The Meaning of Thanks – Ho'da'ah

I’d like to re-edit this for publishing in a pamphlet. (My voice isn’t very strong in the beginning, and it could really be cut down.)

Gratitude – The Key to Personal Power, the Love of Self and Others, and Saving the World

Simply Thank You

The Hebrew word for gratitude, ho’da’ah, has other definitions as well: it can connote the confession of a sin, a concession to another person’s position in an argument, or the admission of a debt.
It is easy to compare a person’s monetary debt to the moral debt generated when one wrongs another –both instances involve one person owing the other. The idea of thanks, however, seems quite different from the other definitions of ho’da’ah. When we admit to a wrong or a debt, the focus seems to be on us and the fact that we owe them, but when we thank someone we acknowledge the other party and what they did for us – we put the focus on them.[1]
This apparent contradiction in meaning really stands out in light of the Midrash’s use of the two meanings of the word ho’da’ah. Bereishis Rabbah tells us that:
Because [our matriarch Leah] was modah in thanks, she had a son who was modeh, as the pasuk says “Va’yaker Yehudah, And Yehudah recognized/admitted.”[2] And in turn she merited having David HaMelech as her offspring, who also thanked Hashem: “Hodu La’Shem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, Thank Hashem for He is good, His kindness is forever.”
Surely the principle of middah k’neged middah, which tells us that good deeds are rewarded in turn, is not fulfilled with a mere play on words! And being the great-grandmother of the redeemer of Israel is quite a prize for saying “Thanks.” What is this telling us?
There are no coincidences in the holy tongue. What is the common denominator between these seemingly disparate concepts? How can they be contained within the same word?

Torah Gratitude

Chazal tell us that the essence of a word can always be gleaned by its first reference in the Torah. When we look to the source, we will find the deeper significance of the word ho’da’ah.
The gemora in Brachos 7b, recounts the first time that anyone thanked Hashem:
Rabbi Shimon Ben Yochai said, “From the day that Hashem created His world there was no man that thanked Hashem until Leah came and thanked him. As the verse states ‘This time I will thank Hashem.’ (Bereishis 29)”[3]
The Iyun Ya’akov explains that when Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said “no man that thanked Hashem,” he was actually contrasting Leah with Adam HaRishon, the first man. Adam could have thanked Hashem for his wife and acknowledged the good – “it is not good for man to live alone” – instead he was a kafui tov, an ingrate (lit. one who denies good) who denied his benefactor.
Bereish Rabbah, commenting on the pasuk “The woman which you gave…” further describes the incident:
Hashem knocked on four men’s pitchers, and found the pitchers filled with urine. They were: Adam, Kayin, Bilaam, Chezkiyahu. Adam said “The woman which you gave me,” Kayin said “….” Bilaam said “….” And Chezkiyahu “….”.
All of these men were found at fault for not owning up to their behavior. The Pirush Maharzu on the Midrash emphasizes this in regards to Adam:
Adam acted foolishly, as he should have said “I sinned.” He instead excused himself as if he was not at fault, and he further denied her [Chava’s] goodness by saying there is only bad in her, not good.
When we analyze the Midrash we come to an amazing conclusion: Adam’s main sin was not in eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge – his real sin was not admitting what he had done, and not admitting the good Hashem did for Adam in giving him his wife Chava. If Adam would have past his test, he could have entered Olam HaBa without the need for a six thousand year world cycle. Something in the admission of a wrong and giving gratitude for benefit received is vital to man’s very mission – both of these are equally necessary and obviously connected.
Again, how so? And what is so crucial about admitting guilt and giving thanks? In light of the Midrash and the Maharzu, they fulfill the very purpose of the world!

What are We Missing?

