In a recent article, I learned that Gal Gadot, the famous Israeli actor, says the prayer Modeh Ani (“I give thanks”) when she wakes up. Even famous people can be grateful for “getting their souls back” each morning.
In ancient times, sleep was considered analogous to death in some ways. As a study in contrast, the Christian response for children was: “If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” The Jewish response is “Hey! Thanks so much for keeping me alive each morning!”
I have always been a morning person (annoying, I know). Although my household is busy every day, we always manage an unconventional communal Modeh Ani as we go out the door. Maybe it was before catching the school bus in those pre-COVID days or, now, just before we take a walk with the dog. In any case, by the time my kids are lining up for their pandemic screening checks and hand sanitizer, we’ve sung this happy and grateful prayer.
Once something is a part of our routine, Jewish or not, we often don’t reflect on it again – but it’s worth remembering. Reading that Gadot, also a mom, embraced a similar routine was sort of heartening. Then, I happened to be studying Daf Yomi, a page a day of Talmud, and an interesting question arose in Eruvin 70a. What if one made an arrangement with someone so that there would be an eruv, a symbolic communal space, that allowed for carrying on Shabbat, and that person died? What happens then?
Almost immediately, the Talmud discusses the person’s heir. There’s no elaboration on the details, the heir was apparently known to everyone. There’s no mention of the executor or the lawyer the family must hire. There’s none of that. I imagined what it would be like if somebody near to me died suddenly on Friday afternoon, and what might happen next.
Thousands of years ago, people didn’t live as long. They lacked the kind of warnings we usually have now, through medical diagnoses and tests and surgeries. Mortality in general was higher, although everyone still dies. Rather, without modern medication and medical interventions, one expected a fair number of infants, children and adults to die before their time.
The recent rise in COVID cases in my home province of Manitoba and the rising mortality numbers have brought all this back into focus. In the last little while, two men in their 40s have died here. My husband and I are in our 40s. We have kids in grade school. We have a dog. And a house. And….
Based on recent experiences with the deaths of relatives and friends, we often had an idea ahead of time that the person was ill or that things weren’t looking good. Yet it isn’t unusual to hear of family members still tying up the deceased person’s affairs for many months (or years) later.
This pandemic is a sobering wake-up call. A hundred years ago, during the flu pandemic, young parents died very suddenly and left orphans. There were children, spouses, siblings and parents who remained. We’re facing something similar in 2020.
On the one hand, we’re lucky because Judaism offers us very sturdy mourning practices. We’ve continued to innovate, too, relying on technology to mourn together. The last few days, I have joined a rabbi online as she says Kaddish. She waits, patiently, until she sees 10 people pop up, viewing her Twitter or Instagram live feed, thanks everyone for helping her, announces her mother’s name, and begins Kaddish. Given the pandemic’s enormous effects, this has been an intimate and surprisingly moving way to support someone in need, virtually.
On the other hand, we’re out of practise with the notion that somebody can just “up and die.” Most of us don’t have immediate plans in place, but we should. Parents all over the world are scared by the notion that they might fall ill, die and leave their kids and spouse alone. This goes way beyond how one will have an eruv on Shabbat if someone dies on a Friday afternoon or on Shabbat.
Do we have up-to-date wills in place? Emergency plans for our immediate families and long-term ideas of how to get support for those left behind? There are a lot of questions and they are scary. What’s worse, though, is that the panic caused by thinking about this can cause us to turn irrational and erratic. Fear can make us hard to be around. We become the people who can’t manage basic, polite social encounters, such as social distancing at the grocery store.
What’s the antidote? Well, while careful estate planning helps, nothing really prepares us for sudden illness. No amount of religious rituals can make us immortal. However, many circle back to countering the fear. Some of us say Modeh Ani, to be grateful – for each morning, a ray of sunshine, a toddler learning to count or an older kid triumphant after a hard test at school. It’s a taste of really good sweet potato pie or an unexpected hug.
In other words, take the win when you can get it, wherever you find it. Sometimes, it’s whimsy, like knitting a pair of mittens with lots of colours, polka dots and a thumb ring. It’s remembering why we say a prayer, even if we rush it or say it at the wrong time.
We can wears masks and social distance and wash our hands, but, right now, our souls also need positive, meaningful time and spiritual support. The next time your car needs an oil change? Consider routine soul maintenance, too.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.