In this Parshat Vayishlach, Rachel died suddenly at the young age of thirty six, while giving birth to her second child, Benjamin. Decades later, we find that Jacob clarifies to his son Joseph the burial of Joseph’s young mother.
Jacob recalls that painful moment: “And when I came from Padan, Rachel died on me in the land of Canaan, on the road, a short distance away as we came toward Ephrath. I buried her there, alongside the road to Ephrath, near Bethlehem.”
Jacob explains his actions to Rachel’s eldest son, “I did not bury your mother in our family plot in the Machpelah Cave in Hebron but instead on the side of the road because G‑d commanded it. There will come a time when your children will go into exile, driven from their homes by Nebuzaradan, marched in chains to the distant land of Babylonia.
“On the way, they will pass your mother’s grave. Rachel will come out and cry and beg G‑d for mercy. G‑d, in turn, will respond to her, ‘There is reward for your actions . . . Your children will return to their borders.’” [Rashi to Genesis 48:8]
The loss of a young life, leaving behind young children, is a tragedy beyond comprehension. The only solace is accepting that this is part of G-d’s grand master plan. Eventually, we may be able to see the purpose in the pain.
It was only decades after my father, Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman’s tragic passing at the young age of thirty seven, leaving behind a wife and 4 children, when I began to see purpose in the pain.
“For so many years
Tatty I missed you
Oh Tatte, I longed for you
with my heart and soul
I yearned to be with you
and hear you sing this song”
These are the opening words of a song I composed this past summer at the Jewish Girls Retreat, to a tune my family sang every Friday night, until I was eleven years old. This was the tune of my father’s favorite Shalom Aleichem, a Sephardic version. My father, Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman O’BM would sing the Shalom Aleichem with joy in every word, surrounded by family and guests who glowed as bright as my mother’s Shabbos candles. The song often concluded in exuberant singing and dancing around our lively Shabbos table.
G-d had another plan, and decided that my father completed his mission on earth in just thirty seven years; and so his soul continues to sing from the heavens above.
My young heart terribly missed Tatty’s Shabbos melodies and Torah teachings. I missed his love, joy and inspiration that flowed like an always-gushing waterfall to all.
Years went by and unfortunately, I forgot his Sholom Aleichem. Memories of my early years evoked sadness and tears. The pain of the past was buried deep within me like a seed planted underground.
After 19 years of marriage and motherhood with little time to nurture that buried seed, I found myself in Crown Heights for the International Conference of Chabad Shluchos. While there, I was invited to the home of Rabbi Levy Djian for a Shabbos dinner. He began to sing the Sholom Aleichem, in his beautiful melodious voice welcoming the Shabbos angels. The tune sounded so familiar. “Where did I hear it before?”, I wondered.
It was as if Rabbi Djian read my thoughts, and he shared, “Over 30 years ago years ago, when I was young boy, my family stayed at your home for Sukkot in Crown Heights and we never forgot your father’s spirited Sholom Aleichem. Throughout my childhood in Paris, France, my father would sing the tune we learned at your Shabbos table.”
Sitting with my dear mother in the place of my childhood, while listening to my Father’s Sholom Aleichem once again, transported me back to his soulful table. I tried to hold back the emotions erupting in my heart. By the end of the meal, I felt heartbroken; I was so overcome with emotion, and longing for my father’s light. I remember walking down the stairs of their building, alongside my daughter Chaya, with warm tears streaming down my face.
Shabbos, a time of joy – not a time for tears – yet, it’s a time to quiet the chaos of the week and connect to the soul deep within. This was my soul crying – my inner child, yearning for Shalom, for peace and comfort, yearning to be free to express itself, and be redeemed from the sadness and grief of the past. It was time to nurture the buried seed of pain with my tears, and cultivate it to see its purpose; to help the seed grow into a sprout of hope and healing for myself and others.
After the moving Shabbat dinner at Rabbi Levy and Maryasha Djian’s home, with Sephardic flavor in the food and songs, I was walking on Kingston Ave. with my daughter. We passed 770, the Chabad Headquarters, and I recalled a song my father composed called “Kingston Avenue”. “Kingston Avenue… where I want to be… It’s the best Avenue ‘cause it takes you right to 770.” This became the hit song at Camp Emunah, where he served as a vibrant camp Rabbi the last summer of his life. I smiled through my tears picturing my father’s gratitude to live so close to his beloved teacher and leader, the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
We continued walking to the Friday Night Oneg at the Convention, and I found a seat to listen to the excellent speakers; but I could not concentrate with so much emotion rising to the surface. I slipped out quietly for a break and met a friend, and as we conversed, she mentioned how we are all gathered here as sisters. I shared with her that growing up in Crown Heights, I was the oldest and only girl in my family, and from the age of 10 through 18, I felt so alone in my pain without sisters. I was in a daze as tears overflowed. It felt so strange to meet the young “Nechama Dina Wasserman” in this most unexpected turn of events.
