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The Modeh Ani Lafanecha – Prayer of Certainty

Marc Gafni » Certainty / Uncertainty » Enlightenment of Fullness » Essays & Articles » Wisdom for Your Week » The Modeh Ani Lafanecha – Prayer of Certainty

by Dr. Marc Gafni from the English version of his book Certainty, which is already published in Hebrew and which will be re-released as part of his two-volume series entitled Integral Religion.

We continue our exploration of certainty and uncertainty and the Modeh ani lafanecha prayer… the prayer of certainty.

In the biblical tradition, every morning begins with a proclamation of certainty. Before the start of the day, I say the prayer Modeh Ani Lefanecha and in so doing make the ultimate statement of certainty. Modeh ani lefanecha – I give thanks before You – I give thanks in Your presence – is a clear and strong statement of divine relationship. In it one speaks directly to the divine, acknowledging the daily presence of the Spirit in our lives, the divine role in creation, and the divine aspect of ourselves created in the image of God. Emerging from the nightmares of ‘Maybe’, the darkness of ‘So what’, I begin the day with the certainty of ‘Before you, I give thanks’.

This certainty is not intellectual; it is instinctive and emotional. It is not a schematic knowledge of the way of the world; it is a deep internal understanding of the way of the divine within. Core certainty of being is to know the shepherd.

The certainty is faith in my own worth, and not the absence of all doubt. It is essential faith in our own worth that allows us to hold uncertainty not just as a reality that we must face, but as a high religious and spiritual value. I find through personal experience, which I later root in text, that uncertainty is valuable for three reasons:

1) Only by holding uncertainty can I reach the higher certainty and vision that is mine.

2) Through the holding of uncertainty we avoid the seduction of false certainty. False certainty in my reading of life and texts is the ultimate source of evil in the world. False dogma, be it religious, national, spiritual or secular, is the ground out of which the dynamic of human evil always grows.

3) I need to hold uncertainty because only in uncertainty do I reach spiritual authenticity. This third level of authenticity is never resolvable in favor of higher certainty. This uncertainty is higher than any certainty and is reflective of the deepest nature of reality — both in the laws of the spirit and in the laws of physics. (Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle)

So what about the essential belief in one’s worth? There is a secret wound lurking inside all of us. It is the fear that we are somehow not enough. We secretly feel that if people really knew all of our imperfections they would not love us. Much of western religion, in a distortion of the tradition, has reinforced this feeling – Indeed you are not enough; so aren’t you lucky that God is so wonderful that he loves you anyway…even though you are not enough. This is a love that creates radical dependency and emasculates a human being. Biblical consciousness begins with the statement — You are enough. You could be more. God is the force within that invites you to be more, as well as the cosmological embrace that loves you as you are. This is the essential core certainty of being which I will be referring to in different forms throughout the book. Even as we strive to grow we need to realize in the depths of our souls that we are enough.

To experience our own ‘enoughness’ is no small achievement. Indeed, Dietrich Bonhoefer, the German priest who was killed by the Nazis, seems to have been right when he said, “There is no cheap grace”. Thus for one to wake up each morning and acknowledge such a relationship of ‘enoughness’ with self, refracted through the prism of divinity, while rubbing sleep from his eyes, would seem to be too easy. The daily recitation of Modeh ani lefanecha, with pretensions to the final certainty of Job, would seem to be either glib or arrogant. A close examination of this prayer however, will reveal that Modeh ani is not just the literary creation of a contented Rabbi. It is a direct reference to a particular moment of certainty in Biblical history.

Careful investigation will show that this expression of certainty does not emerge from a moment of easy faith, of happy embrace. On the contrary, the Modeh ani lafanecha prayer is the liturgical encapsulation of a fragile moment of certainty that is hard won, emerging from confusion and distortion: a moment whose power is far-reaching, tragically fleeting and yet ultimately transforming. Rather than a quiet statement of the obvious, Modeh ani lafanecha reverberates with the pain and struggle necessary for transcendence.

