Modah Ani: A 2020 Thanksgiving Reflection, for all those alone

By R. Jon Kelsen, PhD

I thank you, eternally living King! For You have returned within me my soul, with compassion; Your faithfulness is great!

The prayer Modah [Modeh] Ani was authored by 16th century Safed kabbalist, R. Moshe b. Makhir. Now canonized in Jewish prayerbooks around the world, it makes no explicit mention of God’s name (perhaps because it was designed to be recited prior to the morning ablutions, prior to which it is prohibited to address the Divine by name). Its power lies in its succinctness- it is comprised of a mere twelve words- and, more to the point, its simplicity.

For all those alone this Thanksgiving, I share here a brief meditation. Focusing upon just the first three words of Modah Ani -pacing its recital at the rate of one in breath and one out breath per word- can help incline one towards a day filled with thanks and giving alike.

Modah. Ani. Lefankeha.

First breath: Modah

Genesis 29:35

And [Leah] conceived again, and bore a son; and she said: ‘This time will I thank [odeh] God.’ Therefore she called his name Judah; and she ceased having children.

Rashi (ad locum, based on the midrash): “This time”-for now, I have received more than my share. Therefore, from now on, I must offer thanks.

While appreciative of her first three children (as evidenced in the names she chose for them), why does Leah wait until her fourth child to offer hodaah, thanks? This midrash teaches that Leah is thankful because she has had more than her allotted three sons (12 sons, 4 mothers = 3 each). She recognizes that she has received more than her share.

The Talmud (Berakhot 7b) teaches that, in this moment, Leah became the first -that is, the paradigmatic- giver of thanks:

Rabbi Yohanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai: From the day the Holy One, Blessed be He, created the world, no one thanked the Holy One, Blessed be He, until Leah came and thanked Him, as it is stated: “And she became pregnant and gave birth to a son, and she said, ‘This time I will give thanks to God,’ and thus he was called Judah” (Genesis 29:35).

Furthermore: in legal contexts, the language of hodaah denotes an admission, often an admission of one’s debt to another (and at other times, a concession towards another’s viewpoint). Transposed onto this verse, Leah’s recognition carries the texture of such an admission of a debt to God.

Recited in this context, ‘modah’ encourages one upon awakening to feel both thankful and indebted, cognizant that the mere fact of existence is not earned but gifted. What is more, this gift generates a pervasive sense of obligation to repay the debt generated by the gift of awakening.

Second breath: Ani

These sentiments- of gratitude and indebtedness- lead one into a particular way of saying “Ani – I.” According to a line of hasidic teaching, to say “I”-to endow oneself with subjectivity, to assume a distinct, delineated identity- is God’s prerogative alone. And yet, this prayer enjoins articulation of “I” as the second word of the day! The resolution of this tension might lie in a different interpretation of the term ‘Ani’ in this context. The ‘Ani’ of Modah Ani is an other-centric I, an I which is aware of itself in the context of gratitude towards that which extends past itself. At the same time, it is an I which, in recognizing its dependence, also recognizes its connection, its essential relatedness. It is a relational I, a humble I, and a giving I, worth recognizing itself at the dawn of each day.

Third Breath: Lefanekha

After modah and Ani, we discover that – though we may be alone today – we are, in a deeper sense, in the presence of another – or, more accurately, the Other. Indeed, this Other is addressed in the second person- ‘before You.’ Even when we are alone, we awaken with Someone else there. We are another’s presence.

This term means something more than mere presence, however. It also has a more formal meaning, as it is denotes the posture of one standing in front of a king, be it human (e.g. Exodus 8:16) or divine (see Exodus 23:17) In fact, in a technical sense, to be stand before- la’amod lifnei– God, is to be in God’s service (Exodus 28:13). As such, one who recites Modah Ani Lifanekha has adopted the posture of service- as the prayer continues, Lefanekha- Living, Eternal King. Thankful and with a firm sense of self, one is ready to serve ‘before You.’

Three breaths, three words – each of which complements and reinforces the other. For example: The Talmud (Bava Metziah 3a-b) teaches that “A person is not brazen in front of his creditor” – when one is in the presence of another to whom one owes a debt, one is less likely to falsely deny owing that debt. Beholding oneself as being ‘Lifanekha,’ before the Creditor, therefore, encourages one to be modah. And, in a wonderful feedback loop, being thankful and in gratitude makes us more conscious of being in the presence of that which is greater than ourselves. Both leave us closer to answering the question- who am I?

Jon Kelsen is the Dean of YCT Rabbinical School.