Modeh Ani (redux)

A while back I blogged a recording of a shiur I gave on Modeh Ani. The sound quality on the recording was too poor for the shiur to be made out by most listeners. I recently emailed a group a piece on Modeh Ani that makes, in abbreviated form, many of the points I made in that shiur. So, here it is.`

One opening thought about the prayer as a whole: I see in this prayer two things: The obvious one, that we need to acknowledge the One Who enabled us to wake up this morning. The second, that waking up in the morning is itself a previous gift, worthy of thanking G-d for.

The prayer “Modah Ani” became a custom roughly 400-500 years ago, judging from the time of its first mention in print (Sefer haMinhagim). There is an older prayer, a berakhah, with the same theme. It was composed as one of pair, which is why it did not need to begin with the phrase “Barukh Atah Hashem“. One of the pair is said upon going to bed, the other when waking up. But its use shifted to being part of Shacharis, recombined with a blessing for health and for the commandment and gift of the Torah, and moved away from being said upon waking up.

Besides, it opens with G-d’s name, meaning none of it would be said by an observant Jew until after hand-washing. Modeh Ani does not contain the name of G-d, although a second line which is either its post-washing continuation or a second prayer does. (More about that, later.)

Modeh Ani: The word “modeh“, a term of thanks, comes from the same root as “vidui”, confession, and is used in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew to mean agreement. What do these concepts have in common? In all three cases we are declaring our attachment to the other. In confession, we are addressing how that connection enabled us to harm the other. And in agreement, the two parties share an idea rather than each claiming sole ownership. (This idea is discussed in more detail here, in particular section V.)

Modeh in the sense of thanks, then, is an awareness that I do not stand alone. That my existance is founded not only on my efforts, but on those of others. Including, in this case, the Creator.

Modeh ani lefanekha: I thank before You…

Rather than thanking G-d, we place our thanks before Him. What’s that about?

In rabbinic descriptions of the prophetic vision of Ma’aseh haMerkavah, G-d’s Throne (not that we believe He actually is in human form or has a literal throne, but prophecy involves metaphor), the souls of those not yet born are kept in a chest before His Throne.

Perhaps this is being referred to when we speak of thanking before Him for the return of that soul.

On other mornings, it feels to me simply as an acknowledgement of the distance between my still half-asleep self and the Almighty. I cannot thank Him, I am not mentally prepared yet. So I place my thanks before Him, for G-d to carry the rest of the way.

Melekh Chai veQayam: the King Who is “Alive” and “Eternal”…

Continuing this thought… We call G-d here by a reference, rather than a name as we haven’t yet washed out hands. (As I said at the top.)

We try to avoid saying any one of G-d’s names before this purification. I refer you back to what I said about the implied distance in our placing our thanks before Him. This is a difficult prayer: on the one hand, it is most appropriate to thank G-d for waking up when actually waking up. On the other, it takes time to be fully alert and mentally ready. Jewish tradition has a washing ritual to rid ourselves of any spiritual impurities our wandering hands may have touched over the night. It serves as a time to get our brains out of whatever they were in while we were unconscious, and into a more appropriate mode for prayer. So, to strike this balance, we pray to G-d now, but do so while acknowledging that we aren’t really ready, that there is a distance that we aren’t daring to breach. Instead of the familiarity of a name, we use titles and descriptions of Divine Grandeur.

I place Eternal in quotes because “qayam” means permanent, eternal in the sense of taking up infinite time. G-d, however, is simply outside of the stream of time altogether. It’s not that He spans all of time, but that time simply has no meaning in a discussion of G-d’s existence. (Kind of like asking where “1 + 1 = 2” is.)

And yet He is “Alive” in the sense of being the Cause of an animated, changing, and ever-improving (progressing) existence.

Shehechazarta bi nishmasi bechemlah: for You have returned my soul within me with compassion…

This phrase is problematic. Who is the “me”? I here am speaking as though I were a body, and thus thanking G-d for the soul He placed within me. However, I am the soul, placed within the body! Shouldn’t we say something more like “for You have returned me to my body with compassion”?

There are two modalities (at least) of Jewish Prayer. One is the formal prayer of prewritten words. In them we say the things we ought to be thinking, to learn from them and internalize the priorities we ought to have. To relate to G-d by becoming the kind of person who is more related to G-d. In the other, the prewritten words are less essential, more of a scaffolding, if there are all. It is the child crying out her needs to the Parent, sharing with G-d our joys and trevails, our happiness and our burdens.

One signal for which of those modes a given prayer is in is whether it is written in the singular or the plural. The attitude we are to internalize places us as members of the community first. Therefore, such prayers are in the plural, “Heal us Hashem our G-d and we shall be healed”. (More on this distinction, here.)

This prayer isn’t like that. “Modeh aniI thank”. In the singular, speaking only of myself. It’s an expression of my relationship to G-d not in the ideal, but as it actually is. Not with the abstract knowledge of being a soul placed within a body, but within our illusion and confusion that we are that body.

Rabba emunasekha — great is Your faithfulness

This closing is based on a pasuq, Eikhah 3:23:

כב חַסְדֵי יְהוָה כִּי לֹא תָמְנוּ כִּי לֹא כָלוּ רַחֲמָיו.
כג חֲדָשִׁים לַבְּקָרִים רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶךָ.

22 The kindnesses of G-d — for they have no end, for His Compassion does not end
23 They are new every morning, rabba emunasekha — great is Your Faithfulness

What is the faithfulness here?

Some commentaries take the verse to refer to our belief in the resurrection. We trust that G-d will someday resurrect the dead, confidence built from how He wakes us every morning.

Others see it referring to the daily miracles, the ones we take for granted and for some silly reason think of as “natural”. And then get upset when the gift isn’t given in full measure, rather than grateful for the times it does. Meaning: Getting sick is not really a reason to petition G-d with “Why me?” That takes health for granted, as something coming to us, a right of which the sick are deprived. Health is a precious gift. The daily sunrise is a previous gift, even if we don’t expect it to end for the foreseeable future.

And thus we thank G-d not just that He allows us to wake up, but that He does so so reliably that it takes this ritual to help us remember He is there doing it!

A third thought is that we’re referring to G-d’s faith in us! G-d returned my soul to me yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that. He gave me so many opportunities, and I wasted so many of them. And even though I wasn’t as good as I could have been yesterday, G-d gives me another chance today. Truly, “Great is Your Faith”!

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  1. Bob Miller says:

    Modeh could also mean acknowledge. So then we’d be acknowledging these facts while in HaShem’s presence.

  2. I’m not sure Modeh does also mean acknowledge, outside of the overlap in meaning between the English words. R’ Hutner discusses modim al vs modim le-, and modim as in “agree” isn’t in the original Tanakhi Hebrew, it’s mishnaic idiom — possibly borrowed from Aramaic.

    But in any case, the general notion that there is a contrast between “Modim anachnu Lakh” and “Modeh ani lefanekha” raises a question that needs addressing. I am suggesting that in tefillah we can presume the closeness we are trying to achieve, while in tachanunim we express the distance we actually have.

  3. Bob Miller says:

    I was once reading the phrase “ulai yeracheim” in a selicha, and thought “wait a minute! can’t I address HaShem directly?” The phrase suggests a kind of distance that interferes somehow with direct communication.

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