“I offer thanks to You, O living and everlasting king, for having restored my soul within me; great is Your faithfulness.”

Our first conscious act of the day is to avow our indebtedness and gratitude to our Creator. As soon as we wake from sleep, before getting out of bed or even washing our hands, we recite the above-quoted lines of the Modeh Ani prayer, acknowledging that it is He who grants us life and being every moment of our existence.

The ideas contained in the ostensibly simple lines of Modeh Ani fill many a profound chapter in the legal, philosophical and mystical works of Torah. In an essay by the Lubavitcher Rebbe called Inyanah Shel Torat HaChassidut (“On the Essence of Chassidism”), the Rebbe speaks of the many layers of meaning contained within every part of Torah; using the twelve Hebrew words of Modeh Ani as an example, the Rebbe extracts from them insights into the nature of the omnipresence and all-pervasiveness of G‑d, the principle of “perpetual creation” (G‑d’s constant infusion of vitality and existence into the world, without which it would revert to utter nothingness), the laws governing the return of a pikadon (an object entrusted to one’s care), and the Kabbalistic concept of sefirat hamalchut (the divine attribute of sovereignty).

If so, asked the Rebbe in another occasion, why is the Modeh Ani said immediately upon waking, with a mind still groggy from sleep? Would it not have been more appropriate to precede it with a period of study and contemplation of these concepts?

Night and Day

The physiology of our bodies and the rhythm of the astral clocks partition our lives into conscious and supra-conscious domains. During our waking hours, our mind assumes control of our thoughts and actions, screening, filtering and interpreting the stimuli that flow to it, and issuing commands and instructions to the body. But at night, when we sleep, the “command center” shifts to a deeper, darker place within our psyche—a place where fantasy supersedes logic, sense supplants thought, and awareness is replaced by a more elemental form of knowing. Hard facts become pliant, absurdities become tenable in this nocturnal world.

There are certain truths, however, that are unaffected by these fluctuations of knowledge and awareness. Our faith in G‑d, His centrality to our existence, the depth of our commitment to Him—we know these things utterly and absolutely, and we know them at all times and in all states of consciousness.

Wakefulness and sleep affect only the external activity of the intellect; what we know with the very essence of our being, we know no less when plunged into the deepest recesses of slumber. On the contrary: when awake, we must wade through the presuppositions and polemics of an intellect shackled to the “realities” of the physical state in order to arrive at these truths; asleep, our mind loosened from its subjective moorings, we enjoy a closer and deeper (albeit less conscious) awareness of our innermost convictions.

The Modeh Ani prayer, explained the Rebbe, exploits a most unique moment of our day—the moment that lies at the threshold of wakefulness, the moment that straddles the conscious and supra-conscious domains of our day. There are other moments, other prayers in the course of our day which take full advantage of our powers of intellect and reasoning—prayers that follow lengthy and profound meditations upon their content and significance. But each morning, as we move from the liberating hours of sleep to a day of conscious thought, a most unique opportunity presents itself: the opportunity to express to ourselves a truth that inhabits our deepest selves, to declare what we already know to the awaiting day.

Jethro’s Estate

A similar phenomenon can be discerned in a halachic discussion that underlies the mitzvah of bikkurim (“first-ripened fruits”).

Bikkurim, like the Modeh Ani prayer, is a declaration of indebtedness and gratitude to G‑d. In the 26th chapter of Deuteronomy, the Torah instructs:

It shall be, when you come in to the land which the L‑rd your G‑d is giving you for an inheritance, and you will possess it and settle in it,

that you shall take from the first of the fruits of the land . . . and place them in a basket; and you shall go to the place that the L‑rd your G‑d will choose to rest His name there.

You shall come to the kohen that shall be in those days, and you shall say to him: “I proclaim today to the L‑rd your G‑d that I have come unto the land which G‑d swore to our fathers to give to us . . .”

In his “proclamation,” the bikkurim-bearing farmer goes on to recount the story of our liberation from Egypt and G‑d’s gift to us of “a land flowing with milk and honey,” concluding with the pronouncement: “And now, behold, I have brought the first fruit of the land that You, G‑d, have given me.”

When did our forefathers begin bringing the first fruits of their newly gained homeland to “the place where G‑d chose to rest His name”? The first verse of the Torah’s chapter on bikkurim contains conflicting implications as to when the practice of this mitzvah is to commence, giving rise to a legal debate between the Talmud and the Sifri (a halachic Midrash).

The Jewish people entered the Land of Israel under the leadership of Joshua one month after the passing of Moses, in the year 2488 from creation (1273 BCE). But fourteen years were to pass before the land would be conquered and each tribe and family allotted its share (the conquest of the land took seven years, and an additional seven years were required for its division into twelve tribal territories and more than 600,000 estates for the heads of households entitled to a share in the land). It is for this reason, says the Talmud, that the verse specifies to bring bikkurim “when you come into the land . . . and you will possess it and settle in it”—to teach us that the first fruits of the land should be presented to G‑d only after the conquest and allocation of the land have been completed.

