Shoshana Judelman, Sukkos 5781
“How are you?”
Is there a good answer to that question? Is there one among us who truly feels like everything is going great right now? Is there one among us who, if given the chance, would not appreciate the opportunity to vent a little? To give voice to the fears, concerns, frustrations and hurts that we are feeling right now?
And yet, most of us don’t open that door. We answer the question in a short way and move on.
It is told that when the Baal Shem Tov was younger, he spent years wandering from shtetl to shtetl trying to raise up the spirits of the Jewish people. In those years, after experiencing terrible pogroms, the Jews of Eastern Europe were faced with the daily grind of extreme poverty. One of the Baal Shem Tov’s tactics was just asking people how they were doing in order to get them to say “Baruch Hashem.” What was the value in that? It was clear that people were in extremely challenging situations. Is there a value to answering the question with a “Baruch Hashem” even if you don’t really feel like you’re seeing the blessings at the moment?
Every morning when we wake up, we are supposed to say the Modeh Ani-
“מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ”
“I give thanks before You, living and eternal King for You have returned my soul within me; great is Your faithfulness!”
Our sages teach that sleep is like 1/60th of death, so every morning we are thanking Hashem for bringing our souls back into our bodies and enabling us to wake up. On a deeper level, though, sleep is a process wherein the conscious mind lets go and the inner essence of our soul reconnects to its Source above and is refreshed and revitalized. The Lubavitcher Rebbe points out that we say Modeh Ani, in which we are addressing Hashem in an intimate fashion as “You” immediately upon awakening- when we are still groggy from sleep and before washing our hands from the impurities of sleep. In this state of half-consciousness, between sleep and wakefulness, we connect to a very deep place inside.
The Modeh Ani is more than just a statement of gratitude, however, it is an outlook on life and can be a gateway to living a more connected reality. The first word, “Modeh” means “thanks,” but it also means “acknowledge” and “humble.” When I humble myself and acknowledge that it is Hashem who controls the world…and not me, I realign my abilities to handle what comes my way. When I recognize that Hashem gave me back my soul this morning because He has faith in me, I am strengthening myself through His faith to face the day.
In the midst of a discussion on dreams and their interpretation, the Gemara, (Brachos 55b) relates that, “Rabbi Yochanan said, ‘One who awakened in the morning and a specific verse happens into his mouth, it is a minor prophecy and an indication that the content of the verse will be fulfilled.’”
When we wake up with the Modeh Ani on our lips, it opens the door to seeing ourselves and our lives through the lens of Hashem’s faith in us. Seeing this phrase as a prophecy also gives us the energy to fulfill it because then we understand it as a kind of communication from Hashem Himself.
“Baruch Hashem” can be the same. A reminder throughout the course of my day that Hashem is above, that He runs this world with kindness, that He puts obstacles in my path because He wants me to grow, and that He is, in fact, giving me the strength to rise to the challenge. I say the words, but who gives me the strength to do that?
That is what the Baal Shem Tov was doing- trying to stimulate the acknowledgement of Hashem above and the gratitude that comes with it.
If it feels like we are stumbling through our days half-asleep, then I give us a bracha to say the Modeh Ani in the middle of the day. But equally helpful might be a bracha to answer, “How are you?” with “Baruch Hashem.” Not a mindless “Baruch Hashem,” but an acknowledgement that becomes a prophecy.
This week we will celebrate the holiday of Sukkos. In Kabbalah, the Sukkah is referred to as “Tzila D’Mehemanusa”- “the shade of faith.” There is an argument in the Gemara about whether the Sukkah is meant to remind us of the huts that Bnai Yisrael lived in when Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim or whether it is meant to recall the Clouds of Glory through which Hashem protected us from the elements and harmful forces while we were wandering in the desert for 40 years. Either way, the Sukkah is a powerful symbol of Hashem’s protection. Therefore, just sitting in the Sukkah feeds and strengthens our ability to have faith since it triggers an acknowledgement of how much Hashem continues to watch over us.
I bless us all to open our hearts to the Sukkah, to sit in it and allow its shade to trigger the faith inside of us. I bless us to say the Modeh Ani and allow the words to soothe and strengthen us. I bless us to answer every “How are you?” with “Baruch Hashem,” and to feel the words as building blocks in our ongoing relationship with the Master of the Universe. I bless us all to keep moving forward, to hold on and to know that He believes in us.