Shiur #23: Modim (part 1)

  • Rav Ezra Bick

The seventeenth berakha is the longest one of the Shemoneh Esrei; so long, in fact, that the printers tend to break it up into distinct sections, with different size prints, which may, for some people, disguise the fact that it is actually one berakha. Since the first subject we have to discuss is the meaning of the verb "modim," I shall leave it untranslated in the meantime.

 

 

We are MODIM to You, that You are HaShem our God,

and the God of our fathers,

The Rock of our lives, Protector of our salvation,

You are for all generations;

We shall NODEH to You and recite Your praises -

For our lives which are entrusted in Your hands,

and our souls which are deposited with You,

and for Your miracles which are every day with us,

and for your wonders and goodness at every time,

evening, morning, and afternoon.

The Good, for Your mercies are not exhausted,

and the Merciful, for Your graces are not ended,

Forever we hope for You.

And for all of them, may Your name be blessed in the mouths of all living,

Always and for ever after.

And all the living shall YODU You, Sela, and praise Your great name,

the God Who is our salvation and aid, Sela.

Blessed are You, HaShem, whose name is good, and it is fitting LEHODOT You.

 

 

            The four capitalized roots are all of the same root, and the berakha is usually called by the same term, "modim."  What does this word mean?

 

A. Modim - Thanks?

 

            The usual translation, in this context, is to give thanks, gratitude. This surely seems to make a great deal of sense, as we are after the requests, and logic dictates that the proper emotion to express before leaving God's presence is that of gratitude. Replacing each of the capitalized words with the appropriate form of the verb "thank" produces a lucid and plausible translation, whereby we thank God for all that He does for us on a daily basis, for His goodness which accompanies us at every time, and, it seems, for the grace which He will extend in the future.

 

            The only somewhat perplexing expression is the opening one - "We thank You, that You are HaShem our God and the God of our fathers." What are we thanking God for?  Before the list of "miracles and wonders" there will appear another form of the verb. So what is the cause of the "modim" in the opening clause. The way we usually understand thanks, it is almost impossible to thank someone without stating for what. One might attempt to claim that we are thanking God for being God, but this does not seem to quite hang right. If by this we mean that He acts like a king who has taken upon himself to protect his people and care for them, it would have been simpler to spell that out, as indeed the rest of the berakha appears to do.

 

            In Hebrew there is another meaning of the word "hoda'a," and that is "confess." At times this can mean confession of guilt or sin (Lev. 16,21), or of debt (in the Mishna), but also of any truth (as in the religious sense - a confession of faith). This meaning suggests itself for the opening line, with its direct object - we confess, declare THAT You ("she-ata") are God, not that we thank You BECAUSE You ("al she-ata) are God. But then the term will have different meanings throughout the berakha, as the continuation of the prayer does speak of being "modeh" FOR the miracles; i.e., because of the miracles, which seems to be closer to the meaning of thanks.

 

            If we look at this root in Tanakh, we quickly discover many uses, especially in Tehillim, which appear to mean no more than "to praise." The verb appears without a cause of thanks, and also without a direct object as the subject of a confession. A simple and well-known instance is the beginning of "Pesukei D'zimra" - "Hodu LaShem kir'u b'shmo." Of course, one could claim that this means to thank God, but it is strange that there is no given specific reason for gratitude. We are called simply to praise Him and to publicize His actions - "hodi'u va-amim alilotav." There are dozens of such cases in the book of Psalms, and I think we really do understand them instinctively as being basically synonyms of "to praise."

 

            An especially striking case is found in the prayer of Shlomo when dedicating the Temple. Shlomo is asking that God respond to the prayers of the Jews in the Temple when they are in distress. Notice the order of the verses:

 

When Your people Israel be smitten before the enemy,

because they have sinned before You;

And they return to You and HODU Your name,

and they shall pray and beseech You in this house.

And You shall hear in the heaven and forgive the sin of Your people Israel....

(I Kings 8,33-34).

 

            The process is one of repentance and petition. It seems incongruous, at best, to translate this use of our verb as "thank."

 

            This example also illustrates another common feature of this verb - its taking as a direct object the "name" of God. There are times where it makes sense to use the "name of God" rather than "God" as the object of a human activity. It is quite common to find that someone is PRAISING the name of God; firstly because practically speaking what is found in the sentence of praise is the name of God, and secondly, because the result of praise is the glorification of the name of God, where the "name" means the presence of God in people's mouths, speech - in other words, in the world. But it seems quite strange to me to be thanking the name of God. Surely we mean to thank God himself - there is no point in thanking His name.

 

            We have identified what appears to be three different meanings of the verb "hoda," gratitude, confession, and praise. Our question is to determine the common meaning behind this verb, thereby understanding not only our berakha, but also a basic attitude which is apparently central to religious life.

 

B. Fealty

 

            I would like to suggest what I think is not only the true meaning of this verb, but also the true meaning of the moral obligation we call gratitude. Although common to all cultures, and ingrained in us from childhood, it is, after all, a puzzling sensation. Just what do I mean when I say to some one "thank you?" I am not saying that I will pay him back, for the essence of that which engendered gratitude was that it was done without a request or an obligation of payment.

