After my father’s diagnosis, I asked Aba to recommend something that I could undertake as a special merit for his recovery. My father asked me to recite Modeh Ani every morning with kavana (concentration), paying attention to each one of the twelve words of this first prayer of the day.
My father’s Modeh Ani request was so characteristic of what he expected of me and others. It was simple. It was practical and feasible. And, it was divine.
I shared my father’s request with my friends and many of them took upon themselves to say Modeh Ani every morning slowly and carefully, concentrating on every word. My childhood friend, Chavi, even placed a post-it note on her light switch, reminding her to do this every morning. For me and those closest to me, being given a tangible and holy mission made us feel like partners in my father’s refuah (recovery).
For the nearly two-year roller-coaster ride of my father’s illness, every morning, I tried to savor the words of modeh ani as I washed my hands to greet the new day. I began my morning routine with the words מודה אני and ended this holy routine with the word אמונתך. I tried to be careful to enunciate every word and to concentrate on its meaning.
The two years of mornings took me through hopeful times, stressful times and everything in between. The modeh ani with kavana responsibility empowered me to start each day with the humility to thank G-d for another twenty-four hours, opening my eyes wide to His many kindnesses. The first word מודה challenged me to begin my day with gratitude as I pondered the possibilities of the day ahead. The last word of אמונתך, written in the second person, reminded me of the faith that the Creator had in me.
The modeh ani responsibility became routine, as most repetitive things do. I tried to stand still while enunciating the words. I was careful to think about the meaning of every word. I was proud of this small thing that I was doing for my father and for myself. But I really didn’t gain new inspiration after the first few weeks of saying modeh ani with kavana.
Until after my father left this world.
On one of the mornings of shiva, I stood and recited Modeh Ani and tears streamed down my face. Every word of Modeh Ani evoked powerful images of my father, specifically in his simple and dedicated service to The Almighty.
מודה is defined as showing gratitude and deference, while taking responsibility. My father was the paradigm of humility and appreciation. He taught me not to apologize for someone else’s behavior but to take responsibility for my mistakes and make them right.
My father could easily have used his illness as an excuse for less davening, learning or physical exercise. We all marveled at the stamina that he summoned when he was suffering terribly to daven, to learn with concentration and to take care of his body when it was so difficult and painful.
He showed deference to others, especially in his learning and was comfortable asking others for favors, asserting that people naturally wanted to perform chesed (kindness), especially if thanked by the recipient. I cannot remember a single time that my father forgot to thank me for something that I had done for him.
My father showed deference by being humble. My father would often tell me that he didn’t know the answer to something in Torah. Most times, I thought that he really knew the answer. I suppose that he wanted to teach us by example that it is okay to admit that there are things that we don’t know.
אני is defined as “I”. In modeh ani, this is the only word that does not apply to my father. His Torah and Tefilla (prayer) prowess were not motivated by ego . He never dressed or acted in a way to receive respect. The only honor he expected was Kavod shamayim (Honor for The One Above).
My father helped one of his talmidim (students) write a sefer (book) on the Keilim of the Mishkan (artifacts of the Temple). He invested about 1000 hours of his time over 28 years. When the author remarked to my father that it should be his sefer, my father humbly retorted. “Torah is Torah. What difference does it make whose name is on the cover?”
Aba once shared with me that one of his Roshei Yeshiva (Deans) was bothered by his shuckeling (swaying) side-to-side during davening (prayer). My father desperately tried to stop swaying, but just couldn’t. So as not to disturb or disappoint his Rosh Yeshiva, my father moved his seat so that he would not be in sight of the Rosh Yeshiva during davening. He didn’t want to create an issue by asserting his preference so he solved the issue in a non-confrontational manner.
לפניך is defined as “before You”. My father understood that every act was in the presence of The Almighty. He recognized that everyday activities like vacuuming and doing laundry can be elevated in the presence of G-d. His davening and his learning were sights to behold, because the shechina (spirit of G-d) that accompanied those heavenly activities was palpable. It was clear in my father’s tefilla that he was speaking to G-d, while in Aba’s Torah learning, G-d was undoubtedly speaking to him.
מלך is defined as “king”. My family and I visited Telshe Yeshiva for Rosh Hashanah almost every year. At the Yom Tov (holiday) table every year, my father would ask us what the purpose of Rosh Hashanah is. The right answer was, “to anoint G-d as King”. To us, it was a good question with the correct answer. To my father, the vision of the anointing of The King on Rosh Hashanah came to life right before his very eyes. On Rosh Hashanah, I could almost visualize my father holding The King’s crown.
חי is defined as “living”. My father’s Torah was alive and so was his relationship with The Creator. On the few occasions that I saw my father sparring in Torah, I was awe-struck. It was like seeing lions clashing, with each Torah lion demonstrating great respect for the dexterity and prowess of the other. I can visualize my father’s blue eyes twinkling as he learned and taught Torah, dissecting a sugya (Torah portion) into its most basic parts.
וקיים is defined as “enduring”. My father’s Torah was served in a way that was lasting. My father had so many ways to understand a single piece of Torah. I was always so embarrassed that I couldn’t remember many of the facets, even if not much time had elapsed since the last time Aba had discussed a particular topic with me. My father never acted disappointed, but explained it again and again with more and more enthusiasm each time. He reviewed and explained until he felt I could master and internalize the piece. He wanted to make his Torah memorable and enduring.
My father was noted for his unusual metaphors that help make his Torah lasting. During shiva, people treated us to many of these creative metaphors that made a sugya learned with my father animated and memorable, even years or decades later.
