This section of the Amidah is understood as one of thanks, but that's not the only way to read it.
The central Jewish prayer, the Amidah, is actually a series of blessings recited three times daily and customized to the particular occasions on which it is said. There’s a regular weekday Amidah, a special Amidah for each of the four times it is recited on Shabbat (evening, morning, Musaf and afternoon), and versions particular to the major Jewish festivals.
But regardless of when it is said, the Amidah always begins with the same three blessings and ends with the same three blessings. The second of the three standard closing blessings, known as Modim, begins like this:
.מוֹדִים אֲנַחְנוּ לָךְ, שָׁאַתָּה הוּא ה’ אֱלֹהֵינוּ וֵאלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵינוּ לְעוֹלָם וָעֶד. We gratefully thank You, for You are the Lord our God, are God of our ancestors, for all eternity.
The Hebrew word modim, translated here as “thank,” is from the same root as Modeh Ani, the first prayer Jews traditionally recite upon awakening in the morning. Both prayers are typically understood as prayers of thanksgiving — Modeh Ani for waking from sleep, and Modim for God’s kindness and salvation.
But in the Talmud, the word “modeh” has a different connotation entirely — it means to defer or concede, as in an argument. In modern Hebrew, the word can also mean admit or confess.
Both the content and the choreography of Modim can be said to fit more seamlessly with the notion of deference than thanks. Modim is one of a handful of times during the daily prayer service when Jews bend the knees and tip forward slightly in a bow — more a gesture of humble submission than gratitude.
The content of what we are supposedly thanking God for in Modim also fits better with the notion of deference. The prayer continues:
We thank You [or “defer to you”] and recount Your praise for our lives. We trust our lives into Your loving hand. Our souls are in Your custody and Your miracles are with us every day and Your wonders and goodness are with us at all times: evening, morning and noon. You are good, for Your mercies never fail us, and the Compassionate One, for Your loving kindness never ceases; forever we have placed our hope in You.
The theme of Modim is best described as trust: Our souls are in God’s hands, God’s mercy is always with us, God’s love never ceases, miracles abound.
On weekdays, we come to Modim in the Amidah after a series of requests — for health, wisdom, prosperity, and more. These blessings are offered in a spirit of optimism, in the hope that through our own efforts and God’s beneficence we can secure the essentials of a happy life. They are about actively shaping our lives for the better.
But when we arrive at Modim, our tone shifts from beseeching to acceptance (or reminding ourselves to accept). Ultimately many things are out of our hands, despite our prayers and best efforts.
The human impulse in such cases is often anger and resistance. Modim reminds us that a better approach is often acceptance of what life throws at us. And if we can achieve that, it’s really is something to be grateful for.