Several women recognized me and joined our circle congregating outside the hall. They sat with me, hugged me and listened to me share the pain of the past that I buried for too long. One woman shared that she was very inspired by my talk at a gathering honoring the memory of a young father who passed away in Los Angeles, CA. a few weeks earlier. My inner child felt comforted and supported, surrounded by soul sisters, who gave me a shoulder to lean on and a reminder of my light that emerged from darkness.
When we bury emotions, we lose touch with a part of who we really are, because our feelings are an integral part of us. I had tried to be strong throughout my teenage years by silencing the feelings of grief.
This reminds me of our JGU Theme Song by Rivka Leah:
“And you try to be strong,
But it’s hard to hold on for so long
Trust your inner light (clap clap)
Shadows fall away (clap clap)
Hold your candle high (clap clap)
Night will turn to day (clap clap)”
Out of over a thousand women, the Rebbetzin of a 10 year old JGR camper bereft of her father, walked by our circle of sisters. She stopped to say Good Shabbos and mentioned how her Hebrew School student gained so much, both spiritually and emotionally, from the Jewish Girls Summer Retreat. She came home so much more expressive and happy. The Shlucha was reassured knowing that I understood her situation. In that moment, Hashem was once again revealing to me the purpose in my pain. Through our challenges, we share empathy and uplift others in their pain so “night will turn into day.”
My journey to transform pain into purpose continues on. I have worked on myself to let go of the pain in my heart through journaling, talking with trusted mentors, praying, and sharing my story to give strength to others. I find comfort through shining my father’s light, by sharing his teachings with women and girls. I strive to create a safe space for Jewish girls ages 8-18 to feel safe sharing their struggles with soul sisters and mentors.
I decided to text Rabbi Levy Djian one day, and asked him if he would sing the song, “Sholom Aleichem” for me in a voice note. I wanted to sing it, but I had forgotten the Sephardic melody. I didn’t receive a response from him. I didn’t realize that he had unfortunately just lost his own father, and so he was unready to sing the Sholom Aleichem for me. Perhaps, I was not ready either. I needed more time to further nurture the seed of pain, which had already begun to break through the ground as a promising sproutlet, and fortify it.
One year later to the day, I was in Brooklyn again for the annual Shluchos Convention. I was invited to manage the crowds of women entering the holy room of the Rebbe after Friday night services. This was the room where the Rebbe studied and met with people for countless hours. As we waited for the men to empty out, a middle aged man filed past me and he looked at me strangely and proclaimed, “You are Rabbi Wasserman’s daughter, I can see it in your eyes.” I was quite amazed that he recognized me.
After two hours of directing the flow of hundreds of women who came to pray in the Rebbe’s room, I was finally able to leave 770, the Chabad headquarters on Eastern Parkway, to return to my hosts for the Shabbos meal. As I turned the corner, lo and behold, there was Kalman, the man who had recognized my father’s eyes in me. We know that the eyes are the window to the soul. I certainly knew that despite the physical separation, my soul was forever connected to my beloved father o’bm.
As we walked up Kingston Avenue, Kalman shared his vivid and fond memories of my father’s Shabbos table, “We used to sing and dance to the spirited Sephardic Sholom Aleichem. We even stood on the chairs and your father would say, “Break through all the barriers with joy!” And then as Kalman sang the Sholom Aleichem to me, dancing his way up Kingston Avenue, I was blown away, absorbing the melody that I yearned to hear again.
I could hear my father singing and dancing with Kalman from heaven. My heart was singing as I connected to his soul shining so brightly on his beloved Avenue, which he elevated with his words of Torah and Niggun [song]. In that unforgettable moment, I felt the outpouring of my father’s love and joy. I knew he was proud of me for working through the emotions of the past, to trust in Hashem with a complete heart, thus turning sorrow into song.
Several months later, I was directing my 16th Summer session at the Jewish Girls Retreat, and I announced an original songwriting contest in conjunction with our theme, “Sing Your Song”. I decided that I was going to join the contest and lead by example.
