(with thanks to Michael Smith)
My translation of a passage from Schlomo Malka’s Emmanuel Lévinas: la vie et la trace (
“The participants remember especially the end of this talk, sprung forth, as was often the case with him, from a tiny piece of paper folded in four. It was a sublime variation on the words “thank you,” based on a Talmudic commentary.
What does the public say, asks one of the Talmudic doctors, while the Chazzan recites the famous “Modim” benediction (Prayer of Thanksgiving that is part of the 18 benedictions of the daily prayer): “We thank You because You are the Eternal our God and the God of our fathers forever, the rock of our lives, the shield of our defense. From generation to generation we thank You and proclaim Your praise, for our lives committed to your hand, and for our souls entrusted to You”?
While the Chazzan says these words of thanksgiving in bowing, the faithful are to say a “little Modim” which is similar to that of the officiate (in the Siddur it is placed alongside the other one), but the text of which is different. While in the former, the intention is clear and the object of thanks explicit, in the latter there is no real object. Unless we follow the opinion of Rav, according to which we are to go to the end of the prayer, at which point all becomes clear. “We thank You, our Eternal God . . . for thanking You.”
An exercise in gratitude, for the simple fact of being able to say thank you. Thank You, My God, for that possibility that is given us of thanking You. Thank You for being in Your Presence, in a relation that consists in giving thanks. As if ultimately one could not give thanks without oneself becoming thankfulness. This homage of the former director to his own students—all those present have kept it in their memories.”
The Modim d’Rabanan (“little Modim” referred to in the preceding text: said silently by the congregation) as it stands in present-day siddurim, e.g. the The Complete Metsudah Siddur (New York: Metsudah Publications, 1990), p. 135:
מודים אנחנו לך We are thankful to you,
שאתה הוא יהוה אלהינו that You Adonai are our God
ואלהי אבותינו and the God of our fathers,
אלהי כל בשר God of all flesh,
יוצרנו יוצר בראשית Our Creator, Creator of the Beginning.
ברכות והודאות Blessings and thanksgivings
לשמך הגדות והקדוש to your great and holy Name
על שהחייתנו וקימתנו for keeping us alive, and sustaining us;
כן תחיינו so may you always keep us alive
ותקימנו and sustain us
ותאסוף גליותינו and gather our exiles
לחצרות קדשך to the Courtyards of Your Sanctuary
לשמור חוקיך to observe Your statutes,
ולעשות רצונך and to do Your will,
ולעבדך בלבב שלם and to serve You wholeheartedly,
על שאנו מודים לך for we are thankful to You.
ברוך אל Blessed is the Almighty
ההודאות to whom all thanks are due.
בזמן ששליח צבור אומר מודים העם מה הם אומרים
אמר רב מודים אנחנו לך ה' אלהינו על שאני מודים לך ושמואל אמר
אלהי כל בשר על שאנו מודים לך רבי סימאי אומר יוצרנו יוצר בראשית
על שאנו מודים לך נהרדעי אמרי משמיה דרבי סימאי ברכות והודאות
לשמך הגדול על שהחייתנו וקיימתנו על שאנו מודים לך
רב אחא בר יעקב מסיים בה הכי כן תחיינו ותחננו ותקבצנו ותאסוף
גליותינו לחצרות קדשך לשמור חוקיך ולעשות רצונך בלבב שלם על
שאנו מודים לך אמר רב פפא הילכך נימרינהו לכולהו
When the Chazzan says the blessing Modim (=We thank), what does the congregation say?
Rav said: We thank You, Adonai our God, that we thank you.
And Shmuel said: [We thank You] God of all flesh, that we thank you.
Rav Simai says [We thank You] Who formed us, Who formed the creation, that we thank You.
The men of Nehardai, in the name of Rabbi Simai: Blessings and thanksgiving to your great name, that You kept us alive and sustained us, that we thank You.
Rav Acha bar Yaakov would conclude: Thus may You sustain us and be gracious to us and gather our exiles to Your holy courtyards, to guard Your statutes and do Your will with a perfect heart, that we thank You.
Rav Papa said: Therefore we say all of these.
Levinas, Entre nous: Thinking-of-the-Other, Columbia University Press, 1998, p. 56; French original, 72-73:
“One may wonder whether the true God can ever discard His incognito, whether the truth which is said should not immediately appear as not said, in order to escape the sobriety and objectivity of historians, philologists, and sociologists who will deck it out in all the names of history, reducing its still small voice to the din of battlefields and marketplaces, or to the structured configuration of meaningless elements. One may wonder whether the first word of revelation must not come from man, as in the ancient prayer of the Jewish liturgy in which the faithful gives thanks not for what he receives, but for the very fact of giving thanks.”
Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence,Nijhoff, 1981, p. 10; French original, p. 12.):
“A linear regressive movement, a retrospective back along the temporal series toward a very remote past, would never be able to reach the absolutely diachronous pre-original which cannot be recuperated by memory and history. But it may be that we have to unravel other intrigues of time than that of the simple succession of presents. Men have been able to be thankful for the very fact of finding themselves able to thank; the present gratitude is grafted onto itself as onto an already antecedent gratitude. In a prayer in which the worshipper asks that his prayer be heard, the prayer as it were precedes or follows itself.”
Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, Nijhoff, p. 149 (French, p. 190):
“The word God is still absent from the phrase in which God is for the first time involved in words. It does not at all state that “I believe in God.” To bear witness [to] God is precisely not to state this extraordinary word, as though glory would be lodged in a theme and be posited as a thesis, or become being’s essence. As a sign given to the other of this very signification, the “here I am” signifies me in the name of God, at the service of men that look at [regard] me, without [my] having anything to identify myself with but the sound of my voice or the figure of my gesture—the saying itself. This recurrence is quite the opposite of a return upon oneself, self-consciousness. It is sincerity, effusion of oneself, “extraditing” of the self to the neighbor. Witness is humility and admission; it is made before all theology; it is kerugma and prayer, glorification and recognition [gratitude]. But what is proper to all the relations that are thus unfolded—and what a deception [disappointment] for the friends of truth that thematizes being, and of the subject that effaces itself before Being!—is the fact that the return is sketched out in the going, the appeal is understood in the response, the “provocation” coming from God is in my invocation, gratitude is already gratitude for this state of gratitude, which is at the same time or in turn a gift and a gratitude. The transcendence of the revelation lies in the fact that the “epiphany” comes in the saying of him that received it.”
Text 7. Suggested background reading:
Lévinas, “Éducation et Prière”, in Difficile Liberté (Paris: Albin Michel, 3e éd., 1976), pp. 374-78. English translation: “Education and Prayer,” in Difficult Freedom, trans. Seán Hand (London: The Athlone Press, 1990), pp. 269-72.