The Story So Far: We sanctify the mundane through brachot. We thank God for simple existence, status as metzuvim of God, physical ability to function during the day, and good relations with other people, mirroring growth of consciousness in the morning.
Now we come to what I think of as Early Morning Tachanun. We begin to position ourselves in relation to God, as we have just asked for good relations with people. This section is essentially drawn from the midrash Tanna Debe Eliyahu, and from the Gemara in Yoma 87b. It’s structured as a short bracha, with the blessing at the end, even with a lot of prose.
The Rema adds the introductory “when a person wakes up, he should say…” so that it becomes a kiyum of limud Torah, as a long quote from the Braisa, rather than an actual bracha, since we don’t say brachot that are not attested in the Gemara. Why is this addressed to the one who “fears Heaven in secret”? True yirat Shamayim is internal, as the verse says, hatznei’a lechet. This is hinted at in the structure of the Mishkan, where the beautiful tapestries of the heichal were hidden under dull goat-hair.
The first part of the passage certainly reminds one of Tachanun – what are we? What our lives? What our deeds? All are as nothing before You, great men, etc. The whole paragraph resounds with the feeling of Yom Kippur, and is in fact also recited in slichot of that day. The Shlah Hakodosh notes that the seven questions “What” in this paragraph reflect the 7 vanities (havalim = twice havel) in Kohelet 1:2. R’ Schwab notes further that there are also seven praises of God in the following paragaph, all the sevens symbolizing the perfection of the natural world.
Then it turns around, speaking to our greatness as Jews. We are the seed of Avraham, God’s beloved (II Chron 20:7); of Yitzchak, the only son, who was ready to sacrifice himself; of Yaakov/Yeshurun, who outgrew his status as usurper to father only Torah-observant children. Therefore, we must have hakarat hatov, rejoicing in our lot, in this world (goraleinu) and our heritage (yerushateinu) in the next. R’ Schwab notes that the Goral, our lottery-winning, is entered by conscious choice, as is choosing the goats on Yom Kippur. On the other hand, our Yerusha is the whole Torah which we received, oral and written.
Therefore we say always, not just morning and night, but also as the first prayer we learn, and as our last prayer before death, Shema! We raise our consciousness to the level of mosrei nefesh in the wars and persecutions of history – the martyrs of Jewish history recited Shema al kiddush Hashem.
Atah Hu – You are He, not just the remote, eternal transcendent God, but the revealed Creator, whose Existence is not in doubt, for Whom we would be moser nefesh. All Torah is His names; we pray to understand His revealed Will for us, because that is what He revealed.
We ask that He “raise our horns,” a metaphor for peace. A charging bull lowers his horns as weapons. A happy bull holds his head high.
What does this sharp contrast, between the abject nullification of the first paragraph, and the celebration and elevation of the rest of the passage, mean for our relationship with God? Based on an article by Micha Berger, I submit that this tension expresses the dialectic of anivut, humility.
I bring Micha’s words:
Anochi afar va'eifer is a statement that one realizes how much one could and ought to be -- and yet isn't. One can't maintain a sense of entitlement, one already recieved more than one is using.
Bishvili nivra ha'olam speaks about the magnitude of that potential. Yes, one person /could/ cure the world -- if he were fully using his abilities. One can't shirk the duty claiming the tools aren't there; they're there, but neglected.
The Alter of Slabodka stresses something that can be seen as a different aspect of the same underlying idea. Untapped potential never reaches the world of shared experience. In that world, I'm measured by what I am, not by what I could be. Within the experiences of my own mind, I know -- or ought to know -- I have the power to change the world. The world I experience is therefore tailored *bishvili*, to bring that out.
This passage thus begins to place us in relation to God. We humble ourselves before Him, contemplating our status and our potential We have found our place with respect to ourselves, and with people, now we enter into a relationship with God and His Will.