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  • Writer's pictureLeann Shamash

Modeh Ani L'fanecha

Updated: May 23, 2020

Today is May 22, 2020. The twenty third day of counting.

Do you know the prayer called Modeh Ani? It's prayer that happens early. You may not hear it if you are like me and come JFK, "just for kiddush." You may not hear even if you arrive early in the service. This is the prayer that you recite as you open your eyes in the morning and take your first conscious breath of the day. It is the prayer that perhaps we once learned about at religious school and perhaps we shelved it along with some of the other things we were taught many years ago. It's a tiny declaration about the interaction of the breath and the soul, an exclamation of pure gratitude said upon rising in the morning.

Here is the text and the translation of this beautiful and simple prayer.

מוֹדֶהאֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי ,בְּחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃. For a man

מוֹדָהאֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּים. שֶׁהֶֽחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי ,בְּחֶמְלָה. רַבָּה אֱמֽוּנָתֶֽךָ׃. For a woman

I give thanks before you, King living and eternal, for You have returned within me my soul with compassion; abundant is Your faithfulness! (Taken from the Wikepedia translation)

Now take a breath. Feel the air enter your nose, travel upward and then downward to fill your lungs. Now do it again and this time deeper. Let the air fill the top, the bottom, the front and back of your lungs. As many of us use mindfulness and meditation as techniques to center and calm us, we are familiar with these words and the concept of paying attention to our breaths. We breath in and out, most of the time automatically, but sometimes with deliberateness. Sometimes though, words and concepts that run in the background and we take for granted each day, suddenly and without warning, assume new importance. Sometimes taking a breath becomes the most important part of your day and night.

Here is a simple story of a man. He is a good man, a man who works hard, prays, is there for his family and his wife. This man, my husband, contracted the virus a little less than a month ago. One day he was working each day, donning his mask and gloves in the morning and returning home tired in the evening. One day perhaps there was a fateful glitch and that mask did not work or those gloves did not adequately protect because he returned home sick. The next day we learned that he had contracted Covid-19. That was on May 3d. And that is the intersection of two stories, one of a prayer and one of a man.

Over the past month, the idea of Modeh Ani assumed a new and startling significance in my husband's life. The action of taking a breath, having it travel smoothly through his airways and into his lungs was not taken for granted, not for one breath. For a period of three weeks of fever and cough, my husband carefully measured his oxygen level four times per day. I obsessed about the amount of oxygen he was receiving, carefully recording it in a chart to reassure us that all was under control. Breathing evenly and smoothly was all we thought about from morning until night.

Over this time my husband did breathing exercises to help keep his lungs strong. He was determined not to have this virus beat him. Despite a fever, he did not stay in bed, but on a chair to make sure that his breath would run smoothly, to ensure that his lungs stayed strong so that he could adequately breathe. He walked in the room for an hour at a time to keep himself strong. For weeks he remained in his room, and as many people do now, he fought the virus on his own with strength and dignity. We are eternally grateful that his breathing remained strong during this time, that his oxygen intake remained consistent and fluid all during the course of this long and unpredictable illness. Breathing in and out became the focus of his days and uncertainty ruled.

Modeh Ani L'fanecha thanks God for returning our soul to our bodies at the end of sleep, since night is a time where we are more vulnerable as we slumber. When we go to sleep at night do we know how we will breath? How do we know if we will get worse during the night time hours ? Will we be safe? Will our breaths be shallow or will they be smooth? The Modeh Ani uses the word N'shama or Nishmati to say that we are grateful that our soul is returned to us at the end of the evening, but N'shama in Hebrew is the word for both soul and for breath. Each breath of oxygen keeps our soul safely within us. It is interesting how the physical action of breathing in and out interacts with that most elusive of theological concepts, that ephemeral soul of a person and keeping that soul connected to its home, the physical body.

For 23 days this good man stayed in quarantine, never complaining and always breathing, breathing. Deep breaths to open the lungs, holding breaths to keep the airways open and ready for that influx. Measuring the number of breaths per minute to make sure that a silent pneumonia would not start when he did not expect it. Contemplating his breath, imagining its power and afraid of its weaknesses. But he kept going, one breath at a time, patiently waiting for the virus who held his body hostage, to finally weaken.

By the beginning of this week, the virus began its retreat and my husband's fever slowly crept away and his health has been restored. Today this one good man awaits the results of his test to make sure that the virus has been spirited away, that his body has defeated this aggressive robber of oxygen. The test will stand as the physical sign that he can breathe easy.

As a bystander over the past month, each morning as soon as I opened my eyes in the morning and rose from my bed, I said this prayer for my husband and for myself with the greatest respect and kavannah (intention). Thank you, God, for the privilege of breathing, for allowing me to rise in the morning with my breath and my soul intact. Thank you for the compassion that you have shown my husband. Thank you for his breath, for his neshama. Never will I take these words for granted again.


An addendum:

I have written this piece about my husband; to show gratitude for his recovery and to humbly stumble upon the words that begin to describe this past month. I am grateful for his recovery, B"H.

I extend this prayer, the Modeh Ani, to the thousands of people in the world now who are struggling to gain their breaths, who are hospitalized and need the help of oxygen and ventilators to help them to breathe. I say this prayer for you. I say this prayer for those whose job it is to help you breath. And to those people who have lost their battle and their breaths failed to travel through their bodies smoothly and evenly, there are no adequate words to express. There is only air that floats around us and up into the heavens. May you find rest in the next world. May your souls ascend through the air gracefully and speedily. And to your families, I offer my condolences and say to you, "One breath at a time."

Source Peter Lamb

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