These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Alai, My Singular Aleinu

Posted on February 1, 2014 by David Bogomolny

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271_31828632138_4168_nAryeh Ben David once asked me, “What does it mean to be Jewish?” Reflecting upon this, I had some vague ideas, but had never much considered it.

“The word Jew (יהודי) is derived from the name Judah (יהודה),” he answered himself, “which comes from the root ‘to thank’. So, for me, the essence of being a Jew is being thankful.”

The Hebrew name for Judah, Yehudah (יהודה), literally “thanksgiving” or “praise,” is the noun form of the root Y-D-H (ידה), “to thank” or “to praise.” His birth is recorded at Gen. 29:35; upon his birth, Leah exclaims, This time I will praise the Lord,” with the Hebrew word for “I will praise,” ‘odeh (אודה) sharing the same root as Yehudah.

I was not raised with any prayer practice, but I was always very drawn to Hebrew school and Junior Congregation. Today, the t’filot (prayers) that continue to flow most fluidly for me I learned before my bar mitzvah.

Back then, I did not understand much at all of what the prayers meant, but I learned the tunes, and I learned the motions. Aleinu was one of my favorites. I learned to 1) bend my knees, 2) bow forward and 3) straighten up at the correct points, and generally enjoyed singing along with our cantor.

וַאֲנַחְנוּ 1) כֹּרעִים 2) ומִשְׁתַּחֲוִים 3) ומוֹדים, Va’anachnu 1) qor`im, 2) u’mishtachavim 3) u’modim, And we 1) bend our knees, 2) bow, and 3) acknowledge our thanks

I naturally assumed that 3) modim meant “stand”. To my ear, modim (מוֹדים) sounded like omdim (עומדים), which actually means “stand”; and I wasn’t curious enough to check the translation. This false assumption followed me throughout my adult life, and I only parted with it when I began learning prayer texts at Pardes.

80g0m01nyRecently, I decided to attempt an exercise in gratitude, incorporated into my thrice daily prayer practice. During Aleinu, I began 1) bending my knees, 2) bowing forward, and 3) nurturing a sense of gratitude as I straighten my body upwards. I’ve been doing this three times a day for the better part of a month now, in large part inspired by a video I watched (see below), and I’ve felt a positive shift in my overall happiness. Prayer has become more vibrant for me, as I’ve settled into it these past few years – and I’ve gradually been gaining the confidence to personalize it meaningfully.