The secret is this:
The true nature of ho’da’ah and the connection between admission and gratitude is the recognition of personal chisaron, deficiency and imperfection. It is taking ownership of what one is missing. Both thanks and admission of guilt flow from this concept.
But why is this so central to our personal growth, and the rectification of the whole universe?
To answer that we need to ask another question: What was Hashem’s goal in creating the world? One of the main ways we were given to understand this in simple terms is: Hashem created the world in order to give us pleasure, to grant us good. He wanted to do good, and to express Himself by being good and giving good.
But in order to really experience pleasure in receiving a gift you must need it and want it. What if you gave me the gift of a six foot statue of Elvis, for example? I have no need for it. It doesn’t do anything for me. The truth is, I don’t want it in my house at all! To a lesser extreme, what if someone served me a fillet mignon steak after I had just finished a full Shabbos meal? I know I would not enjoy it as much as if I was hungry, and I’m hoping I would turn it down.
Hashem therefore needed to create a lack so we can enjoy what we receive from Him. He created a desire to receive. And He wants to give Himself and create relationship to fill this lack.
This creates a problem, however, because now you are the receiver. God is the giver and you are the receiver, and you are diametrically opposed. In the spiritual realm this causes distance, it’s like you are “from another planet.” You are the exact opposite – as East from West, far from near, white from black. And what are you lacking? You’re lacking Him. It seems like total distance.
To rectify this distance Hashem created a system. He gave us Himself in the Torah, and through performing Hashem’s mitzvahs for His sake, performing kind deeds and studying Torah, our desire to fill our lack becomes spiritual, not self-centered and self-directed. Then we want to do the mitzvahs to receive His reward, but we want to do that for His sake, because it’s what He wants for us.
It’s a beautiful, amazing trick… it’s for your sake, but you take for Him because He wants to give – and it becomes Godly.

A Choice of Needs

Lacking, missing, imperfection is so key to what we are doing here.
If a person is forced to receive a gift, it is no gift. A forced relationship is not relationship – it’s a form of slavery. When we choose, we make the relationship; we make ourselves. Free choice is necessary so that we won’t be like the passion ruled animal or the robotic angel.
An animal gets its physical needs to make it happy, to get what it’s missing, whereas a malach receives its spiritual needs – and they have to fulfill their drives. As human beings we are comprised of both the physical and the spiritual – the soul and the body – and as such we have the ability to choose which desires we want, which needs we want to fulfill, physical or spiritual. This is where our free choice lies.[5]
Our lack is so important; it’s so pivotal. How will we relate to it, what will we do with it? Everyone is born with an ego, and the inherent desire to shield ourselves from blame and knowledge of our own imperfections. “I didn’t do it,” we say. “It’s not my fault; it was him; it was you; it was society; it was my circumstances; it was nature — my brain; it was nurture — my parents, etc…” What are we really doing when we shift the blame?
Ultimately Hashem is the true master, but what are we putting in between Him and me? We know that all the excuses we may have were created and orchestrated by Hashem. So essentially, I am putting my imperfections underneath Him, but between Him and me, above me. When I do this I am a slave to my nature and nurture, I am serving Pharaoh, my nefesh ha’behamis, my animal soul.
But when I acknowledge that my chisaron is a part of me, I take ownership of it. Now the chisaron is an aspect of myself that I can choose to get rid of. It needed to be a part of me because if I was perfect I would be Hashem, without lack, or defect. I can’t receive… there’s no gain.
I have to have the chisaron and own it, transform it. To be human is to be imperfect.

Godly Imperfection

On a deeper level it can also be said that we are on a mission from God. Hashem has an ultimate perfection, a static perfect that is totally infinite beyond infinitude and that was, is, and always will be. “I am Hashem; I do not change.” He cannot change or grow, as it were. But of course the Eyn sof, the infinite One, can do whatever It wants, in any manner… Hashem adjures us to be His messenger, to have chisaronos and fix them, so that we become more and more perfect.
So with creation there is always relative imperfection – even though where I am now is perfect just as it is. The later concept must be true because Hashem made me, and we know all His works are perfect – “Ha’tzur tamim pa’alo.”
But be careful, if we go along that road too long without coming back, if we try to see created reality from God’s perspective “I am Hashem, I have not changed,” we can follow the road of Achar, formerly Elisha Ben Avuya, and his predecessor, Eisav. The Midrash says Eisav was called such from the same root as the word “asui, finished.” He said he was finished, completed – “This is how I am, God made me this way!” We believe that’s true, if you want to stay an animal. But a person, an Adam, is a constantly perfecting being “adame l’lohim – I make myself like God.” Infinitely more and more like Hashem with higher and higher perfection… A real man’s only constant is that he is always changing.
There is no rest for the tzaddikim… but that is part of their reward, constantly growing and becoming more perfect.

