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Rabbi Doniel Staum - Parshas Vaeschanan 5772 "Submission and Gratitude"
by Rabbi Doniel Staum, LMSW

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On a cold icy day in late March 2007, a van of high school girls on their way to school was driving down the highway. Suddenly, the van skidded and in a horrific moment turned on its side. Almost everyone walked away unscathed, except for one girl who was badly injured. Her hand was pinned beneath the weight of the van for some time until it could be lifted by an emergency crew. When she was rushed to the hospital the doctors were unsure of the extent of the damage. Thank G-d, since then she has had a complete recovery.

The father of the girl is a Rebbe of mine who I am very close with. Soon after the event he recounted to me the text of the speech he delivered at the seudas hoda’ah[1] that his family hosted in gratitude to Hashem for his daughter’s recovery:

Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner zt’l noted that the word ‘hoda’ah’ has two different definitions. Although the common definition is thanksgiving/gratitude, the word hoda’ah also refers to an admission, such as when one states that he is “modeh” (admitting) to someone else’s opinion. Rabbi Hutner explained that the two definitions are inextricably bound. Recognizing the goodness that was done for a person is a prerequisite to expressing gratitude and thanks. If one is unaware - or refuses to recognize - the good that someone else has done for him, he will never be thankful for it.

Since time immemorial, man craves independence and self-sufficiency. Therefore, it is a constant challenge for a person to be able to admit to himself that all he does and accomplishes is only by the Grace and kindness of his Creator.

Rabbi Hutner notes that when the Matriarch Leah bore her fourth son, she named him Yehuda declaring, “hapa’am odeh es Hashem- this time I am ‘modeh’ to Hashem”. Rashi explains that Leah meant to say, “Since this time I took more than my allotted portion, at this point I must be modeh.”

Leah did not simply mean that she was obliged to express thanks to G-d. The four wives of Yaakov were prophetically aware that Yaakov was destined to father Klal Yisroel via twelve sons. Therefore, it was logical that each of the wives would bear three of those sons. When Leah had a fourth son she realized that G-d had granted her kindness beyond her allotted share, and that realization caused her to express particular thanks. Thus the name ‘Yehuda’ encapsulates both meanings of the root-word ‘hoda’ah’. It began with her admission/recognition of the added grace of G-d. That cognizance enabled her to feel thankful and express that gratitude.

Rabbi Hutner explains that when we recite the prayer ‘Modim’ in Shemoneh Esrei both definitions of the word are expressed. We begin by stating, “Modim anachnu lach”, We are ‘modim’ to you that You are Hashem our G-d, and the G-d of our forefathers forever…” If one were to translate the word ‘modim’ here as an expression of gratitude, the prayer does not make sense. Why would we thank G-d for being Himself? Rather, it is an expression of admission and submission, a declaration of our belief and understanding that Hashem is the Supreme and All-Encompassing Power in our lives.

The prayer then continues, “nodeh lecha- we give ‘modim’ to you and recount your praise.” At this point, the prayer employs the second definition of the word modim, i.e. as an expression of gratitude and thankfulness. Thus, the prayer begins with our admission and recognition that G-d is the Supreme Power, and that realization compels us to be grateful to Him.

My Rebbe continued that when he reanalyzed the ‘Modim’ prayer he was befuddled by the next words. “We give ‘modim’ (thanks) to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed into Your hand and for our souls which are entrusted to You, and for Your miracles that are with us every day…” What kind of gratitude does one have for the fact that his life is entrusted to another? If anything, one would admit that he needs assistance. If human proclivity is for independence, then if one is at the mercy of others he would at best be resigned to that dependence. But he would hardly be thankful for it? In other words, one may be thankful for the goodness another person does for him, but he surely is not thankful that he needed to come on to the services of another in the first place. If so, it would seem that the statement, “for our lives which are committed into Your Hand and for our souls which are entrusted to You” belongs in the opening statement of the prayer, the portion which follows the first definition of modim - as an admission, not the second part of the prayer which is an expression of gratitude?

My Rebbe continued that he called a colleague and related the aforementioned question. A few hours later, his colleague called him back and suggested that perhaps the question was itself the answer. In fact, the words that we say express a fundamental concept in our belief in G-d. We thank G-d for the fact that our lives are bound to Him and we are exuberant that we were chosen to bear the yoke of His Torah and mitzvos. We thank G-d that when life becomes too complex to comprehend we are able to submit to Him and believe that He has our best interest in mind in all that He does.

One who lacks such belief lives a life of questions, unable to deal with the vicissitudes and enigmas of life. But those who believe in “Our father, the Merciful Father, who has compassion on us” can be thankful that their lives are entrusted to Him. They are able to resign themselves to Him, despite personal doubts and questions. But if one lacks such belief, then even his daily life lacks meaning and direction. I remember once reading about a fellow who stated that he lived to mow his lawn. Even his life in this world lacks meaning and direction.

The haftorah read on the Shabbos following Tisha B’av commences with the exhortation, “Nachmau nachamu ami yomar Elokaychem- ‘Console! Console my people!’ says your G-d.”

The holy Alshich explains that the greatest consolation one can have is when one realizes that Hashem is his G-d. In other words, the concluding words “Says your G-d” serves as the consolation which the prophet refers to at the beginning of the verse.

I recall sitting in shul one Tisha B’av a few years ago while the Rav was describing how the Nazis destroyed the great community of Telshe in Lithuania. The merciless barbarism, the torture, and the sheer nefariousness of the Nazis literally defy logic and humanity. I remember the painful feeling that overtook me as I sat and listened. How could it have occurred? How could a hamlet of scholars and a bastion of Torah observance be eradicated with such venom and enmity, with nary a word of protest? And that was merely one community among the thousands that were obliterated during World War II. How are we able to rehash all of the destruction we have endured each Tisha B’av and be able to garner strength and hope from our past destructions?

“We give thanks to You and recount Your praise, for our lives which are committed in Your Hand and for our souls which are entrusted to You.” These timeless words contain the key to our ability to transcend the exile with uncanny resilience: There is a G-d - our G-d, and we are confident that all He does is for the best!

It is not coincidental that in Parshas Vaeschanan is the first parsha of Shema which commences with the words that are etched on the lips of every Torah-Jew, “Shema Yisroel Hashem Elokaynu Hashem echad- Hear O Yisroel; Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is One!”It is with these words that a Jew goes to sleep each evening and it is with these words that his soul eventually takes its final leave from this world. ‘Shema Yisroel’ is the mantra by which every Jew lives. It is his pledge of allegiance, as it were. We are able to continue to hold the banner of Torah aloft despite all we have suffered, because “Hashem is our G-d.” There is a world and a purpose beyond the transient world we live in; this world is only the anteroom for the great banquet which follows.

My Rebbe concluded his words by saying, “After all we have gone through, we know there is a Hashem and now we would like to publicly thank Him for being our Hashem!”

“‘Console! Console My people’, says Hashem”

“For our lives which are entrusted in Your Hand”

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