The Meaning of Judaism: Gratitude and Confession
As we begin to close the Amidah, in the penultimate blessing that we call Modim, we say to God: “modim anahnu lakh,” we modim you. Drawing from the root י-ד-ה, the word modim has multiple meanings, each offering very different understandings of this blessing. This root word is also core to what it means to be a Jew, as it is the root word of Judaism (יהדות) and describes two aspects of the name of our ancestor Judah/Yehudah (יהודה). What does modim mean?
When Leah names her fourth son Yehudah, she says:
הַפַּעַם אוֹדֶ֣ה אֶת־יְקֹוָק עַל־כֵּן קָרְאָה שְׁמוֹ יְהוּדָה
“This time I will offer gratitude to YHVH,” therefore she called his name Yehudah.
When Leah gives birth, she chooses to offer gratitude (odeh) to God, and to memorialize that emotion by naming her baby Yehudah, a word derived from “gratitude.”2 Indeed, when we recite the Modim blessing in the Amidah, we are meant to focus on our gratitude and praise for God. This is clear from the following lines:
עַל חַיֵּינוּ הַמְּסוּרִים בְּיָדֶךָ.
וְעַל נִשְׁמותֵינוּ הַפְּקוּדות לָךְ.
שֶׁבְּכָל יום עִמָּנוּ.
וְעַל נִפְלְאותֶיךָ וְטובותֶיךָ
שֶׁבְּכָל עֵת. עֶרֶב וָבקֶר וְצָהֳרָיִם: ...
We offer gratitude (nodeh) to You
And tell of Your praise
For our lives, that are given to Your hand
And for our souls, that are placed in Your charge
And for Your miracles
that are with us each and every day
And for Your wonders and Your goodnesses
at all times: evening, and morning, and afternoon…
In this section, the gratitude offered in the prayer is about our own personal lives and the miracles that accompany us each day. Indeed, as we learn in the following midrash, we can never really know the extent of the miracles God grants us:
מדרש תהלים (שוחר טוב; בובר) מזמור קו:א
מהו "רבות עשית" (תהלים מ:ו)? הרבה נסים ונפלאות אתה עושה עמנו בכל יום, ואין אדם יודע, ומי יודע? אתה ה'. אמר ר' אלעזר בן פדת ראה מה כתיב
"לעשה נפלאות גדולות לבדו" (קלו:ד) - הוא לבדו יודע.
Midrash Tehillim 106:1, ed. Buber, p. 227a
What is the meaning of “You have done many things” (Psalm 40:6)? There are so many miracles and wonders that You do for us every day, and people aren’t even aware of it. And who knows? [Only] You, YHVH.
R. Eleazar ben Pedat said: What is the meaning of the verse “Who does great wonders alone” (136:4)? [God] alone knows.
Even though It is actually impossible for us to have full consciousness of all God does for us, this blessing of Modim attempts to lead us to a place of at least a small level of awareness.
But gratitude is not the end of the story of the meaning of the word modim. In fact, Yehudah himself inverts the understanding of his name in Parashat VaYeishev, moving from gratitude toward confession. Yehudah’s confession is the climax of the following drama: Yehudah denied his daughter-in-law, Tamar, the right to marry his third son, Shelah, after his first two sons died while wedded to Tamar. Instead of waiting for Yehudah to change his mind, Tamar took matters into her own hands and risked her life by posing as a prostitute and tricking Yehudah into impregnating her. Yehudah leaves behind some of his possessions as a guarantee for future payment to the woman he understands to be a prostitute (not realizing she was his daughter-in-law). But later, Yehudah cannot find the prostitute to pay her and forfeits his possessions, thinking the matter is finished. Three months later, when Tamar is visibly pregnant, but not by Shelah, she seems guilty of a capital offense, and Yehudah orders her to be burned.
At the critical moment, Tamar does not accuse Yehudah directly of being the father, but simply asks:
לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר־אֵלֶּה לּוֹ אָנֹכִי הָרָה וַתֹּאמֶר הַכֶּר־נָא לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה הָאֵלֶּה:
“I was impregnated by the man who owns these [items].” She said, “Look now: who owns this seal and cord and staff?”
Yehudah recognized Tamar was holding his seal, cord, and staff. What did he do? He could have ignored Tamar’s question and let her burn for her crime of becoming pregnant while waiting for Shelah. He could have avoided embarrassment.3 But he does not stay silent. Instead he says the following:
וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה וַיֹּאמֶר צָֽדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי כִּי־עַל־כֵּן לֹא־נְתַתִּיהָ לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי
Yehudah recognized and said, “She is more righteous than I, for I did not give her to my son Shelah.”
Yehudah admits or confesses that he has wronged Tamar. The midrash makes clear that even though he doesn’t use the verb le-hodot in this moment, this act of recognition is a confession, and is core to Yehudah’s name and identity:
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) כי"ו פרשה ק
"יהודה אתה יודוך אחיך" (בראשית מט:ח), אמר לו אתה הודית במעשה תמר, יודוך אחיך להיות מלך עליהם.
Bereishit Rabbah 99:9, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 1279
“Yehudah—your brothers acknowledge you” (Genesis 49:8). You who confessed (hodita) in the affair of Tamar, your brothers will acknowledge you (yodukha) to be a king over them.
Aviva Zornberg elaborates on this linguistic link:
As a result, Yehudah brings another aspect to the meaning of his name: the one who admits guilt. Yehudah as a name captures two aspects of the meaning of the root י-ד-ה: one who recognizes the blessings in his life—and offers praise; and one who recognizes the wrongs he has committed—and admits guilt.