The classic commentaries on the Liturgy record no source for the Modeh Ani prayer. It has found its way into the consciousness of a people without leaving behind any trace of its origin. Here we seek to unpack her source and to begin our quest for the certainty of being which is our birthright.

Modeh ani emerges from the words of Leah, wife of Jacob, on the occasion of the birth of her fourth son, Judah.

The Birth of Judah- Modeh Ani

Genesis 29:

9 While [Jacob] was still speaking with them, Rachel came with her father’s flock; for she was a shepherdess. And when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his uncle Laban, and the flock of his uncle Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone off the mouth of the well, and watered the flock of his uncle Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and broke into tears. Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman that he was Rebecca’s son, and she ran and told her father. On hearing the news of his sister’s son Jacob, Laban ran to greet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and took him into his house. He told Laban all that had happened,

14 and Laban said to him, “You are truly my bone and flesh.” When he had stayed with him a month’s time, Laban said to Jacob, “Just because you are a kinsman, should you serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?” Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the older one was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah had weak eyes; Rachel was shapely and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he answered, “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.” Laban said, “Better that I give her to you than that I should give her to an outsider. Stay with me.” So Jacob served seven years for Rachel and they seemed to him but a few days because of his love for her.

21 Then Jacob said to Laban, “Give me my wife, for my time is fulfilled, that I may cohabit with her.” And Laban gathered all the people of the place and made a feast. When evening came, he took his daughter Leah and brought her to him; and he cohabited with her. – Laban had given his maidservant Zilpah to his daughter Leah as her maid. – When morning came, there was Leah! So he said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I was in your service for Rachel! Why did you deceive me?” Laban said, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older. Wait until the bridal week of this one is over and we will give you that one too, provided you serve me another seven years.” Jacob did so; he waited out the bridal week of the one, and then he gave him his daughter Rachel as wife. – Laban had given his maidservant Bilhah to his daughter Rachel as her maid. – And Jacob cohabited with Rachel also; indeed, he loved Rachel more than Leah. And he served him another seven years.

31 The Lord saw that Leah was hated, and opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Leah conceived and gave birth to a son. She called his name Reuven, saying: “God has seen my suffering, and now my husband will love me.” She conceived again and gave birth to a son, and said: “God has heard that I am hated and has given me this [son] as well,” and she called his name Simeon. She conceived again and gave birth to a son, and said: “This time my husband will accompany me, for I have born him three sons,” and she therefore called his name Levi.

35 She conceived again and gave birth to a son, and she said: “This time I thank God – ha pa’am odeh et hashem.” and therefore she called his name Judah…

Notice how, on the birth of her fourth son Judah, Leah says “hapaam odeh et hashem – this time, I thank God”. Odeh from the biblical text and Modeh Ani from the liturgy mean the same thing – I acknowledge, I thank. When I wake up in the morning and say Modeh ani, I am conceptually, linguistically, and experientially reformulating Leah’s acknowledgment of and thanks to God upon the birth of Judah.

Why is this moment so transcendent that it merits the immortality of a daily prayer? Leah is popularly seen as the lesser of the two sisters, the matriarch that most of us find difficult to remember — so why do we find ourselves repeating her words every morning? Modeh Ani is one of the first prayers a parent teaches a child . What is the secret of this chant? Words in Jewish meditative text always have a story. To understand the psycho-spiritual moment that the Modeh Ani words invite us into we need first to unpack the story of the words. We must explore the story of Leah: a heroic journey from confusion into core certainty and then back again.

Who is Leah?

Jacob arrives at Laban’s home and, as a prototype for love at first sight, falls immediately in love with Rachel, Leah’s younger sister. He agrees to work for seven years in return for Rachel’s hand in marriage. This handsome romantic stranger appears out of nowhere exhibiting superhuman powers of strength, not to mention charm, and falls in love – not with Leah – but with her younger sister. Leah is painfully peripheral. The text even tells us that Rachel is deemed the beauty of the family, while Leah merely ‘has soft eyes’ (footnote that this could be the tear stained face of leah*). Leah is on the outside.

