Houston Family Finds Comfort in Torah Dedication in Memory of Their Son

January 10, 2017, 7:00 PM

Rabbi Daniel and Eta Cotlar of Houston, Texas commissioned a new sefer Torah which was written on Dec. 28 in memory of their son, Mendel, who passed away three weeks after his 2014 Bar Mitzvah.

Heshy Benshimon, one of the world’s leading scribes, was chosen by the family for the job. Benshimon, who writes in the style of the Alte Rebbe, completed the last words of Torah scroll he’d been working on for almost a year along with members of the community.

“Writing a Torah, the last of the 613 mitzvot, is a great mitzvah that brings blessings to all those who contribute to it. It’s one of the most joyous and beautiful mitzvos,” Rabbi Daniel and Eta Cotlar wrote in a letter that was included in Mendel’s Torah Dedication and Celebration program. The ceremony took place on the fifth night of Chanukah.

A procession followed Chanukah candle lighting. Children from the community carried a banner that read “Mendel’s Torah Dedication & Celebration, Chanukah 2016” – which featured Mendel’s picture. Some 300 celebrants walked and danced alongside a car with a large chanukiah on top which rang out with Jewish tunes.Torchbearers and children carrying neon glow sticks lit the way to the Chabad Lubavitch Center of Houston.

The family chose to have the event coincide with Chanukah and winter break, which would allow all the Cotlar family from all over North America to attend, honoring Mendel’s life and commitment to Torah and mitzvot. Friends and family were honored by carrying the Torah and holding the chuppah along the way. “It means everything to us that you’re here,” Rabbi Daniel Cotlar said.

People holding Torahs lined both sides of the stairway leading up to the synagogue, as the Torah was brought inside the sanctuary. The celebration continued inside with singing and dancing with all the Torah scrolls.

Many of Mendel’s friends were there including Mendel Lazaroff who played his version of Modeh Ani, written more than a year ago, in memory of his dear friend.

Yoeli Donin, another friend, said: “Cool to see how you can take such sadness and pain and make such a happy and joyous event from it! [It’s] amazing that the Cotlars are helping us live Mendel’s legacy in such an inspirational way.”

“What does one say at an event like this?” Rabbi Cotlar addressed the crowd “At an event where Eta and I, and all of us, feel such strong emotions, such confusing emotions. You can’t go on the Internet and look up ‘siyum speeches for people who’ve lost a child.’ All Eta and I can do is speak from the heart and tell you what’s on our mind.

“In general, we found it uplifting to learn and think about the eternal presence of a neshama’s actions in the world,” he continued. “In the book of Tanya, it describes the spiritual connections we make as ‘yichud zeh nitzchi l’olam’ lasting forever. Each memory we have, each mitzvah done by Mendel or for Mendel… lasts forever.

“And, more than just lasting forever, it increases. A few months ago, on Mendel’s yahrzeit, Eta and I discovered a speech from the Rebbe from that same day, the 13th of Tishrei, which is also the yartzeit of the fourth Lubavitcher Rebbe.”

Rabbi Cotlar shared the Rebbe’s remarks: “The Rebbe explained that in the world at large, people think that as time passes all matters tend to grow weaker; but the truth is, that while physical things do fade, spiritual things strengthen. A person’s neshama, their soul, and the influence that the neshama has on the world gets stronger with each passing minute, hour and day after leaving the body. The passage of time brings about an elevation and its impact on the world continues. … Thanks to you and thousands of others, Mendel’s theme of kindness and gratitude continues to spread. So now, with this siyum, with this new Torah, Mendel has one more tool, one more way to act in the world.”

A video to close out the event was presented that followed the words of the soundtrack of a modern Hebrew song about gratitude, “Modeh Ani,” by Omer Adam, and inspirational remarks by Mendel’s mother, Eta, as images of Mendel and his family flashed across the screen.

“A few weeks ago, I read a quote describing child loss: ‘Some things in life cannot be fixed, they can only be carried,’ ” said Eta Cotlar. “How true are those words. I read it and I immediately felt my shoulders get heavy. There are certain things a person cannot be expected to carry … carrying something doesn’t have to be a burden. We all carry so many things throughout our lives that should feel heavy, but they don’t, because we don’t simply carry them, we hold them and keep them safe, we lift them up and share them with others. … We carry these things out of love, excitement, curiosity and pride. It was staring me in the face – Mendel’s Torah. A Torah scroll is so heavy, but holding it is the greatest honor.

“Keeping Torah is a challenge,” she continued, “but it lifts us up. It gives us strength. Torah never ends. It epitomizes continuity. Just as it appears to be ending it begins again. … This sefer Torah will forever be a reminder that the end is just another kind of a beginning, a reminder that you are here as long as we remember to live life as you did, helping others and bringing simcha [joy] to others, as long as we remember the fun, happy, loving times we shared as a family and community, you will always be here.

“… Mendel, as we hold and carry you, you are carrying us, lifting us up and continuing to bring us nachas,” Eta continued. “… Torah protects people. It brings people together, it shines light on dark places, just as you always did, Mendel. …”

Friends and family were visibly moved by the service. “It was beyond beautiful and very moving for me,” said Miriam Fishman, a long-time family friend. “I could never understand the Rebbe’s urgency to bring Moshiach until now. He felt our pain and wanted it to end. It was also so uplifting to be part of such a happy time, celebrating the life of a superb neshama.”

The Torah will be used in a way Mendel would have wanted, “to lift people up who are down, to make people feel special and appreciated, and to bring out the very best in people,” said Rabbi Cotlar. The family hopes it will eventually be used for a children’s and beginner’s minyan but, until that that time, the Torah will be used regularly in the Chabad House in Cary, N.C., where Mendel’s uncle, Rabbi Yisrael Cotlar, is rabbi. “We’re grateful that we’ve found it a home so connected to us and Mendel,” said Rabbi Daniel Cotlar.

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