By Yochanan Gordon
This past Tuesday evening, the 20th of Kislev, marked what would have been the bar mitzvah celebration of Levi Yitzchak Wolowik, ob’m. In a heartwarming show of support, hundreds were on hand at the Young Israel of Lawrence-Cedarhurst to reflect on his life as well as celebrate the endless good that has been done in his merit since his passing three and a half years ago.
On that fateful Shabbos morning in the regularly joyous month of Adar, when the reality began setting in that Levi had passed on, the Wolowiks committed to use this as a catalyst for growth. Levi’s peers, rebbeim, and teachers all attested that he lived way beyond his years and always yearned for the day when he too would follow the lead of his parents and grandparents, heeding the call of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt’l, making a difference in the lives of Jews the world over.
Despite his youth, Levi carried himself with an uncanny air of maturity and had a drive for reading and learning. Shortly after his passing, searching for ideas to memorialize his life, the decision was made to build a library in his merit. Today, thousands visit the state-of-the-art library on a regular basis where books are read, sefarim are learned, and children are developing into educated and studious students one book at a time. It was made known at the memorial event that each month books are sent to families of shluchim worldwide, giving children of shluchim an opportunity to be a part of something that would normally be impossible due to the distance that separates them—because this is what Levi, z’l, would have wanted.
The event was emceed by Levi’s uncle, Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky, and featured a siyum haShas made by Rabbi Zalman Wolowik, a siyum on Mishnayos Seder Nezikin by Levi’s younger brothers, as well as an address by Levi’s grandfather and vice chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, and a music video featuring Sholom Jacobs produced by Expressions Cinema.
The refrain I heard repeated time and again by people wanting to wish the family well was, “What are we supposed to say?” The famous verse from Koheles was mentioned more than once where King Solomon goes through the 28 forms of expression that man encounters throughout life in this world. Rabbi Mendy Kotlarsky mentioned, “The situation seldom presents itself where two opposite expressions converge during one event.” Here, the expressions of “There are times to weep and times to rejoice, seemingly join hands.” That is the aspect of this celebration that has caused confusion with regards to wishing the family well.
Although there aren’t any coincidences in Jewish life, it does seem kind of ironic that Tuesday morning I learned of the passing of my father’s aunt, Miriam Gordon, who survived her husband, Rabbi Sholom Ber Gordon, who passed away Achron Shel Pesach about eight or so years ago. Rabbi Gordon and his wife were the first Chabad emissaries to New Jersey and served in distinction for over six decades, leaving an illustrious family with many children and grandchildren following his lead in locales across the U.S. and the world. The irony, however, is that Rabbi Mendy Gordon of Golders Green in England was preparing to celebrate the wedding of his son when news of his mother’s passing was delivered. It seems that there, too, these two junctures of time, weeping and rejoicing, joined hands. Again, with what words does one greet ba’alei simcha at a time when “joy and weeping converge”?
I believe these two incidents and the dichotomous manner in which they presented relates to this week’s parashah, Vayeishev. Yosef HaTzadik gets himself into trouble with his brothers. Although his recurring dreams of aristocracy and superiority were not the root of their enmity, still it seems to exacerbate an already embattled relationship between them. In the end, Yosef’s ability to accurately interpret dreams gets him out of prison, leading to his ultimate ascendance to the position of viceroy in Egypt.
The Alter Rebbe has a discourse on parashas Vayeishev titled, “Shir hamaalos be’shuv… ha’yeenu k’cholmim” in which he analyzes the mechanism in dreams. At the outset of the treatise he writes, “Dreams by definition contain contradictory elements.” It is perfectly normal for someone to pass away in a dream only to see themselves living again a moment later. The reason for this is the intellect is the only faculty through which a person is able to distinguish between opposites. During sleep, when our intellect is for all intents and purposes deactivated, our imagination is left alone to view whatever it is that exists in the recesses of our minds.
On the verse in Shir Hashirim, “Ani yesheinah v’libi er,” the Midrash says, “I am asleep in exile.” Although we believe that “everything that G‑d does is for the good.” as a result of the darkness of nighttime, the truth sometimes becomes obscured. Our lives are replete with conflicting emotions really disenabling us to express either emotion in its most genuine form.
With the spirit of Chanukah enveloping us and the constant effort expended by Chabad in general and our very own Rabbi and Rebbetzin Wolowik to illuminate the lives of fellow Jews indiscriminately, G‑d should send us the third and final redemption and finally wake us up from our sleep, at which time we will have only reason to rejoice being reunited with the departed of every generation to serve G‑d peacefully in the land of Israel for eternity.