Martin S. Cohen
To reference death as sleep is commonplace. Indeed, so usual is the use of the terminology of rest, repose, and slumber to denote the process of dying and, indeed, death itself, that such linguistic turns barely call attention to themselves at all: to wish aloud that a deceased individual rest in peace could hardly be more ordinary a prayer even for moderns little given to lyrical expression or to the use of metaphor in daily speech. But to approach the equation from the other direction—and so to assert that, no less than death is sleep, sleep is death, or at least death dialed down sufficiently to deprive it of its permanence and awful finality—is less common a thing to say…and it is even less common than that actually to believe. Indeed, although the Talmud, speaking with strange precision, asserted long centuries ago that sleep is precisely one-sixtieth of death, it is hard to find moderns who comfortably or naturally think of awakening from a night’s sleep as a kind of daily resurrection.1 Consider, for example, the undeservedly obscure prayer of Sir Thomas Browne, the seventeenth-century English polymath, who movingly wrote:
Sleep is a death, O make me try
By sleeping, what it is to die:
And as gently lay my head
On my grave, as now my bed.2
His poem resonates with moderns precisely because it rests on an idea that feels like something new and interesting rather than the mere recapitulation of a tired truism.
But not to all. Occasionally derided as a mere children’s prayer and without a fixed place in the liturgy of the synagogue, the Modeh Ani, a liturgical gem complete in twelve words, takes that thought and runs with it, using it as the platform upon which to rest an idea far nobler and greater than the mere notion of sleep as death. Indeed, the core concept of the Modeh Ani—that the first thought people should bring to a new day is a deep sense of gratitude to God for the gift of life itself—is presented as a natural response to the idea of sleep being naught but death writ small, and its various logical corollaries: that falling asleep is dying, that sleep is death, and that awakening is daily resurrection. As noted, this is not a prayer designated for recitation in synagogue or as part of formal worship, but rather a short, informal prayer to be recited even before completing one’s morning toilette precisely to set the right tone for the morning rituals that characterize traditional Jewish life: assembling in prayer quorums for public worship, donning tallit and t’fillin, confessing God’s undifferentiated oneness, and rising in silent prayer before the Almighty as the day begins with supplication, praise, and purposeful spiritual endeavor. The special contribution of the Modeh Ani, then, is to use an ancient idea about the relationship of sleep and death to suggest beholdenness as the foundation upon which to begin one’s spiritual day. As such, it deserves its fame and its position of prominence on the very first page of almost every traditional prayerbook and constitutes a worthy theme for a volume in a series of books about basic Jewish ideas and values.
When we first solicited authors for this volume, the editors’ great fear was that we would receive several dozen versions of the same essay. The prayer, after all, is complete in a mere dozen words…so how many different things could there possibly be to say about it? And yet we were pleasantly surprised as our authors rose to the occasion, each finding a different way to analyze the prayer, its place in the liturgy, its vocabulary, its relationship to earlier (including much earlier) prayers, and its arresting simplicity. Indeed, although some details regarding the Modeh Ani surface in more than one essay in this volume, the far more impressive truth is that each essay printed here constitutes its author’s personal approach to the riddle of the Modeh Ani and its enduring appeal.
Our authors in this book are a varied lot. Yet all share the core conviction that is meant to animate not only this volume, but all ten volumes in the Mesorah Matrix series: that the high road to understanding Judaism and Jewish life at its most profound level is to be found in the thoughtful, careful, deeply introspective consideration of the various texts, including liturgical ones, that constitute the greater corpus of Jewish literary endeavor. In a world that valorizes the ability to read quickly, our authors champion precisely the opposite approach: the value to be had in reading very slowly, and in mindfully considering texts not as mere collections of words but as almost animate partners in productive, purposeful dialogue. And by proposing intense textual analysis characterized by intellectual and spiritual integrity as the high road to spiritual growth, our authors are also, at least tacitly, saying something about the fissures that characterize Jewish life at home and abroad, and about the way to close those chasms that divide otherwise like-minded souls from coming together in satisfying, productive spiritual endeavor. Any student of modern Jewish life knows how riven factionalism and defensive denominationalism have made the people Israel in our day; our authors’ tacit suggestion is that what unites the men and women of the House of Israel can and should be far more significant than what divides them…and that meaningful textual study is the framework in which wounds can heal, rifts can end, bickering about picayune details can be eclipsed by a satisfying sense of common purpose, and the Jewish propensity to self-divide endlessly into ever tinier sub-groups can be overcome by the simple acts of opening a book, reading together, and learning to listen to another’s interpretation of the words that lie silent on the page awaiting the thoughtful commentator, the patient student, the curious reader, and teacher unsullied by the hope of self-aggrandizement and fully dedicated to the rational, meaningful explication of the words before him or her. Whether our authors have succeeded in our common mission to allow that set of ideas to suffuse the essays in this book will be for our readers to decide. But I can say without any hesitation at all is that we have all done our best…and that this volume is the fruit of our best effort to bring those ideas into the world through the medium of the short essay.
Unless otherwise indicated, all translations here are the authors’ own work. Biblical citations footnoted to the NJPS derive from the complete translation of Scripture published under the title Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures by the Jewish Publication Society in Philadelphia in 1985.
I would like to acknowledge the other senior editors of the Mesorah Matrix series, David Birnbaum and Benjamin Blech, as well as Saul J. Berman, our associate editor. They and our able staff have all supported me as I’ve labored to bring this volume together and I am grateful to them all. And, as always, I must also express my gratitude to the men and women, and particularly to the lay leadership, of the synagogue I serve as rabbi, the Shelter Rock Jewish Center in Roslyn, New York. Possessed of the unwavering conviction that their rabbi’s literary projects are part and parcel of his service to them and, through them, to the larger community of those interested in learning about Judaism through the medium of the well-written word, they are remarkably supportive of my literary efforts as author and editor. I am in their debt and am pleased to acknowledge that debt formally here and whenever I publish my own work or the work of others. I could not be me if they weren’t them.
Martin S. Cohen
Roslyn, New York
August 18, 2016
1 B. Berakhot 57b.
2 Sir Thomas Browne, Religio Medici 2:12, 8th ed. (London: R. Scot, T. Basset, J. Wright, and R. Chiswell, 1682), p. 174.