Thanking & Thinking

Video 2 – Understanding Prayer: Heart, Mind and Soul

In this video, Rabbi Sacks suggests that despite the difficult moments, it is important to remember daily that life is a gift.

As we approached Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in 2017, Rabbi Sacks created a series of ten short videos to delve into what prayer really is, and how it can change your life.

Each video includes subtitles in: English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Spanish (click on the 'Settings' icon in the bottom right-hand corner of the video-player to select your preferred language).

Let me tell you a story about the first prayer we say every morning, "Modeh ani lefanecha". I thank you for giving me back my soul. It happened on our honeymoon. Elaine and I were travelling through Italy and we’d come to a little coastal town called Paestum, a place with Roman ruins and the sea glittering in the morning sun. The trouble was... I couldn’t swim. I just never learned.

But as we sat on the beach and looked out across the water I realised that the shore must be sloping very gently indeed, because people were far out into the sea and yet the water was only coming up to their knees. It looked safe just to walk out. And so I did. I walked to where I had seen people standing just a few minutes before, and the water was gently lapping against my knees. Then I started walking back to the shore. That’s when it happened. Within a minute I found myself out of my depth.

How it happened, I’m not sure. There must have been a dip in the sand. I had missed it on my way out but on my way back I had walked straight into it. I tried to swim but I failed. I kept going under. I looked around for rescue, but the other bathers were a long way away – too far to reach me; too far even to hear. Besides which, we were in Italy, and as I went under for the fifth time, I remember thinking two thoughts. “What a way to begin a honeymoon.” And, “What is the Italian for ‘Help’?”

It’s difficult to describe the panic I felt. Clearly someone rescued me, or I wouldn’t be here now. But it seemed at the time like the end. Evidently someone, seeing me thrashing about, swam over and brought me to the shore. He deposited me, almost unconscious, at Elaine’s feet. I never found out who he was. Somewhere out there is someone to whom I owe my life.

It changed my life. For years afterwards, I would wake in the morning knowing that but for a miracle, I wouldn’t be here. Somehow that made everything easier to bear. Every life has difficult moments, but I never forgot that day, on an Italian beach, when the life I so nearly lost was given back to me. It’s hard to stay depressed when you remember daily that life is a gift.

Which is why, every morning, I say with real feeling those words: Modeh ani lefanecha: “I thank You, living and everlasting King, for giving me back my soul in mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.” Thank You, God, for giving me back my life.

Think about it. The very first word Jews say every day is Modeh. Even before we think, we thank. That’s the first rule of prayer. It’s about not taking life for granted. It’s a meditation on the miracle of being. We are here. We might not have been. Somehow that makes every day a celebration.

This video was kindly sponsored by Lundy & Fred Reynolds, in honour of their grandchildren Milo, Kieran, Banyan, Ryan and Elora, who are a daily blessing to them.

We are grateful to our generous sponsors who helped enable us to produce this video series.