שהחזרת is defined as “returned”. This word is from the same Hebrew root as the word chazora (review) because review implies a return to something that was already studied. No one that I know performed chazora like my father. Aba would ask for his students to review something 101 times but he expected many times that level of chazora from himself.
When he was writing his sefer, Shashuai Yaakov (Delights of Yaakov), I asked my father if each one of his binders of his Torah writings was unique or if many of his writings built upon his past works. He explained that each time he came back to something about which he had already learned and written, he reviewed it first and then added a new dimension to his Torah. He really felt that Torah needed to be built brick by brick and that chazora strengthened the foundation for new Torah ideas to emerge.
My father rarely squandered an opportunity to learn and perform chazora. It was breathtaking to watch my father perform review in the most unusual times and places. Many couples have pictures of my father at their wedding sitting in a corner learning from a sefer after energetically dancing before the new couple. While waiting for my son and daughter-in-law’s sheva brochos meal to begin, my father used his cellphone to review one of his own shiurim on Kol Lashon in preparation for a Shashuai Yaakov topic. To me, it was just natural, but our guests marveled at my father’s concentration and attention to review.
בי is defined as “within me”. My father’s religious growth was internal with almost no external manifestations. He never grew a long beard; he never donned a kaputa (frock) that would represent an external manifestation of the magnitude of his Torah and he shunned sitting on the Mizrach (Eastern) Wall of the Beis Medrash.
Aba saw no need to wear designer clothing and preferred most things that were purchased at Walmart. He wore the same glasses frames for nearly fifty years. When someone remarked that his frames were back in style, they were mysteriously replaced by a pair that was only thirty years behind the fashion trend.
My father only buttoned every other button. When anyone asked why, his blue eyes would twinkle and he would say “al pi kaballah” (based upon mysticism), but we knew the truth. There was no reason to waste the time buttoning unnecessary buttons! My father embodied all that was good about Torah with none of the outer trappings.
נשמתי is defined as “my soul”. Aba devoted his life to the development of his soul. Every hour spent learning, every prayer and every deed was dedicated to the honor of The Creator. People saw him as “the real deal”. There was nothing false or pretentious about him. During shiva, we heard that so many had confided in my father, sharing their problems and their religious doubts with him, knowing that his soul was pure and that he would deal with their problems with true integrity. They were never disappointed with his profound understanding of their issue and his simple advice.
בחמלה is defined as “with compassion”. Most of the kindness that we inherited is from my mother, who dedicated herself to helping people in need. During shiva, we heard stories about my father’s compassion that took our breath away. He cared about people who were lonely or in crisis in a way that was so normal. Many of these people barely realized who my father was or what he had done for them until years later. My father expected no gratitude for anything he did. Individuals confided that my father elicited Torah advice from them and then gave them public honor for their contribution to his Torah, insightfully offering them the self-respect and honor that they desperately craved.
One of his students told me that my father was learning a difficult sugya and there was one expert who could offer information that would help Aba understand a problematic part of that Torah topic. His student suggested that my father contact that person. My father adamantly refused. That person had a personal difficulty that would be recalled by the mention of that topic. Aba was willing to forego a clearer understanding of that sugya rather than upset someone else.
רבה is defined as “great”. At my father’s levaya, he was repeatedly called a gavra raba (great Torah scholar) and the following Gemara (Makos 21b) was mentioned:
כמה טפשאי שאר אינשי דקיימי מקמי ספר תורה ולא קיימי מקמי גברא רבה:
Rava said: How foolish are people who stand for a Torah but do not stand for a great man
At the time that Rabbi Mordechai Gifter zt’l offered my father the position of mashgiach (spiritual guide) of Telshe Yeshiva, he referred to my father as a leibadig sefer torah (lively Torah scroll). My father’s greatness was in his ability to embody seemingly paradoxical qualities in the service of G-d. My father was “hidden” in the Bais Medrash, but was careful that his Torah not be shuttered to others. He was confident in Torah, yet humble. He was fierce in his self-discipline, yet gentle with others’ feelings. He learned Torah at the highest level, yet made it accessible to the masses. The harmonious combination of these ostensibly conflicting qualities was what made my father great.
אמונתך is defined as “your faithfulness”. While my father’s faith was exceptional, here I would like to thank G-d for His faithfulness during my father’s illness. We are not only allowed to refer to G-d in the second person, but we are mandated to do so to recall the love and devotion between Hashem and us. We call The Creator a rofei ne’eman v’rachaman (faithful and compassionate Healer).
During the course of my father’s journey through Pancreatic Cancer, we were so cognizant of the Hand of The Healer. It was clear to us that the experimental drug CPI-613 had been developed by Rafael Pharmaceuticals in Israel with my father’s illness in mind. The doctors and nurses were taken by my father’s calm demeanor and positive response to their experimental drug. They kept telling us that “he made them look good”, when in fact He, The Faithful Healer, made them look good. We owe gratitude to The Creator for His devotion to my father’s Torah mind, allowing him to learn and to teach until his final days.
As I enter a new reality without my father’s physical presence, I must renew my commitment to the words of modeh ani as I begin each new day. It is essential that I start with the gratitude of מודה אני and end with the faithful embrace of אמונתך. The phrase רבה אמונתך is from Eicha (3:23), a holy text of loneliness, devastation and pain. Perhaps, the reference to Eicha (lamintations) is to challenge us to trust in Him through good and difficult times just as He trusts us with each new day, even before the day’s events occur. Maybe, these twelve words of gratitude and faith parallel the twelve months of aveilus (mourning). And, if I ever doubt the possibility of embodying every word of the modeh ani, I must remember that He has shown me that it has already been achieved. Because, I carry with me the image of someone who did just that. That person was my father.
Chavi’s Modeh Ani with kavana post-it reminder on her light switch