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The celebration of a Yahrtzeit

The celebration of a Yahrtzeit

Friday, 30 April, 2010 - 5:43 pm

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Dear Friends,  

Twelve years ago today, we bore the terrible news of the sudden loss of my father at the age of fifty.  I find the day of his Yahrtzeit a suitable time to share his life and legacy.

zeidy Kaplan-small.jpgMy father was the head of our family and the leader of the community in which I grew up. An easy father for me to admire, he was the smartest person I knew and the greatest Torah scholar I have ever met. He could sing better than anyone else and he was taller than all the other fathers in the neighbourhood...

As children if we had any kind of argument, his was the last word. We always accepted every decision; it never took him very long to provide a solution.  He had a strong inner confidence and we trusted him very much, even if he was unsure about something - we never knew....

On one particular occasion he found himself wrestling with a decision, and for the first time he shared his deliberations with his children.  He had received an invitation from a Chabad Rabbi to come to the opening of the first Jewish centre in Minsk, Belarus (which he had helped to build) and to attend the dedication of a new Torah scroll there.

My father wasn't a man of celebration - he was a man of action.  It took a lot of convincing for him to agree to come. After finding that there were no seats left on the flight going to Minsk, the local Rabbi persisted, and arranged for my father to fly to Moscow where a driver would take him the remaining 10 hours to Minsk. 

My father debated as if it were a life decision. Even though I was just a young boy in Yeshiva, he consulted me. Finally, he said "I can't refuse a request from a Rabbi who has given up the convenience of living in a Jewish environment and has built a centre of Jewish life. I'm going."

I was sent to the airport to bring him his passport and visa. I was the last family member to see my father. Hours later, his soul departed in a car accident, miles from the town Lubavitch in Russia.

As you can imagine, the celebration of that Jewish centre was filled with tears; the Torah came to the new ark with broken hearts.

Two days later was Lag B'omer. On this day, hundreds of thousands of Jewish people of all backgrounds and affiliations come together to follow the request of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and celebrate his Yahrtzeit by his gravesite in Meron. Across the wadi, at the bottom of the hill of Tzfat, Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan came to his resting place. Until today I'm not sure if it was in real life or imagination, but I remember how the singing from Meron echoed throughout the mountains. That Lag B'omer was very sad for the community of Tzfat. The fire was traditionally lit while tears streamed down people's faces.

A year later, on Lag B'omer, a Torah was dedicated to the Chabad Yeshivah in Tzfat in memory of my father. Many thousands of people from across the country came to participate in the Simcha. It might have been the largest Torah dedication in the recent history of the city. The celebration was filled with happiness and joy, the dancing and singing was tremendous in ways which is hard to describe.

In Jewish custom a Yahrtzeit is not a day of sadness, it's sometimes called Hillula - which means celebration. In times of pain, when we are lost, our traditions give us meaning and insight to be able to continue living with positive vigour.  Dancing with the Torah that day symbolized so clearly where we draw our strength and validity.

Comments on: The celebration of a Yahrtzeit
5/1/2010

Inna Smolov wrote...

Thank you, Rabbi, for sharing with us the memories of your father.
Already, when I started reading the story and your father's wrestling with the decision to travel or not to travel, I knew it was a fateful one, and, he, blessed his memory, sensed it somehow at that time.
May his memory live forever.
5/1/2010

jannushka e. jakoubovitch wrote...

The only thing I can say - You're so so fortunate to have - such a father - You should cherish his memory for the rest of your life as so many people, like me, had not that 'privilege'.

Thank you for sharing such a 'moment', Chabat chalom, jannushka
5/1/2010

Jack Shalinsky wrote...

Having had a father of such emminence it is no wonder that you are following in his footsteps. You are an inspiration to the members of Victoria's Jewish Community.
5/2/2010

Betty Mortin wrote...

His spirit lives in the lives of his wonderful Rabbinical sons, who carry his values with them in this secular world to enlighten others.