We were all brought up with the idea that there are two ‘Magic Words’, namely ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Well, most of our Shmoneh Esrei is built on the concept of ‘please’, as we ask God for so many favors. So, it’s about time, as we conclude this magnificent prayer, to say ‘thank you’. But there are a few surprises in our thank you list. It doesn’t reference the specific requests of the prayer itself, as I would have expected, ‘Thank you, God, for hearing my pleas.’ But I would be wrong. This list is very different, indeed.
First, a word about the introductory term MODIM, usually translated ‘we are thankful’. However, this same term is used in Jewish courts of law to mean, ‘I admit’ or ‘I confess’. Rav Yitzchak Hutner explained, ‘We give thanks equals we admit. We find it hard to admit that we need others. This is an admission that we are not complete.’ So, according to Rav Hutner, a sincere thank you requires a profound level of humility.
There is another famous approach to this term. We find in many Psalms and prayers the famous expression, ‘HODU L’HASHEM’, which is another form of the same root MODEH. This is almost always translated as ‘Praise be to God’. So, another aspect of ‘thanks’ is praise for the other. So, we have ‘thank you’, ‘I admit to you’ and ‘I praise you’. Might there be an explanation that encompasses all three ideas?
Rav Ezra Bick of Yeshivat Har Etziyon, I belief, has an idea which fits the bill. He explains that what we’re expressing in this phrase is akin to what serfs owed to feudal lords in the Middle Ages. He suggests that the best explanation might be that the supplicant is expressing fealty, loyalty, allegiance and deference to God.
In any case, we have a major shift in the temper of the prayer. We have moved from active requests to an appreciation or, at least, acceptance of what life may present us with.
Our first expression of appreciation is for the very fact that we are known as God’s nation. God lends the Divine name to our identity. You, God, are our God, and the God of our ancestors. We gladly acknowledge and accept this.
Then we acknowledge that we grow and develop on the TZUR CHAYEINU, Cornerstone (Foundation?) of our lives. Who is this TZUR? I would have thought God (and I believe that’s the literal meaning), but the Etz Chaim commentary on prayer declares that it’s our ancestors and parents. We thank God for being the Lord of our ancestors and providing these marvelous forebears who anchor our being. We are hewn from that hard stuff which embodies our progenitors.
Then we acknowledge God, our Shield. God you are our solid foundation, and also a protective bulwark against the vicissitudes of life. There was an old toothpaste commercial about providing an ‘invisible shield’ for our teeth (‘Gardol’). Then a tennis ball, coconut or baseball was launched at the announcer who remained perfectly safe behind a clear barrier. Please, forgive me, but that’s the image I still have over 60 years later, as God our MAGEN, invisible shield, enabling us to continue our march through the ages.
Now we have the essence of thankfulness: I will acknowledge and relate Your praise. Every meaningful thank-you must have an explication of the specific deed for which we are grateful. To my horror, I learned this while writing the thank you notes after my Bar Mitzvah. Courtesy required me to mention the specific gifts I resented receiving. BARUCH HASHEM, with God this is easy:
Thank You for our very lives entrusted into Your hand; our souls, placed into Your charge. For Your miracles which are with us daily; Your wonders and Goodnesses which appear at all times, evening, morning and afternoons.
What do we mean by ‘souls placed into Your charge’? Some say this refers to placing our immortal souls into God’s care while we sleep every night. But I prefer to think that we are thanking God for entrusting us with this little piece of Divinity, which resides deep in our psyche.
And what are these ‘miracles, wonders and favors’? Well, the simplest to describe is ‘wonders’ NIFLA’OT, those are the rare amazing events like splitting the Sea. NISSIM are miracles that the recipient doesn’t realize were really changes in the natural order of things. Rav Soloveitchik says this includes life itself, ‘the greatest of all miracles’.
These are with us at every turn of the day, night, sunrise and the sun’s march toward setting. These are, of course, the three time frames for our daily prayers, MA’ARIV, SHACHARIT, MINCHA. We must exalt God for these benefits at all times (TAMID, constantly), and for all eternity (L’OLAM VA’ED), as well.
In the home stretch of this the longest blessing in our Shmoneh Esrei (by far, which emphasizes the importance of gratefulness), we declare that all living beings must acknowledge their debt and gratitude to God. The less sentient living things do this by just following the dictates of the DNA. We, who often fight our instincts, are required to make a cognizant effort to be thankful. This idea of the universality of thanks is punctuated by a SELAH, which means an emphatic punctuation of exclaim.
We, the Jewish nation, who receive God’s salvation (YESHU’ATEINU) and help (EZRA’TEINU), must praise God’s Holy Name. God gave us the ability to think and decide. We must use those powers to express our gratitude to the Good or Beneficent One (HA’TOV). And that deserves a SELAH!, too.
As we end the BERACHA, by acknowledging how appropriate (NA’EH) this activity is, we are reminded that, even though it is sometimes difficult, when we give the proper gratitude, it ultimately feels good and right.
We could end here, but our Sages, in their wisdom, decided that there should be another version of this thanksgiving prayer, MODIM D’RABBANAN, and we’ll explore that famous prayer next week.