However, when the seven years are over and Jacob has completed his labor of love, Laban deceives Jacob and marries him to soft eyed Leah. (the wedding night finds Leah hiding beneath a heavy veil beside her unsuspecting groom*) In the gloom of a night-wedding Leah stands heavily veiled next to the unsuspecting Jacob under the wedding canopy. It is not until the following morning that Jacob realizes he has been duped: he has married Leah instead of Rachel. When Jacob protests, Laban gives him Rachel as well, on the grounds that Jacob will work an additional seven years.

Although Leah is usually viewed as but a pawn in the manipulations of her father Laban, a close textual reading paints a more complex picture of the event. The simple fact is that Laban could not have deceived Jacob on his wedding night without the full complicity and cooperation of Leah. Indeed according to the implied assumptions of one Midrash it is clear that Leah is fully complicit in defrauding not only Jacob but her sister Rachel as well.

Another Midrash suggests that, after a few years in Laban’s service, Jacob began to understand the way his uncle’s mind worked. He indeed suspected that Laban would attempt to trick him into marrying Leah instead of Rachel. In order to pre-empt him, Jacob taught Rachel a set of signs so she would be able to signal to him that it was indeed her under the wedding canopy, thus preventing Laban from exchanging her with Leah. A wise move; but Jacob had not taken into account one possibility – that Rachel would give the signs to Leah.

The usual focus of commentary is on Rachel’s noble empathy. She cannot bear to see her sister’s sadness, and therefore gives her the signs. But what about Leah? When she heard that her younger sister was engaged, did Leah respond with magnanimity? How does an older sister respond to the engagement of her younger sister? Does Leah celebrate her sister’s happiness while privately nursing her own disappointment? Did she dance for her sister’s joy, or did she walk around Rachel with a tragic air of devastation? Imagine that very time Rachel wants to experience her joy she runs into the tear stained face of Leah, who robs of her of her ability to rejoice. We can picture the younger sister – who cannot bear to witness Leah’s parade of pain any longer – giving over the secret signs. We appreciate the pathos and nobility of Rachel- who in giving her sister those signs, moves beyond herself, to feel the pain of her sister. We are, however, startled by Leah’s need to take (them — )*to what should not be hers.

That evening Leah stands under the wedding canopy facing Jacob in the darkness. Jacob tries to make out her face, but the veil does its job too well. Jacob does not panic, but smoothly signals to the woman opposite him, and she fluently responds. All has gone according to Jacob’s plan; the marriage proceeds. (but the veil must at some point lift)* The Midrash offers a dramatic description of how Jacob confronts Leah the following morning. The early rays of sunlight begin to filter through the tent walls, and Jacob gradually begins to make out the face of his beloved. (The veil of darkness lifted, he sees…the soft eyes of Leah*) But it is Leah! Jacob, outraged, cries out: ‘All night I called out ‘Rachel, Rachel’, and you answered!’(Indeed, leah…)* That is, Leah did not remain the silent pawn – she complicitely* answered to the name of her sister, playing an active role in the deception. After the wedding ceremony, Leah took care to make sure the deception was not revealed until too late.

Leah is Us

It is not for *nothing that we asked earlier: “Who is Leah?” The ultimate issue in every person’s life is ‘who am I’. It is this core uncertainty about identity that Leah is desperately attempting to resolve by marrying Jacob. When Laban substitutes Leah for Rachel Leah still has ways of letting Jacob know that he is being deceived. (leah had ample opportunity to reveal to jacob that he was being deceived*) But she chooses instead to participate fully in the deception. She shows no reluctance, because her father’s actions suit her own designs. She wants to marry Jacob. Moreover she feels she must marry Jacob. It is through Jacob that she thinks she will finally touch a sense of inner certainty.

