Just before Sukkos, the 13th of Tishrei, was the first yahrzeit of a 13 year-old boy beloved, admired, and deeply missed by everyone fortunate enough to know him. Only about two weeks past a Bar Mitzvah unusually inspiring for everyone in attendance, Mendel succumbed to unexpected complications related to GSD-1A, a metabolic disorder with which he had lived since birth. His medical condition was just background noise to him; his love of life and optimism made it irrelevant and almost unnoticeable.
Mendel was an absolutely remarkable kid. He exuded cheerfulness, warmth, humor and an exuberance that uplifted everyone around him. He was noted for his habit of eagerly wanting to greet others, of any age, in shul, school or any other venue, and had an ability for recognizing and validating their esteem that was not common for someone his age. His ability to bring joy to those around him made him seem like community property. As I listened to everyone comment about him in the days after his passing, a personal summation was that he seemed like a boy out the 1950’s: pleasant to be around, satisfied with simple things, excited about what was coming up next. And utterly wholesome and free of any jadedness or negativity. I think he even looked like some of the 50’s kids I recall.
However, his life was imbued with a dimension that was virtually non-existent in Houston at that time: his immersion in and love of everything that a Torah observant life entailed. He enjoyed learning at school and with individuals like his father, brother, his one Houston Uncle Ben, and his rabbis. He was enthusiastic and very careful in carrying out mitzvahs and really acted like the budding Chabad chassid he was. He approached his Bar Mitzvah preparation very seriously and took enormous pride in reaching the age of putting on the fine tephillin he had received months earlier.
Producing a Mendel didn’t just happen. With G-d’s help, he was blessed with exceptionally devoted parents who showered him with great love and spared nothing in assuring a true Torah upbringing that has been their own priority in life. They maintained the vital spiritual firewall that shielded him from the coarse and inane influences of many aspects of popular culture that run counter to and seriously erode Jewish spiritual sensitivities. He was influenced by uncles and aunts who were emotionally very close to him, though geographically pretty far away. He enjoyed the benefit of many excellent rabbis and teachers at Torah Day School who provided an example in values as important as the material they taught. And there was the benefit of living in a close-knit community of families that deeply care for and assist each other.
It is often said of a deceased individual that he or she had a special soul. Of Mendel, there can be no doubt whatsoever that this was the case. The loss of any loved one, and especially a child, presents the stark dissonance of fundamental Jewish belief with natural human emotion. On the one hand, we know on an intellectual level as believing Jews, that the soul, being eternal, migrates (actually returns) to a spiritual realm with an even higher status. But, in daily reality we as parents, grandparents and other relatives and friends, we continue to wake up daily deeply missing Mendel in so many ways. To our viewpoint, it is a life which hardly had the chance to even take off. In the deeper realms of timeless, spiritual belief, it is soul of such radiance that it accomplished its goal within a couple of weeks of Bar Mitzvah, returning to its Maker without blemish.
At his Bar Mitzvah, Mendel had an assignment for those in attendance. Drawing on his parasha’s description of the celebration of bringing the first fruits of one’s harvest to Jerusalem, he emphasized the attribute of gratitude—perhaps his own signature character trait—to those in attendance. Specifically he described the “Modeh Ani” declaration, the first words a Jew is supposed to utter each day, as the model of expression of gratitude to G-d for simply awakening to life each day. He even had a Modeh Ani card placed on the tables for everyone to take and study. I would urge all readers to watch the poignant five-minute video segment of his Bar Mitzvah comments accessible at http://mitzvahformendel.org/. Many people have already taken on this simple mitzvah and hopefully developed the sense of gratitude it encourages./ For others to do this would be fine and meaningful tribute to Mendel’s life and memory.
May the neshama of Menachem Mendel ben Daniel continue to rise to higher and higher levels.
Mendel’s Zaidy, Dr. David Cotlar