There are things that we do because we have an inherent sense of what is right. Then there are things that we do because of what others have taught us; only after we have integrated them into our lives can we appreciate their value. The Simchat Torah had concluded the high holidays with joyful celebration and dancing, heralding the dawn of a new year. What would this year require of me? I wondered as the day drew to a close.
Early the next morning, the phone started to ring. I began to recite the Modeh Ani prayer. Initially, after I first learned about this morning prayer, it took some time to make the recitation of it a habit.
Gradually, with time, it became automatic to wake up with the words issuing from my lips. The phone's persistent sound jarred me further toward wakefulness. Before even the rooster would crow, my humanity received its daily reminder, its morning wakeup call, through the words of the Modeh Ani prayer: Remember in whose presence this phone rings. One more peal and the phone shut off as I leaned out of the side of my bed to wash my hands. The "unknown number" on the Caller ID hinted of an overseas call. No message. Within minutes, it rang again. I answered it. My father's authoritative voice, measured with care: "You are booked out of Miami on tonight's flight to London." My mother had passed away.
An ordinary day, transformed like no other. As the impact penetrated my consciousness, I steadied myself, grateful for the knowledge that G‑d was with me in that moment; not because of my innate sense of Him, nor because it offered something to cling to, but through my lips, and with my voice, I had just acknowledged Him. The words, if we could see them, might still have lingered in the air,
"I offer thanks to You, living and eternal King, for You have restored my soul within me; Your faithfulness is great."
The only daughter, 5,000 miles from my mother when she passed on, I was carried in those pre-dawn words that acknowledged my life, and with them her passing. I thank G‑d, for He had seen fit for me to live and pray for the soul of my beloved mother as she transitioned to the next world.
In the immediate moments after I replaced the telephone in the handset, I bade my muscles to hold the stillness. My heart throbbed. I examined the sensations. "How am I going to move forward?" I wondered. "Will one foot really step out in front of the other? How am I going to move out of this space?"
With each inhale of my breath, I imagined a rope reaching up to the heavens. It climbed higher and higher as I held on below. In the exhale, I made room for feeling, for a response. To this day, I am still able to recall the outpouring of love that washed over me; it was unfiltered; it was pure.
Later, at the airport, I handed the reservation agent my passport. Meticulously, my father had attended to each minute detail to ensure that I would be in England the next day for my mother's burial. A pre-paid one-way ticket awaited me at the airline counter, alleviating any pressure that I should have to decide when I would return.
For 40-plus years, I was their daughter Lesley. In his thoughtfulness, my father had registered the ticket in my Hebrew name, Leah, that I had legally changed to just three years earlier. In the most stringent moments of his personal loss, my father had thought of everything, and attended to each aspect of the arrangements with great care.
I saw the reservation agent avert her eyes back and forth, from her computer screen to the name on my passport. Dread hovered at the edges of my senses. She couldn't match the reservation to the name Lesley on my passport, which I had yet to change. My eyes implored the agent. Don't make me say it. Let's not acknowledge this just yet; the reason I'm standing here.
"My mother passed away," I told her.
"I'm so sorry," she said, "but your passport identification must match the name on the ticket." This was a post 9/11 security gridloc; computer incompatibility. She couldn't do anything, she said. Briefly, I glanced around the airport and assimilated the images that came to mind. My heart full to breaking point, I took a step closer to the counter. My Modeh Ani prayer continued to root me to the ground with its insistence that a merciful G‑d is in every moment. The flight was full. The supervisor wouldn't let me buy another ticket in the name of Lesley, to match my passport. Please let this be smooth, I beseeched G‑d. Maybe there was another airline going out that evening, or maybe not. Did I really want to start traipsing around the airport, with my emotions trapped, detained from where I ought to be?
Calling on the name of my mother, Jochebed, mother of Moses who brought our great nation the Torah, I proffered a smile. "Leah is my Hebrew name," I said. "I am Jewish, and I must arrive in England tomorrow morning to be at my mother's burial." Another exchange or two with the supervisor, and then a few minutes later I headed for the gate.
In class, I learned to say Modeh Ani to kick-start the day. I learned the words, how to punctuate them, and what they mean. "Your faithfulness is great." Faith in me, that is. G‑d has faith enough in me that today I will make my life worth His while, that I will cleave to Him today, that I will do His will, that I will keep His laws, and that I will be where I need to be. G‑d has faith enough in me to give me life today. Just as the Divine order in nature causes the sun to rise and set, so does His will give me life. My teacher taught it so thoroughly that a day does not begin without this short recitation.
G‑d's presence was visible to me in every instant, at the most heart-wrenching, devastating time. Modeh Ani brought G‑d into the moment in which I woke to the news of my mother's passing; it stayed with me in each part of the journey that landed me on English soil, and in every moment since. Modeh Ani changed the way I live and the way I see life. It is the bridge between living and being alive.