The human being can never achieve any sense of fulfillment until essential uncertainty is satisfactorily resolved. The magic of Hebrew language is such that the etymology for the words Uncertainty – safek, and Satisfaction – sippuk, is identical. The resolution of personal Safek is difficult. We often avoid the necessary effort and pain required to answer the question of identity by consciously or subconsciously forging a pseudo-identity. It was Jung who said that all neurosis stems from the refusal to suffer legitimate suffering. He refers to the effort and investment which are indispensable tools in knowing our true selves. This is the subtext of our drama.

The safek – uncertainty – of ‘Who is Leah?’ will now be answered, ‘Jacob’s wife.’ Jacob becomes the resolution of her safek and the exclusive source of her sippuk – satisfaction. For this certainty, this opportunity to fill the void within her, she is willing to betray even her own sister. When we feel essentially unloved, uncertain about our core value, we are willing to do almost anything to feel loved – to resolve the core Safek of our identity.

Leah feels ugly. Rachel the text describes as beautiful. Leah however, well, “she has “soft eyes’”. She feels like she is not enough. She feels that she needs to find fulfillment or completion outside of herself, and that the person who can provide this for her is Jacob. Leah “pathologically” needs Jacob in order to fulfill the Leah which she experiences as being so deeply lacking. Leah refuses her true destiny of marrying Esau, Jacob’s twin brother, who is, according to the Midrash, ‘fit to her’, because she is fundamentally disconnected from her identity, and so she is desperately trying to fit in to a form and face and destiny that is not hers.

Though perhaps not to the same extremity, we all know what it is to feel ‘not enough’. How many times have we met someone on a first date and pretended to be someone else? – Found things hilarious which generally speaking would only raise half a smile? – Found ourselves feigning absolute fascination about a subject we barely find interesting? Or before a job interview, have we ever done research about the interviewer, about the company, and presented ourselves as the perfect candidate? And not only to get the job but to feel like we fit in sufficiently to be able to extract a sense of personal identity from our work! Yet all the while we feel like a ‘mis-fit’, with a lurking dis-ease that perhaps ‘they’ will reveal that I am really inadequate for the job.

T. S. Eliot captures the feeling of living without a personal center of gravity or gravitas.

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpieces filled with straw. Alas
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, Shade without color
Paralyzes force, Gesture without motion
We have all of us at one time or another tried to attain things or people by pretending to be someone other than our true selves. The motivation is always a hunger, a neediness which moves us to sate our hunger with nourishment foreign to our souls. We all recognize the hollow men and the stuffed men. We have all of us, on some level, married Jacob in the darkness.

The Downward Spiral

Of course, the painful truth is that when we look to ‘have’ somebody to fill a hole in our own identity, we never really ‘have him’…even if we’re married to him. Jacob is Leah’s husband – but Leah feels unloved and cries out, “The Lord has heard that I am hated.” Jacob is her husband – but he does not take walks with her at night. “This time my husband will accompany me,” says Leah in a pathos filled cry of longing for Jacob. Jacob is Leah’s husband and the father of her three children – but there is no intimacy, no love. Jacob has not chosen her, and so Leah has nobody. She has him yet she has nothing.

But she needs Jacob! She is convinced that only Jacob will make her complete, that only Jacob can establish the certainty of her identity. If the marriage ceremony was not enough, then Leah needs to seek other ways to get Jacob. The downward spiral begins, ‘If only I could do this…then I would have him.’ Manipulation always creates the need for the next manipulation, using someone always creates the need to use someone else. And so she uses her children. From the moment her children are born, she begins to treat them not as people that need to be loved unconditionally, but as vehicles to attain the attention she so desperately craves from her husband. With each child the spiral plunges deeper into unrealistic fixation.

