Liberating Human Potential


On May 16, we had the third session of “Judaism as a Path to Human Flourishing.” As a group, we’ve taken on the practice of saying “Modeh Ani” when we wake up in the morning for forty days in a row. These are the words of the prayer:

Modeh/(modah for women) ani lefanecha, melech chai v’kayam, she’hechezarta bi nishmati b’chemla, rabbah emunatecha.

I am thankful in your presence, living, enduring God, for returning my soul to me. Great is your faith in me. We talked about two implications of the words ‘rabbah emumatecha’/Great is your faith in me.

1. God needs us.

a. This is a remarkable Jewish idea, not what we might expect. The first thing we proclaim when we get up in the morning is that we matter. We matter because someone needs us. And, not just anyone! God needs us.

b. The greatest human need of all is our need to be needed. Nothing makes us feel more important. This need expresses itself in so many ways:

– Why do we check our email so often? Because someone is reaching out to us from far away. It makes us feel needed.

– Why does a long distance phone call make us drop everything? Because someone took the trouble to reach out to us from a great distance. There was no one in their immediate vicinity who could give them what they needed. Only we could.

– If President Obama were to call us on the phone and say to us he has a job he needs to be done, and only we have the unique qualifications to get it done, we’d feel pretty flattered. That’s what it means to say Modeh Ani in the morning. But, the caller isn’t the President. It’s God.

c. Human slavery is the opposite of being needed. A slave is a replaceable part, unseen, invisible, indistinguishable from all the other parts. The first thing we do when we get up in the morning is affirm that we’re not replaceable parts, and neither is anyone else.

2. There is a second implication of saying that God has faith in us. Faith always implies a belief in a future that has not yet been realized. And, when we say we have faith in someone, we mean that we believe they are capable of achieving something that is not yet a reality. For God to have faith in us means that we have a hidden potential that has not yet been actualized. So, to say the words of Modeh Ani in the morning is to reflect on hidden wells of strength within us that have not yet made their way into the world. It’s to affirm or own potential to grow bigger, to expand our capacity to love, to live more fully, and to be more fully alive. The idea of hidden human potential is very pervasive in Jewish practice. Here are some examples:

a. On Passover, we hide the Afikoman which is the bigger part of the broken matza. This represents the idea that the hidden, potential redemption of the future is even greater than the redemption we have already experienced.

b. Right before we say the Shema, we gather the four corners of the tallit in our hand, representing the ingathering of Jews throughout the world in the land of Israel. We visualize the scattered becoming whole, and the many becoming one. We imagine the possibility of human connection and we visualize ourselves overcoming the gaps which separate us.

c. The two Shabbat candles represent two separate souls. At the beginning of Shabbat, they are in potential relationship. At the end of Shabbat, we light a Havdalah candle containing two wicks that join two flames. This represents the actualization of the potential love that existed at the beginning of Shabbat.

d. The mystics tell us that at the dawn of Creation, the world couldn’t hold God’s light and the vessel exploded into a myriad of fragments, each broken piece containing a small bit of light. We can liberate the sparks of light by discovering wisdom and goodness hidden in ordinary situations. The classic example is the Hasidic rebbe who puzzled his students by fixating his attention on a traveling tightrope walker. They asked: “Rebbe, why do you bother with such trivia?” He replied, “You don’t understand. This man is not thinking of the money he is going to make after his performance, for if he did, he would fall.” The rebbe liberated the spark of holiness in this performance by seeing the acrobat as an embodiment of total focus and engagement in the moment. If we could apply that standard to our relationships, imagine how we would benefit.

e. When we wake up in the morning, we are going from a state of dormancy (literally) to activation. We model for ourselves physically what we believe we are capable of emotionally and intellectually. Having woken from a physical sleep, we can now ask ourselves: what else is asleep inside of me that needs to be wakened? Y.L. Peretz once said: “A Jew is someone who can’t sleep and doesn’t let anyone else in the world sleep either.” Having wakened ourselves physically, we can now ask: “What are ways in which I can wake up the world today?” Who is asleep, not fully alive, and needs to be wakened to their full potential?

So, when we get up in the morning and we say the words of modeh ani, and we remind ourselves of God’s faith in us, we might ask ourselves:

– How can I bring out into the world what is currently hidden inside of me?

– How can I help someone else more fully realize their potential?

– How can I liberate the hidden potential in apparently ordinary moments?

Here are a few possibilities:
– Water a flower and see it stand up a little taller

– Give someone a compliment

– Raise a child

– Call a friend or family member who will perk up on hearing our voice

– Knowing how important it is to us that God has faith in us, find a way to let someone know that we have faith in them

In the coming session, Sunday, May 31, 10-11:15am, we will look at how other prayers in the early part of the weekday morning practice aim to stimulate us to bring out our own potential and to help others around us feel more alive. Come and join us!