back onto a rocky by-way of mortality. As a rabbi, I deal too often with the declines and deaths of my congregants and their families, walking behind them as they walk through the proverbial valley of the shadow of death. Yet at times our encounters with illness and gradual demise are so overwhelming, I feel almost as if we’re stuck under a rockslide. As a family member in midlife, I’ve felt that avalanche pile grow higher, as various family members struggle with sickness and disability, the paradoxical results of longevity. Finally, since October 7, my encounters with suffering, decline and death have been intensified by the ominous thrum of violence and hopelessness afflicting Israelis, Palestinians, and the world. The conflict’s geographic distance from us notwithstanding, its emotional proximity to the Diaspora Jewish community (along with the spike in antisemitic hate crimes) at times makes us feel as if we’re trapped in a sealed cave.

Early one recent Friday morning, I struggled to begin my day. Though I generally don’t have a problem getting out of bed, that morning the sadness and stress of the last several months pressed down hard. Whether I forgot, or I was just being passive-aggressive, I didn’t recite Modeh Ani. I trudged through the morning, forcing myself to wear a rabbinic game face, my smile chiseled on me, stone-like. Eleven O’clock rolled around, time for my weekly meeting with our preschool for Shabbat Party, our musical celebration to prepare for the approach of Shabbat. Normally, this gathering is a weekly highlight for me. There is nothing so infectiously joyous as a bunch of two-, three- and four-year-olds singing with gusto and laughing at my silly jokes and goofball antics. But not this Friday. For the kids’ sake, I’d go through the motions, but my mind was elsewhere.

After we lit our candles and sang a few songs, our assistant director said to the kids, “Let’s show Rabbi Dan the new song we learned this week.” She turned on her Bluetooth speaker and reminded everyone how to start the rounds and move their hands. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was, as she led them in a lively country-style version of Modeh Ani, which included a whooshing, floor-to-ceiling hand sweep and a shout of “whoo-hoo!” Despite myself, I let my tiny students be my teachers as I joined them in the fun, feeling surprisingly uplifted with renewed hope, if only for a few minutes.

We adults learn to limp around under the crushing weight of life. Little children run about, floating lightly on life’s wonder. They haven’t yet lost the simple sense of how sensational it is to just be awake and present. The innocent exuberance of my preschoolers reminded me that, for all its dark inevitability, death’s antidote is to rejoice in living, precisely because our moments of Modeh Ani will at some point end. Until they do, we wake up, breathe deeply, and whisper thanks that our souls have come home to our bodies once again.

An earlier version of this essay was aired at, Northeast Public Radio.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama (The Jewish Publication Society, 2020. Check out his website at
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