For the book of Genesis the answer to Shakepeare’s query, “What’s in a name” is… everything. In the naming of Reuben for example, we understand that from Leah’s perspective – Reuben exists in order to improve Leah’s relationship with Jacob. She calls him Rueben, explaining the name to mean, “God has seen my suffering, and now my husband will love me.” Reuben will be valued by his mother only to the extent to which he brings about intimacy between his parents. This, for Leah, is the reason for Reuben’s being: this is his purpose. When he ‘fails’ to affect a change in his father’s attitude to his mother, he fails his mother. He has lost his value to her; he has lost her love. We will study later how this dynamic unfolds in the pathos of Reuben’s perpetual search for his mother’s love. His life, we will see, is riddled with insecurity and uncertainties.

In traumatic relationships, unless we do something to break the patterns, the pain does not go away, but is rather passed down the line. What did Laban call Leah’s younger sister? He called her Rachel. Rachel’s job in Laban’s house was to take care of the rechalim- the sheep. The modern connotation of calling a daughter ‘my little lamb’ comes from this text. However when all of your wealth is bound up with herds, with goats and with sheep, what does it suggest when you name your daughter ‘sheep’? You may as well name your daughter ‘Merchandise’. If this is what he called Rachel, who is the beloved daughter, we can suppose Laban related no better to Leah. Indeed in Hebrew the name Leah is etymologically related to ox. And thus Leah relates to her children as her father related to her. Laban’s identity in the text is bound up with his commercial personae- particularly with his flocks of sheep; Leah’s identity is bound up with being Mrs. Jacob. Just like so many of us, she is the inheritor of a tradition of using – parents using their children as pawns in their own attempts at identity formation.

Repeating patterns of her own childhood, she uses her children as objects to fulfill her own unrealized dreams. In the process, the children are short-changed because they are denied the unconditional love that they need to develop as full human beings with inner certainty about their worth.

How often do we manipulate our children, using them to fulfill dreams that we have not yet been able to fulfill? It doesn’t work. It shouldn’t work. We can never use someone else to obtain something that is not ours, because ultimately even if we obtain it we don’t own it. Yet patterns can be broken because the human being is free. Leah can still find inner peace and satisfaction in her self -love in the presence of God. This finally is what Leah understands when it is time for Judah to be born – Judah, the fourth child.

The Judah Moment

When her first two children are born Leah speaks of her pain, her hurt, her feelings of rejection by her husband: At the birth of Rueben, “God has seen my suffering.” At the birth of Simeon, “God has heard that I am hated.” When her third child, Levi is born, once again she hopes that his birth will precipitate genuine intimacy and love in her relationship with her husband: “This time my husband will accompany me,” she plaintively cries out. But at the birth of Judah we hear a different song entirely: “ha paam odeh et hashem” – this time I thank God.

We hear nothing of pain, no mention of loneliness. Jacob is not even mentioned for good or for bad: only gratitude rings out. When Leah gives birth to her fourth child she says, “ha paam odeh et hashem.” And so she calls her son Judah, in Hebrew -Yehudah – ‘gratitude, acknowledgment’. Gratitude is not obeisance. I am grateful for your gift for it teaches me that I am worthy of receiving. Leah has been able to move beyond her dependency on Jacob, and stand up in God’s presence as a dignified human being. The fundamental safek Leah had about herself has been resolved.

No longer dependent upon anyone, perhaps for the first time Leah feels her own adequacy, her ‘enoughness’ — her sippuk. She says, “hapaam – this time”. She does not deny her past, she does not pretend it did not exist, but she celebrates that ‘this time’ she has moved on. ‘This time’ I value myself. ‘This time’ I know who I am. ‘This time’ I don’t feel I need another to fulfill myself. “This time, I thank God.” She has gained a core certainty of her identity, of her value, of her dignity.

Unlike Leah’s first three children, Judah is born with no conditions attached. Leah is able to accept and love Judah unconditionally, and it is this love which imparts to Judah a sense of certainty about himself and his place in the world.

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