A midrash understands the different layers of meaning of this word modim, linking Yehudah to others of his descendants (the progeny of his unlawful union with Tamar, his engaged daughter-in-law):
בראשית רבה (תיאודור-אלבק) פרשה עא:ה
תפסה לאה פלך הודייה ועמדו כל בניה בעלי הודיה,
יהודה "ויכר יהודה" וגו' (בראשית לח:כו)
דוד "הודו לה' כי טוב כי לעולם חסדו" (תהלים קז:א),
דניאל "לך אלה אבהתי מהודה ומשבח אנא" (דניאל ב:כג)
Bereishit Rabbah 71:5, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 8285
Leah took the attribute of hodayah, and all of her children became masters of hodayah.
Yehudah—“And Yehudah recognized” (Genesis 38:26).
David6—“Praise (hodu) YHVH, Who is good, whose hesed is forever” (Psalm 107:1).
Daniel7—“To You, God of my fathers, I thank and praise” (Daniel 2:23).
In each of these instances, the word hodayah, which originated with Leah, flows through the family tree. We are the people who embody this word, in all its aspects: recognizing our own guilt, as Yehudah does with Tamar; praising God out of joy, as David does in Psalms, and thanking God in prayer, as Daniel does from exile.
Indeed, this multivalent meaning of the word modim comes into play in the biblical source for the phrase “modim anahnu lakh,” a phrase which only appears once in the Bible (I Chronicles 29:13).8 It appears at the end of King David’s speech to the people which follows his collection of precious materials to build God’s house (even though Solomon will perform the actual construction of the Temple).
דברי הימים א כט:יב-יד
וְהָעֹשֶׁר וְהַכָּבוֹד מִלְּפָנֶיךָ וְאַתָּה מוֹשֵׁל בַּכֹּל וּבְיָדְךָ כֹּחַ וּגְבוּרָה וּבְיָדְךָ לְגַדֵּל וּלְחַזֵּק לַכֹּל: וְעַתָּה אֱלֹקֵינוּ מוֹדִים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ וּֽמְהַלְלִים לְשֵׁם תִּפְאַרְתֶּךָ: וְכִי מִי אֲנִי וּמִי עַמִּי כִּי־נַעְצֹר כֹּחַ לְהִתְנַדֵּב כָּזֹאת כִּי־מִמְּךָ הַכֹּל וּמִיָּדְךָ נָתַנּוּ לָךְ:
I Chronicles 29:12-14
Wealth and honor come from You; you are the ruler of all things. In Your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all. Now, our God, we give you thanks/confess to you and praise your glorious name. But who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from You, and we have given you only what comes from Your hand.
Even though David and the people donate tens of thousands of precious stones and metals to build this house for God, David praises God by noting that all wealth comes from God directly. But this also contains an implied confession: we may, in our moments of haughtiness, claim the wealth does indeed come from our own hands. But we admit here that, in fact, “everything comes from You.”
This, then, is the spiritual posture of the end of the Amidah: I am grateful for the miracles of my daily life that I can’t even fully contemplate, and I confess that sometimes I am tempted to claim credit for success on my own. We might think, “That professional achievement? That financial gain? That act of generosity? It is all credit to me!” Indeed, our contemporary culture often encourages us to claim credit for all our successes and act accordingly. For instance, how often have we heard the claim: “That person earned the money themselves, so they can decide how to spend it”? But as we conclude the Amidah, we have an opportunity to be honest about our lives and admit: “I am not the ultimate cause of my success.”9 To the extent I sometimes think otherwise, I admit my guilt here in this blessing, and acknowledge:
שָׁאַתָּה הוּא ה' אֱלקֵינוּ
that You are YHVH our God,
and God of our ancestors
Forever and all time.
God is the source of my success, and I am the steward, not originator, of the gifts in my life. This is a stance that may not come naturally, and bears repeating multiple times a day. In our ideal, the Jewish people, children of Yehudah,10 inhabit both aspects of this word: the ability to praise God and the ability to confess to God. As we close the Amidah, we have the opportunity to express both of these meanings: to thank God for the blessings in our life, and to confess the ways in which we sometimes misattribute our success to ourselves and not to God. In this way, we strive to live to the fullest extent what it means to be Jewish (Yehudi).
2 For a beautiful analysis of Leah’s emotional state in this act, see Shai Held’s essay on Parashat VaYeitzei, “Can We Be Grateful and Disappointed at the Same Time? Or: What Leah Learned,” found in The Heart of Torah (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2017), vol. 1, pp. 60-63.
8 Interestingly, neither Abudraham nor R”I bar Yakar connect the opening of our blessing to this biblical verse, even though it is a direct quote (and the only time the word מודים appears in the bible). R. Saadia Gaon (Siddur Saadia Gaon, p. ב) does connect our blessing to this verse. Note that the word “לך” here is not a feminine form of God, but a pausal form of the word “lekha.” See Mayer Gruber, “Lamah ‘Modim Anahnu Lakh?’” Mo’ed 2/14 (2003), pp. 109-113.
10 The midrash is clear that we are called Jews after Yehudah himself: “A person doesn’t say: ‘I am a Reubenite,’ ‘I am a Shimonite,’ but ‘I am a Jew (Yehudi)’” (Bereishit Rabbah 99:6, ed. Theodor-Albeck, p. 1257).