The Sifri, on the other hand, places the emphasis the same verse’s opening words—“And it shall be when you come into the land”—to imply that the obligation to bring bikkurim applied immediately upon the Jews’ entry into the land. The Sifri bases its interpretation on the first word of the verse, vehayah (“it shall be”), which throughout the Torah is indicative of an event that is to come to pass immediately.

However, notwithstanding their conflicting readings of the verse, there is not much practical difference between the Talmud and the Sifri with regard to the actual bringing of bikkurim. The Torah instructs that bikkurim should be brought from “the first-ripened fruits of your land”; this, agree all the sages, teaches us that the mitzvah of bikkurim applies only to a person who owns the land outright. So even if the obligation to bring bikkurim had applied, in principle, from the very first moment that the Jewish people entered the Land of Israel (as per the Sifri’s interpretation), the mitzvah could not have been performed until the land was conquered and each family was allotted its own estate.

(Indeed, the Jerusalem Talmud expresses the view that no single family assumed possession of the land allotted to it until every last family had received its share. Even if the Sifri were to disagree with this position, it would have taken at least seven years—until the conquest of the land was completed—for the first Jewish farmer to acquire a plot of land from which to bring bikkurim.)

There was, however, one case in which the Sifri’s concept of an immediate obligation to bring bikkurim could have applied in actuality. As a reward for joining their fate to that of the people of Israel, the family of Jethro was granted an estate in the Holy Land, in the environs of Jericho; this they received immediately upon the Israelites’ entry into the land, as Jericho was the very first city to be conquered by Joshua. So there was at least one family estate from which bikkurim could have been brought immediately “when you come into the land.”

Between Dream and Reality

While there is little difference, in terms of actual practice, whether we say that the time for bringing bikkurim is when “you will possess it and settle in it” (as the Talmud holds) or immediately “when you enter the land” (as per the Sifri), the Talmud and the Sifri represent two very different conceptions of the mitzvah of bikkurim.

The Talmud’s conception of bikkurim expresses the notion that true gratitude for something can come only after a person has come to understand its significance and appreciate its impact on his or her life. Unless we have “taken possession” of something by studying and analyzing it, unless we have “settled in it” by experiencing it in an aware and informed manner, of what value are our pronouncements and proclamations?

The Sifri, on the other hand, holds a Modeh Ani–like vision of the mitzvah of bikkurim, insisting that our very first moment in the land that G‑d has granted us should be one of recognition and acknowledgment of the divine gift.

For forty years, as the people of Israel wandered through the Sinai Desert, they dreamed of the land designated by G‑d as the environment in which to realize their mission in life. Then came the great moment of crossing from dream to reality—a reality that actualizes the dream, but which also coarsens its purity. This is the moment, says the Sifri, in which to give expression to all that we know and sense about the Holy Land. For though our knowledge may be primitive and unformed by the standards of daytime reality, it comes from a place in us that will no longer be accessible when we have ventured further into this realm of conscious knowledge and feeling. Only by expressing it now, on the threshold between supra-conscious awareness and conscious knowledge, can we carry over from the perfection and purity of our supra-conscious selves into the tactual reality of our conscious lives.

Regarding the debates between our sages on matters of Torah law, the Talmud states that “these and these are both the words of the living G‑d.” For although only one view can be implemented as halachah (practical Torah law), both represent equally valid formulations of the divine wisdom, and both can, and should, be incorporated in our vision of and approach to life.

As per the Talmud, we must take care that we fully comprehend and identify with the gifts we offer and the feelings we declaim. As per the Sifri, we must seek connection with the supra-rational, supra-conscious self that underlies our conscious and intellectual persona, and strive to carry over its unsullied perfection into our “daytime” lives.

Note: The Torah section of Ki Tavo (Deuteronomy 26–28), which includes the chapter on bikkurim, is always read in proximity to the 18th of Elul, which is the birthday of Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (1698–1760), the founder of Chassidism, and of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745–1812), founder of the Chabad branch of Chassidism.

The lives and works of these two great leaders parallel the two “versions” of bikkurim put forth by the Sifri and the Talmud. Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov revitalized—and revolutionized—Jewish life with his emphasis on the depth and purity of the faith and commitment of the simple Jew. Rabbi Schneur Zalman taught the necessity of internalizing this faith and commitment through the structured intellectual and emotional processes he outlined in his “Chabad” philosophy and approach to life.

Based on Likutei Sichos, Vol. 34, pp. 145-152