 

            In order to understand this verb, I suggest once again, following the discussion of the previous berakha, that we remember the metaphor that the Talmud suggested for the last three berakhot - "the last ones are like a servant who has received a prize from his master and is taking his leave and going." As I pointed out last time, there is a somewhat medieval flavor to this "leave-taking." One has to feel what a subject would feel is appropriate when taking leave of his lord. In place of gratitude, I would like to suggest a medieval word - fealty. The subject of a feudal lord pledges his fealty to the lord, meaning he RECOGNIZES and ACCEPTS that the lord is his master and will receive his loyalty. In more modern terms, "hoda'a" is a pledge of allegiance, an acceptance of obligation - not obligation to pay a particular price, but obligation to be loyal, to serve as need be. A gift places one in a state of obligation, not to repay (though sometimes that is what we would like to do, in order to RID ourselves of the obligation of gratitude), but rather a far more existential obligation. The act of giving turns the giver into the lord, and the receiver into a subject. This sense is what we mean by gratitude - or at least it is what we should mean. By saying thank you, I am saying that I pledge myself to be at your service, in the sense that a medieval knight would pledge his right arm to the service of his lord.

 

            As an aside, I think that the reason that I continually find myself returning to medieval terminology (pledging, fealty) and metaphors (lords, subjects, knights) is because the commercialization of modern capitalist society has indeed reduced gratitude to a commodity, a form of payment. Thanks is expressed in payment, perhaps ten dollars for a kind word, twenty for a favor. This has desiccated the true meaning of gratitude, and of course, would be totally inappropriate if expressed towards God.

 

            This meaning includes gratitude, in the usual sense, as well as confession (as in confession of faith), in the sense that it requires an acceptance of a truth and a commitment to abide by it. It is, when addressed to God, a form of praise, as praise itself is a form of what is required by the subjects of the King and Lord. Most importantly, it can easily be addressed to the NAME OF GOD, for we are pledging allegiance and giving our loyalty to God's name, in the sense that we are entering our own names on the roll of God's subjects. Hence "hodu HaShem" means pledge yourself to God, accept Him as King, and commit yourself to be his loyal subject.

 

            The most explicit example I know to illustrate this sense of the word is found in Psalms 140.

 

Deliver me, HaShem, from an evil man; save me from the violent person.

Who think evil in their hearts, every day they gather for war.

They sharpen their tongues like a serpent, adders poison is under their lips, sela.

Protect me, HaShem from the hands of the wicked....

I SAID TO HASHEM, YOU ARE MY GOD; hear, HaShem, the voice of my supplication.

 

The psalmist continues to pray that God help him and save him, and then concludes;

 

I know that HaShem will fight the cause of the afflicted and the right of the poor.

Surely the righteous will YODU to Your name, the upright shall sit in Your presence.

 

            There is no simple thanking of God here; the "hoda'a" of the righteous in the last verse is parallel to sitting in the presence of the King. The expression of hoda'a was given by the psalmist earlier when he declared, "I said to HaShem, You are my God"! That is pure hoda'a - a declaration of allegiance.

 

            It is clear why King Shlomo saw this as an essential element of repentance. It is the first step, the initial correction of what was wrong, and hence, in this case, not a reaction to God's goodness but to the alienation between us that had taken place. When God punishes His people and they come to collectively ask forgiveness, they first have to declare their loyalty and re-accept His kingship, for it is only by the right of loyal subjects that they can approach Him. This is called "hoda'a" - the pledging of ourselves to His name and "confessing" to the proper relationship between us and Him. This relationship is based on the fact that He gives and we receive, and hence the close connection between "hoda'a" and gratitude. The proper contents of gratitude is the expression of obligation and fealty that we owe towards those who have given us something.

 

C. The Blessing

 

1.         Accordingly, the berakha begins with a general acknowledgment that God is our God - "that You are HaShem our God, and the God of our fathers, the Rock of our lives, Protector of our salvation, You are for all generations." Before leaving the presence of the King, we declare our loyalty to Him and pledge our fealty.

 

2.         We shall thank You and recite Your praises - For our lives which are entrusted in Your hands, and our souls which are deposited with You, and for Your miracles which are every day with us, and for your wonders and goodness at every time, evening, morning, and afternoon. The Good, for Your mercies are not exhausted, and the Merciful, for Your graces are not ended.

 

            Secondly, we enumerate the gifts we receive from God, which obligate us in fealty. This can properly be translated as "thanking." Notice, however, that we do not enumerate gifts which God has given us in the recent past, but rather emphasize the constant grants - our lives, our souls, "every day... every time, evening, morning, and afternoon." In other words, we are not thanking God for having given us something particular yesterday - which all too often would have the character of paying off your benefactor in order to AVOID the feeling of obligation - but for the present and the future. We are explaining our fealty to God because of the constant support He grants us in all ways, naturally and supernaturally, so that it is clear that we are his subjects. In fact, this fealty is inexhaustible and unlimited, for He is the Good, whose mercies are not exhausted, and the Merciful, whose graces never end."

 

            If the theme were gratitude in the usual sense, we would have expected, "for our lives which are entrusted in Your hands AND YOU RETURNED THEM TO US," and for "our souls which are deposited with You and YOU GAVE THEM BACK TO US." I claim that gratitude here is loyalty because God is taking care of our souls and has total power over them, so that He is our lord and we are his subjects. We praise Him, acknowledge Him and declare our loyalty to Him in whose hands our lives and souls are entrusted.

 

3.         "Forever we hope for You." What is "hope" doing in a berakha about gratitude? Our relationship with God is one of dependence. Our hope and trust in God is the other side of the coin of our loyalty to Him. We are His subjects not because He has enslaved us but because He has freed us from the bondage of Egypt, because He is our overlord and grants us the protection of His name. The relationship of lord to subjects is a two-way street, after all, and is based on the gifts and protection accorded by the lord. Our loyalty and our faith go together.

 

 

            We shall have to finish this berakha next time.