“Modeh Ani—I am grateful.” Not necessarily the easiest words to say when you have been shocked out of a deep slumber by the cries of your 2-year-old. Oh, and once I’m on the topic, why, exactly, can’t he wake up quietly? Would it be so difficult for him to just roll out of bed, go downstairs, get the New York Times, bring it to his father, and then find himself a toy to play with as the rest of the house slowly rises? Apparently not. I guess that’s what the Garden of Eden is for.
But back to the topic at hand. “Modeh Ani—I am grateful.” These are the words Judaism teaches us to say every morning immediately upon waking. I am so grateful to you, God, for letting me live one more day. This attitude of gratitude is central to being a Jew. In fact, the word “Jew,” or “Yehudi,” is a derivative of the word “odeh,” which means “I give thanks” in Hebrew! Those were the words uttered by Leah (of the Bible) upon the birth of her fourth son, thus the name she bestowed upon that child—Yehudah (or Judah).
So many of our ritual and mitzvot are about training ourselves to be in this mindset of constant gratitude. Whether it’s blessings before and after we eat, or holidays like Purim and Passover, which celebrate the awesome miracle of Jewish survival, we strive to recognize and acknowledge the goodness (hakarat hatov) in our lives.
And, let’s be honest, a huge amount of that goodness comes from our kids. It can sometimes be difficult during the course of the day to fully appreciate how amazing our children are and how much joy they give us. Like blessings and holidays, we need to actively carve out daily moments in which we can take a deep breath and just be so thankful for our beautiful children. My wife and I try and do this every night. After the kiddies are asleep and the house is quiet, we spend a few minutes laughing about all the hysterical antics our two little boys pulled over the course of the last 12 hours. It is a moment of profound gratitude. Thank you so much for these two incredible children! What did we do to deserve them? And where does their insane appetite come from?
I do think there’s something slightly counter-cultural about living in a state of profound gratitude. As Americans, we like to think in terms of rights. Judaism prefers to think in terms of responsibilities to ourselves, our communities and the world. In American culture we tell ourselves that we have a right to certain possessions, a decent amount of happiness, etc. That all may very well be true. But from a Jewish perspective, the universe does not really owe us anything. Every breath we take, on some level, is a gift.
So next time you hear those cries and you look over to the clock, only to see 5:19 staring right back at you, take a deep breath, close your eyes one last time and say, “Modeh Ani—I am so grateful.”
Avi Poupko is a fourth-generation rabbi who has led Congregation Ahavas Achim in Newburyport since 2011. He served as the Hillel campus rabbi at Harvard University from 2005-2007 and then spent four years teaching in Israel. He successfully completed—while his wife, Carina, and sons Judah and Moses were sleeping—the following video games over the last 10 months: “The Last of Us,” “Bioshock Infinite” and “Grand Theft Auto V.”