At the same time, my daughter, Chaya, arrived to camp from the hospital with our first grandson. It was extremely hectic preparing for a Shabbos bris, wrapping up the end of camp, and juggling my roles of camp director and first-time Bubby. I went to check on my daughter and see how she was managing in our camp apartment. I found her struggling to care for a baby while dealing with recovering from childbirth, and stepped in to help. While I held my precious, tiny grandson, who hadn’t yet reached his bris, I began to jot down words for my song for the JGR song contest. I chose to set my lyrics to the Sholom Aleichem melody.
I held the baby and sang the chorus I composed:
“Kuk nisht oif der vei [Don’t focus on the pain]
Kuf oif dee Gezunt” [Focus on the health]
See the good my love
And trust the One Above
These were my father’s last words when he was ill.
I looked up and noticed a few tears trickle down my daughter’s face. I felt my father’s voice, speaking and singing through me, bringing healing to his daughters. Chaya told me later that this song gave her strength to focus on the new blessings in her life, rather than the challenges.
That night, I stood up in front of the camp, and I shared this story a few days before my father’s Yartzeit on the 4th of Av. I even had the courage to sing my first solo in public. We sang and danced to this spirited song all Shabbos long, just like we did around my father’s Shabbos table so many years ago. We then celebrated the bris of my father’s first great-grandson, surrounded by our immediate family and our JGU sisters.
Tears flowed as our first grandchild was named Azriel Yitzchok by my wonderful brother… Azriel Yitzchok ben Azriel Yitzchok, who was born after my father passed away. It was a moment I will never forget.
At the meal, the mohel Rabbi Levi Heber explained that a bris on Shabbos goes beyond nature, since we override all the rules of Shabbos for the sake of the bond between a baby boy and Hashem. The message I recieved from this, on the Shabbos before my father’s 32nd Yartzeit, was that is was time to go beyond our nature, and bond with my father’s memory with pure joy in our heart. After all, it was the 32nd Yartzeit, and 32 has the numerical value of LEV = Heart. As my father would say, “Simcha breaks through all barriers”
When I shared the song in a blog post, several people asked me to record it professionally. It was a great idea, but I forgot about it, busy with my many day-to-day activities at home, and with my work with Jewish Girls Unite – our Jewish sisters worldwide.
Last week, on Kislev 12, which is my daughter Chaya’s Hebrew birthday and the day I B’H became a mother, I received a call from Rabbi Levy Djian, who told me it was his birthday, as well. He wanted to share with me a birthday resolution, to turn ideas into reality. One of his thoughts was to create a video imparting meaningful stories and songs. He wanted to talk about my father’s unforgettable Shabbos table, and begin recording the Sholom Aleichem officially. I almost dropped the phone; I described my journey to him, and how I composed my own lyrics to this melody, sharing my father’s powerful last words with the world. Rabbi Djian had no idea of this until he was inspired to call me, to rekindle what he’d sparked at his own Shabbos table almost 2 years before.
I told him that I was moved by Moshe Rabbeinu’s words to our people at the end of his life: “Now, write this Song for yourselves.” (Devarim 31:19). And so the JGU Press is working on publishing a songbook called “Voices in Harmony” with lyrics, as well as links to the soundtracks. I realized my father is orchestrating his part for our upcoming book.
Rabbi Levy Djian needed to say goodbye, because he was en route to pray at the Ohel of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Shortly after, I received a text from him with a picture of my father’s gravesite. “I decided to make one more stop today.”
A few minutes later he wrote, “The irony is that as I walked out of the Ohel, passing by the video playing on the screen , the Rebbe quoted the Passuk ”ועתה כתבו לכם את השירה הזאת” – “Now, write this Song for yourselves.” The Rebbe went on to explain that this refers to one of the 613 mitzvot – to write a Torah scroll. We see that many great Sages did not compose a Torah scroll themselves; so how did they fulfill this mitzvah? The Rebbe answered that the mitzvah is not only to inscribe a Torah, but also to print Jewish books and spread Torah!
Can it get any better than writing a songbook filled with timely and empowering Torah values and messages?
Friends, I am so excited to create a legacy song page for my father Rabbi Azriel Yitzchok Wasserman obm. Will you join me? Would you like your loved one’s legacy to be part of this monumental book connecting them to a favorite Jewish song?
Create your page today. Dedicate a song. Be a part of writing the “Voices in Harmony” Songbook for all generations to come!
I conclude with the end of my song for my father o”bm:
“We’re still singing your song
And we know it won’t be long
When we will sing this song
Together in the Holy Land”