F ar be it from me to pick a bone with new Mishpacha contributor Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, particularly when he has the formidable interpretive authority of ArtScroll to back him up.

Still, I’ll venture an alternative translation, with an authoritative source of its own, to the one he recently offered in these pages for the first thing a Jew says as he begins his day, beginning with the words “Modeh ani lifanecha.” Rabbi Bashevkin explained that “Modeh ani” is an expression of thanks to Hashem for returning one’s soul each morning, and so indeed does the ArtScroll Siddur render it: “I gratefully thank You, O living and eternal King, for You have returned my soul within me…”

In the second maamar of Pachad Yitzchok on Chanukah, Rav Yitzchok Hutner ztz”l explains that the word hodaah encompasses two different but related meanings: thanks and concession. The Talmudic phrase hodaas baal din means admission to an opposing position, while hodaah al haavar connotes thanks for past kindnesses. That they share this word, explains the Rosh Yeshivah, indicates that at the deep root of every thanksgiving is an admission of one’s dependence on another for whatever kindness it was that prompted the thanks, a dependence that is at odds with the natural human impulse toward self-sufficiency.

There is a way, however, to discern which of these disparate meanings of hodaah is intended in a given context. When conveying acknowlegment, it will be phrased along the lines of “Modim sheh… (we admit that…)” — as in Shemoneh Esrei, where we say “Modim anachnu loch she’ata hu Hashem…” But where the meaning is that of thanks, the phrase will begin “Modim al… (We thank You for…)” — as in the very next phrase in that same brachah, where we continue with “Nodeh lecha unisaper tehilasecha…”

But returning to the siddur’s very first sentence, we find it phrased in the first way, “Modeh ani… sheh’hechezarta bi nishmasi” (rather than “Modeh ani… al sheh’hechezarta”), indicating that it’s to be rendered as, “I acknowledge before You, O living and eternal King, that you have returned my soul to me…” A Jew’s very first order of daily business, even before he’s had a chance to rub the sleepiness out of his eyes, is to stand in G-d’s presence and admit his dependence on Him for all, including his very life.

This understanding of hodaah and its ramification for how we inaugurate each day of our lives extends, too, to how we define ourselves, since the title we each bear proudly — Yehudi — is closely related to the word hodaah. As much as it is of the essence of the Jew to be thankful, it is also to attribute all we are and have to our Creator, to concede that without Him we are simply empty vessels, waiting to be filled with whatever in His infinite goodness He chooses to bestow.

And that opening acknowledgment, from the very onset of daily consciousness, of our utter dependence on the one and only Power in existence, has the potential to keep us dancing with joy throughout the day ahead — if only we think about and absorb its implications. Because bittul atzmi, self-abnegation, is not a depressing concept, but the most joy-producing one possible, provided it is a bittul to the Master of the Universe. With it, worry, self-doubt, and fear recede, and empowerment, security, and meaning take their place.

There’s nothing more wretched than to annul oneself to man out of a demolished self-esteem, and nothing more sublime than to take everything one is and has — all his talents, accomplishments, possessions — and annul himself to the Almighty, thereby becoming part of His majestic entourage. This is the “paradox of the ego,” of which Rabbi Akiva Tatz writes in Worldmask:

While man asserts his independence he is nothing, merely a small bundle of protoplasm asserting the scope of his smallness. But when he annuls his independence, negates his ego, he melts into the reality of a greater Existence and thereby achieves real existence. And not merely existence as an unidentifiable part of a greater whole; no, existence as a great human being.

There’s a tendency to view the concepts of gadlus haadam (greatness of Man) and shiflus haadam (puniness of Man) in binary, irreconcilable terms. But perhaps it’s more accurate to see them as alternate routes to the same ultimate destination.

That latter approach is often identified with the Novardok school of mussar, perhaps accurately. But, a story: The great Rav Gershon Liebman, who, having outlived the Nazi horrors, went on to resurrect a Novardoker empire in France, was once presented with a volume of his teachings that his talmidim had just published. Flipping through the pages of the sefer, he stopped several times to remark, “This is really impressive!”

Seeing the puzzlement on a talmid’s face at what seemed to be his rebbi’s unbecomingly enthusiastic reaction to his own work, Rav Gershon exclaimed: “What, should I withhold commenting simply because the Eibeshter decided to funnel this sefer’s brilliant insights to the world through the mind of Gershon Liebman?!” That was pure anavah and bittul atzmi on display, man as an empty vessel of the Divine. It reflected, at once, both shiflus haadam and gadlus haadam.

It’s no wonder, then, that mussar scholar Rabbi Hillel Goldberg observed (in my profile of him in the Pesach 5777 issue):

Regarding Novardok specifically, the image is of these extremely solemn, dour, unhappy people burdened by the unfathomable greatness of G-d and the unfathomable smallness of the human being. “So, let me tell you what I have found,” Reb Hillel continued. “The happiest people I have ever known in my life, without any second choice coming close, have been the great people of Novardok I’ve known.”

Infinite Worth

At an auction in Jerusalem two weeks ago, a handwritten note written by Albert Einstein was sold to an anonymous buyer. Einstein had given it to a Japanese deliveryman in 1922 while on a lecture tour in Japan when he realized he had no small change for a tip. The winning bid was the astounding sum of $1.56 million; it had been expected to sell for a maximum of $8,000.

According to press reports, the German-language note reads, “A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.” Why do I have the feeling I saw those exact words on a fortune cookie the last time we ordered dinner from the local Chinese takeout?

I mention this story because just last week I heard a story about yet another note of Einstein’s that I’d say was worth even more than the one sold a fortnight ago. It belonged to Rabbi Dovid Shlomo Lenchitz z”l, a talmid chacham who lived in Lakewood, New Jersey, for many decades, a humble yerei Shamayim whom many in that town remember as someone who was always either learning or collecting funds for the needy.

He passed away just weeks ago, and during the week of shivah his son, Reb Yaakov, told the following story: Rabbi Lenchitz’s father had once published a small volume in the 1950s entitled 56 Pictorial Oddities From Hebraic Literature, containing dozens of fascinating, little-known stories found throughout Shas. He sent his book to Albert Einstein for his perusal, and the latter responded with a note of thanks. Many years passed and the note came into the possession of the younger Lenchitz.

A man we’ll call Sammy, now deceased, was a familiar, if sad, figure in the Lakewood of those years. A down-and-out fellow, his method of support was to set up shop in the Lakewood yeshivah’s halls, where he’d raffle off a motley assortment of items for a dollar or two per raffle ticket. One day, he mentioned to Rabbi Lenchitz that he’d heard about the Einstein note and asked point-blank if he could have it to raffle off.

Without batting an eyelash, Rabbi Lenchitz retrieved the piece of paper and handed it over to Sammy. A Jew needed parnassah, and without a second thought, he parted with this unique memento. At “auction,” it probably brought in under a thousand dollars for Sammy.

A million and a half bucks is a lot of money. But in Shamayim, where Reb Dovid Shlomo Lenchitz has by now surely learned what his selfless act of tzedakah — performed with a heart overflowing with ahavas Yisrael — was worth, $1.56 million must seem like such a pittance.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 683. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com