The Tricky Ho’da’ah Connection

The ho’da’ah – that’s how we complete the circuit. We have to take what we receive, acknowledge our prior lack, and say thank you. And then we are doing for Him.
The gemora in Kedushin lays down the halachic precedent for this concept: “Adam chashuv shani, an important man is different.” Normally a man has to perform the ritual marriage act of kedushin by giving money or a gift of value to the woman, but when the man is very high ranking and respectable, if the woman gives it to him after the man proclaims his intention to wed, the kedushin takes effect. This is because the woman receives pleasure – tangible benefit worth money – by the very fact that the adam chashuv was willing to receive her gift, something he would not do for just anyone.
Here’s the trick: The same principle applies in our relationship to Hashem. When we receive Hashem’s gifts with appreciation and show Him that we are interested in a relationship, He receives pleasure in being a giver – His desire[MK7] .[6] Amazing! Paradoxically, when we show our appreciation for receiving, when we acknowledge that we were imperfect, and we need Him to complete us, then we become Godly!
It would seem contradictory, a complete paradox, but it works. Only Hashem could do this!
Acknowledging and recognizing one’s own chisronos – defects and imperfections – and the ability to thank Hashem whole heartedly are one and the same. They are the essence of ho’da’ah. Adam missed this, and he tried to project his defects on the woman that Hashem gave him. [7]  In so doing  Adam was telling Hashem “I am perfect the way I am, I can do no wrong because You have made it so.”
Adam was supposed to see that his job was to take responsibility for the imperfections which Hashem created for Adam, to take them as his charge. He was to turn the chisaron into tikkun, rectified perfection, and give the ultimate ho’da’ah that comes with that.
But it was not to be. Leah was the first to internalize the message of ho’da’ah, to feel what it was that she was missing, and use it as an expression of appreciation and thanks. She who was originally intended to be Eisav’s bride turned to Hashem to give her all her needs, and now with her fourth child she received even more than her portion.
And she thanked Hashem, and named her son Yehudah in honor of this thanks, this ho’da’ah. And she implanted the trait of ho’da’ah in Yehudah so that he could take it even deeper. He was able to acknowledge his deed, recognizing the cloak and ring, and take ownership of a sin which according to the Midrash he was forced to do.
This central trait of ho’da’ah becomes the middah of Dovid Ha’Malech, our king , leader and example of personal teshuvah and ho’da’ah. When the navi confronted him with his sin he passed the test, and uttered the words “Chatasi, I have sinned.”
Through the trait of Machiach Ben David we will all learn to “Hodu La’Shem ki tov, ki l’olam chasdo, Thank Hashem for He is good, His kindness is forever!”  Even when it does not seem like it is good, His kindness is still forever. Hashem’s Oneness and Goodness has been there all along, and will always be.
Let us be a part of that process, thanking Hashem for what we are missing. And when what we are missing is our own personal perfection, let’s have the strength to acknowledge that lack, and thank Him for giving us the opportunity to be a partner with Him in rectifying ourselves and creation so that we can have a happy ending, just like He wants. And when we thank Him for that happy ending, we’ll be making ourselves even more Godly.
Thanks for reading.


[1] It is also possible to ask what the subtle difference is between hoda’ah, and hakaras ha’tov – the trait of recognizing the good one has received.
[2] He recognized the cloak and staff that Tamar sent him as his own, and he admitted what he had done.
[3] The obvious question here is how it is possible that none of the tzaddkim up until that point thanked Hashem. (Adam HaRishon wrote Mizmor Shir Yayom HaShabbos!) An answer I particularly enjoy is the Daas Sofer’s: Of course many people thanked Hashem, but Leah was the first to give herself a constant reminder of her gratitude. He reads the verse as follows: “Ha pa’am odeh es Hashem?, Only this time will I thank Hashem? This is why she named her son Yehudah, for the root ho’da’ah, to remind herself to always thank Hashem.)

Big Ideas

[4] See Derech Hashem, chpt. 2, and Da’as Tevunos at the beginning. Hashem doesn’t have to do anything, to be good, to express His good, or do anything in any particular way. Everything here is according to post-creation logic in terms we can understand, that He created so that we could have a way to relate to Him. He is totally unlimited by anything, and His real essence is unknowable. We know Him through His actions.
[5] Michtav M’Eliyahu, Vol. III
[6] See footnote 4.
[7] It can be said that in his case, Chava was even an aspect of himself, a reflection of his own defects, and he needed to take ownership of and rectify in right relationship and personal responsibility, not blame.

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