Rising Virtue, Rising Duty, Rising Courage

Here are three voices that join a conversation about the meaning of rising in the morning—a psychologist, a rabbi and a poet:

I am lying in bed, says the psychologist William James, and think it is time to get up; but alongside of this thought there is present to my mind a realization of the extreme coldness of the morning and the pleasantness of the warm bed…. I may remain for half an hour or more with the two ideas oscillating before me in a kind of deadlock, which is what we call the state of hesitation or deliberation.  In a case like this the deliberation can be resolved and the decision reached in either of two ways:

(1) I may forget for a moment the thermometric conditions, and then the idea of getting up will immediately discharge into act:  I shall suddenly find that I have got up—or

(2) Still mindful of the freezing temperature, the thought of the duty of rising may become so pungent that it determines action in spite of inhibition.  In the latter case, I have a sense of energetic moral effort, and consider that I have done a virtuous act.

Were they to converse across the centuries, William James (early 20th c) and Rabbi Joseph Caro (16th c), the author of the Shulhan Arukh, The Set Table (of Jewish Law), would agree about the challenges of rising.  But for Rabbi Caro, getting out of bed should never result from simply forgetting the cold momentarily.   In the world of Caro’s religious imagination, breaking the gravitational force of the comfortable bed is a matter of rising to serve God; inducements of creature comfort are obstacles to divine service—nothing less than the evil impulse:

…one should strengthen oneself like a lion, and when awakening from sleep immediately rise quickly to the service of the Creator, be he blessed and exalted,  before the evil impulse prevails upon him with various persuasions not to rise.  It might try to outwit him in the winter:  How can you get up so early in the morning when it is so cold?  Or, in the summer it might say:  How can you get out of your bed when you haven’t yet had enough sleep? or similar persuasions….   And so, every reflective person who stands in awe and trembling at the divine word must prevail over the evil impulse and not listen to it (Shulhan Arukh 1:4).

(Click here for the passage in Hebrew and English)

The 20th century poet, Josephine Jacobsen, looks with a poet’s eye at rising.  She pulls back the covers to reveal more to keep us in bed than the cold or the heat. Whether motivated by religious belief, by coffee or by gritted teeth, the courage and company of those who rise each day offers itself as encouragement for the next morning:

There is a terrible hour in the early morning
When men awake and look on the day that brings
The hateful adventure, approaching with no less certainty
Than the light that grows, the untroubled bird that sings.
It does not matter what we have to consider,
Whether the difficult word or the surgeon’s knife,
The last silver goblet to pawn, or the fatal letter,
Or the prospect of going on with a particular life.
The point is, they rise; always they seem to have risen
(They always will rise, I suppose) by courage alone.
Somehow, by this or by that, they engender courage,
Courage bred in flesh that is sick to the bone.
Each in his fashion, they compass their set intent
To rout the reluctant sword from the gripping sheath,
By thinking, perhaps, upon the Blessed Sacrament,
Or perhaps by coffee, or perhaps by gritted teeth….
Let each man remember, who opens his eyes to that morning,
How many men have braced them to meet the light,
And pious or ribald, one way or another, how many
Will smile in its face, when he is at peace in the night.

(Click here for the Jacobsen poem in its entirety)

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