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Shiur #24: Modim (part 2)

  • Rav Ezra Bick

We left off in the middle of the 18th berakha, "modim." After the listing of all the reasons why we express "hoda'a" to God, the berakha states:


And for all of them, may Your name, our King, be blessed and exalted, always and forever after.

And all the living shall "YODU" You, Sela, and praise Your great name in truth, the God Who is our salvation and aid, Sela.


            This section introduces another theme, centered on the phrase "all the living." We here are widening the scope of the hoda'a to include all mankind, perhaps even all living things. Why?


            In light of what I advanced in the previous shiur, that "hoda'a" means loyalty and allegiance to our benefactor, this wish is quite clear. Were hoda'a to mean only gratitude in the usual sense, the desire that all who owe God thanks should also express it would not necessarily follow from our own need and obligation to express gratitude. Of course, the hope that everyone would act properly is natural and itself an expression of moral sensitivity, but it would not follow that it is an essential part of our obligations towards God. But once I realize that hoda'a is based on loyalty to the King, on FEALTY, then it is clear that a state where many subjects of the king do not express their fealty towards Him is unacceptable to a true subject of the King. We feel that our loyalty to Him, our desire to see His kingdom come true, demands that His kingdom be complete. That is why all expressions of the hope for the future fulfillment of mankind's destiny are always expressed in the context of God's KINGDOM. A classic example is the second paragraph of the "Aleinu" prayer:


Therefore we trust in You, HaShem our God,

To see speedily the beauty of Your might,

To rid the earth of idols,

and the gods shall be exterminated,

To complete the world in the kingdom of God,

and all flesh shall call on Your name....

And all shall accept the yoke of Your kingdom,

and You shall reign over them for ever.

For Kingship is Yours,

And forever shall You rule in glory,

As is written, 'God shall rule for ever and ever.'


            But I think there is a deeper idea being alluded to here.


            On the expression "vekhol ha-chaim" (all the living), R. Yehuda b. Yakar cites the verse in Isaiah (38,19), "The living, the living, he shall praise You, as I do this day," and adds the words, "because we are alive and You are alive." Let us take a look at the context of this verse.


            Chapter 38 of Isaiah begins by stating that King Chizkiyahu "fell mortally ill." He is told by the prophet Yishayahu, in the name of God, that he will die. The king turns to God and prays, and Yishayahu is sent to tell him that he has been granted an additional fifteen years. Chizkiyahu then writes the following:


I said: in the noontide of my days shall I go to the gates of Sheol;

I am deprived of the remainder of my years.

I said: I shall not see HaShem, HaShem in the land of the living;

I shall not behold man again with the inhabitants of the world.


For Sheol cannot praise ("todeh") You; death cannot exult You;

They who go down to the pit cannot hope for Your truth.

The living, the living, he shall praise ("yodu") You, as I do this day,

The father to the children shall make known Your truth.


            These words explain the value of life. Chizkiyahu is explaining why life is better than death, why life is precious to God. Echoing the key word of our berakha, he says that there is no hoda'a in death but only in life. One other word parallels the hoda'a - truth ("amitekha"). The dead do not "hope" for God's truth, but the living teach God's to their children. How are we, who accept the doctrine of life in the-world-to-come, to understand these words?


            It is important to stress in advance that the belief in the world-to-come never lead in Judaism to a denigration of the value of life, or - and this is even more important - to a celebration of death or even a resignation to its inevitability. Death is an evil. The obvious consequences of this principle is that one is obligated to oppose death. Pacifism, in the philosophic sense of acceptance, is totally foreign to Jewish belief. At every funeral the verse is repeated, "He will destroy death for ever, and HaShem God will wipe away tears from all faces" (Is. 25,8). Death is the end of life and life is the ultimate halakhic value. Death is the source of "tum'a," and tum'a is the opposite of holiness.


            I would like to suggest the following. Life, in both Jewish thought and halakha, means the ability to grow, to create, to progress. Building and creating is the essence of life. THIS world is the arena where we have been given the ability to create, to ACT and make things, build and build up more. Therefore the crucial verse above concluded, "… the father to the children shall make known Your truth." Life is the ability to teach (and have) children, to pass on to another generation, to further knowledge of God's truth and spread it to new points.


            "God's truth," according to this understanding, is the source, the cause, the "fuel" in you will, of this growth and creativity. One who receives God's truth has the power source to grow and therefore to live. The dead do not "hope for Your truth," because they, as far as appears to us, are not engaged in life, in growth and creativity. "The living, the living, he shall praise You."


            How does this apply to our berakha and the idea of hoda'a? I explained that hoda'a means not mere gratitude, nor simple confession is the sense of assent to a truth, but allegiance, loyalty and fealty. One who is "modeh" to God places his strength and will at God's service. He is enrolling himself in the service of God. Therefore, ONLY the living can engage in hoda'a. You have to have a right arm in order to dedicate it to the service of God. Only those who can act, who can progress and build and thereby add to the sanctification of the name of God, can be part of hoda'a. Chizkiyahu is saying to God that by giving him life, God has given him not only the obligation but also the possibility of being "modeh" to God. He is explaining that life is precious because it is the opportunity to SERVE God, to do things, to act, to create, to walk in "His truth," to spread God's name to children and to others. If Chizkiyahu, who has served God all his life, dies, he will no longer be able to be a loyal subject of the king, "for in Sheol who can praise you?" The living, the living, he shall praise You.


            In the conclusion of our berakha, we look forward and pray for the day when all the living shall praise (yodu) Him, for that is the complete fulfillment of the kingship of God which we have accepted in this berakha. The hosts of God consists of all the living, by definition of the word "living." Our allegiance to God includes all the living, because we recognize that the source of our ability to act and create in this world is the "truth of God," which animates all life. The fealty we are trying to express is, in reality, "and for all of them, may Your name be blessed in the mouths of all living, always and for ever after."


            Rav Yehuda b. Yakar added a comment to the quote of the verse from Isaiah, "Because we are alive and You are alive." We are alive, dedicating our actions to God, who is a living God. Not an exalted idea, not an idealization of virtue, not merely a principle of eternal truth, God is the source of life. God needs - or rather has decided that He needs - the service of His subjects, because God has purpose in the world, ends which must be met, life to create and continue. It is God's truth which animates the world, and so we enroll in the service of a living God.


            And so the "mei-ein chatima" before the concluding berakha: "And all life shall praise You, Sela, and exult Your great name IN TRUTH, the God Who is our salvation and aid, Sela." God is active; i.e., alive - for He is our salvation and aid, and that is why we are pledging our allegiance to Him.