A Giant in Ahavat Yisrael

Thursday, 1 December, 2016 - 10:43 am

This past weekend, I, along with thousands of my fellow Shluchim, had the privilege to participate in the annual Kinus – conference. A weekend of recharging, uplifting and togetherness. The highlight, of course, is standing together as one before the Rebbe at the Ohel, asking the Rebbe to pray for our success and bless us with everything good. There is also the banquet – a wonderful evening filled with meaning and inspiration. On a personal level my friends and classmates gathered together to remember and celebrate the life of a friend who we recently lost. One month ago, one of my dear friends, Mendel Brikman, passed away following a years’ long battle with a devastating illness. I knew Mendel for many years, but we really became close when we spent a year together in Sydney as Shluchim (Rabbinic interns – emissaries of the Rebbe). Mendel was my study partner, but more importantly my friend. That cemented our friendship for life. He was one of the boys but there was something special about him that we didn’t really pay attention to properly until now that he has passed. I would like to share with you some of what I wrote to his wife and children along with two stories that I heard last weekend.

Mendel had an amazing knack for making people feel comfortable, easing them into settings that may have seemed foreign to them. His was a natural charisma, but the kind that did not suppress everyone else's presence. Rather his leadership ability was the kind that brought out the talents in others. Real glue that can keep a group together, despite personality differences and different outlooks on life.

Mendel was a chameleon in the best possible way. His cleverness and "street smarts" (also known as common sense) allowed him to slip into any circumstance and rise to the occasion. It also gave him a "klugshaft" (wisdom) through which he brought down to earth perspectives on a variety of situations. Mendel related to people in a way that made them feel better about themselves following their interaction with him. The quality that rises above all, and, I think, shaped all of his other qualities, was that he had a geshmak (pleasure), a real geshmak, in doing a favor for another. Simply pure ahavat yisrael that came to him naturally.

I used to love stopping in to Sterling (his electronics store in NY) upon my visits just to say hello and chat with Mendel. One came away feeling uplifted after such a conversation. After Hurricane Katrina we were chatting and he was very empathetic about our challenges. As we parted he unassumingly slipped a significant sum of money into my hand to help us with the recovery.

When his illness struck, his positive approach to life's challenges put me to shame. When one spoke to him, knowing all that he was going through and yet he was so upbeat and filled with bitachon (trust and faith) and positivity, one felt foolish to be agonizing over the small problems compared to the way Mendel dealt with the big ones. During our (NOT OFTEN ENOUGH - a major regret of mine) phone calls or visits he oozed bitachon no matter what. Over the past years I thought about Mendel almost every day as I recited Tehillim. On many holidays during the priestly blessing he was on my mind...

There are no words that one can say other than AD MOSAI. We need Moshiach to come to that Hashem can remove death from the earth and wipe the tears off of the faces of those crying for their beloved spouse, parent, child, sibling and friend.

Two stories: When we were flying to Australia in 1993, our trip took us through Osaka, Japan and then on to Sydney. During the last leg of the trip, one of our group, Yossi, wasn’t feeling well. He was seated next to Mendel Brikman. When Mendel got up for a moment Yossi stretched out into the next seat to be more comfortable for a few minutes until Mendel would return. Six hours later Yossi woke up feeling much better. He looked around and realized that Mendel elected to let him sleep and spent six hours wandering around or perched on an armrest just so that Yossi would be more comfortable. Mendel made it completely natural and dismissed any attempt at thanking him.

During the last weeks of his life Mendel spent much time in the ICU on a breathing machine. One night, a friend, Chaim, came to spell Mendel’s wife in the hospital so she could go get some rest at home. Chaim was sitting in the hospital room chair and dozed off. Mendel struggled mightily with breathing. Every breath and every word spoken came with great effort. In middle of the night Mendel woke up and signaled for the nurse. Chaim also woke up and tried to see what was needed. He overheard Mendel asking the nurse, with extreme effort in each word, to bring his friend a pillow so that his sleep in the chair would be more comfortable. Even as he lay fighting for his life, the comfort of another was paramount to him.

Many more stories have been told. May Mendel’s life example serve as an inspiration to us to increase our own love and caring for another, and in that merit, this long bitter exile can finally be moved to the history books, where it belongs, with the coming of Moshiach speedily.

Shabbat Shalom and Chodesh Tov
Rabbi Mendel Rivkin

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