This Shabbat we will say the birkat hachodesh for Adar, a time filled with joy for all of Am Yisrael. I will deviate from our regular practice of discussing the parsha and shift to miracles and the thanking of God.
I would like to dedicate this shiur in gratitude to Hashem for a great miracle that He performed for my family five years ago. My wife and five of my children were involved in a very severe car accident that included the car they were in flipping over several times and some even being thrown from the car during the flipping. Through the direct intervention of God, all family members in the car walked away with only scratches and one broken arm. Road trips to the north of the country now include making a special bracha when we pass the spot of the accident, and we have adopted the 3rd of Adar as a family holiday from that point forward (the specific customs are still a work in progress). All of this is so that we do not take for granted the great gift that Hashem gave us.
In honor of the anniversary of the miracle I would like to analyse the bracha that most closely relates to thanking God.
The final section of every Amidah is known as Hodaah – thanking God. In truth, the title when used to refer to the entire last section is a bit misleading. The last section is comprised of three brachot – Avodah (starts with Retzei), Hodaah (starts with Modim) and Shalom (starting with Sim shalom or Shalom rav). The middle one is clearly worthy of the title Hodaah, a thanking of God. The other two sections seem to be focused on other themes and for now we will focus on the middle bracha, the one that is pure Hodaah.
Hodaah would seem to be one of the more instinctive elements of our teffila. The natural human need to thank and show appreciation to others is something that we all feel at one point or another. In our communication with God and in our development of our relationship with Him it is only natural to thank Him for all that he has done for us. This seems to be gist of the standard version of the prayer.
“We gratefully thank You, for it is You, Adonai, Our G-d and G-d of our
forefathers for all eternity; Rock of our lives, Shield of our salvation are You
from generation to generation. We shall thank you and relate Your praise –
for our souls that are entrusted to You; for Your miracles that are with us daily;
and for Your wonders in every season – evening, morning and afternoon.
The Beneficent One, for Your compassions were never exhausted, and the Compassionate One, for your kindnesses never ended –
always have we put our hope in You.”
I would like to draw our attention to some additional aspects of this bracha. During communal prayer the leader repeats the Amidah out loud after the personal silent prayer. At this point the correct behaviour of the remainder of the congregants is to listen to the recitation and answer amen at the end of every bracha. According to the simple understanding this is a historical remnant of a time when many people were not able to recite the teffila on their own and the leader’s recitation would exempt all of them. However, when the leader reaches this particular bracha the congregants do not simply remain silent, but rather they have their own text to recite. Exactly what they should say was the subject of a debate in the gemara in mesechet Sota. The conclusion of the gemara is to combine all of the rabbis’ suggestions and recite them all. The final product became known as Modim Derabanan (The Rabbis’ Modim). The term derabanan is not meant to indicate a Rabbinic decree as opposed to a Torah based law, as is the common usage, but rather it is simply indicating the authorship of the prayer – by the Rabbis.
Before we analyse the text, I would like to point out that this bracha is viewed as unique and one cannot possibly thank God by proxy. Listening to the leader and simply nodding in agreement by answering amen is not enough. Every individual member of the community needs to voice his own personal gratitude to God. Some explain this to be because, as opposed to making requests from God, where one can assume that the basic human needs are similar across the board, when it comes to showing appreciation and gratitude the subjective element is primary. What one person finds miraculous and which causes them to be overcome with appreciation for God may be seen by others as a natural occurrence.
The final text as we have it reads:
We give thanks unto thee, for thou art the Lord our God and the God of our fathers, the God of all flesh, our Creator and the Creator of all things in the beginning. Blessings and thanksgivings be to thy great and holy name, because thou hast kept us in life and hast preserved us: so mayest thou continue to keep us in life and to preserve us. O gather our exiles to thy holy courts to observe thy statutes, to do thy will, and to serve thee with a perfect heart; seeing that we give thanks unto thee. Blessed be the God to whom thanksgivings are due.
While the prayer starts off in a very similar manner to the regular modim, it incorporates an additional element.
O gather our exiles to thy holy courts to observe thy statutes, to do thy will, and to serve thee with a perfect heart
We are not simply thanking God but we are asking for things as well (a concept that we thought we had completed in the previous section of the Amidah). At first glance this may appear greedy. We were given a finger and we now request the whole hand. However upon closer examination I think it is a very profound line. Rabbi Moshe Mitrani writes in his Bet Elokim, a work dedicated to explaining teffila, that the major purpose of teffila is to truly understand our relationship with God. We are to feel that He is omnipotent and we are fully dependant on Him. Our requests from Him are not designed to illicit a favourable result as much as they are designed to educate us. In the final section of the Amidah we thank God in yet another expression of our dependency on Him. The request is therefore simply a reinforcement of the same idea.
In addition I think that it also urges us to take an active role in our lives. If we have been fortunate enough to benefit from God’s kindness it must be for a purpose. We ask Him to assist us in the next level of our mission that He has set for us. God did not simply grant us life. He charges us with responsibility to increase our role in the world and to make it a better place for all.
I would like to draw attention to one more element of the bracha of which we find a trace in the common version but which was more evident in older forms of the bracha. In addition to simply thanking God there was a stress placed on mentioning the singular nature of good and making declarations of accepting God’s reign upon us. In our version we read “and for all the good may your name be praised and exalted, our King forever”. At the time of the Geonim this theme was much more pronounced. (See the very important web site of Abe Katz in general, http://www.beureihatefila.com/, for a plethora of important sources and here specifically for our issue – http://www.beureihatefila.com/files/2007-03-23Tefila_Newsletter.pdf).
It seems that the endeavor of thanking God is related to much more than simply expressing gratitude. Our recognition of His divine kindness and benevolence serves as the foundation for the very recognition of Him as our one and only King.
It is with a heart filled with gratitude to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for our family miracle, that we hope that we can be worthy of the additional challenges that the bracha of Modim sets for us.