Memorial Tribute to Cantor Gershon Levin, z”l
November 21, 2015
The image in the opening section of this morning’s parsha is a famous one. Jacob, while escaping the wrath of his twin brother, stops for the night. In his stress and anxiety of whether he will live to see the next day, he dreams of a ladder with angels ascending and descending upon it. The angels don’t say anything but God assures him in this dream that he will be okay and that in fact he will thrive and prosper.
Though the voice of God conveyed the message of comfort and blessing to Jacob – what about the angels? What role did they play in Jacob’s dream and what did they look like? According to the rabbis angels in the bible serve God as messengers – bringing news or guiding people to a certain place. Angels appear in many stories in the Torah and in the Bible helping people understand a religious lesson or enhancing a prophet’s understanding of God’s heavenly abode. We just have to remember the angels who came to lot and his family to save them from the impending destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah or the angel who came to Mano’ach and his wife to inform them of the birth of Samson.
But the angels in our story seem different. They don’t say anything or guide Jacob to do anything – they just climb up and down the ladder. Yet that somehow is comforting to Jacob. He wakes up stress free and emboldened – knowing that he is safe and protected.
The rabbis have suggested that our souls, when we die, have the potential to become angels. If we have led upright, moral and ethical lives and if our relatives recite the kaddish then there is a good chance that the soul of our beloved will become such an angel serving God in “olam ha-ba” or even on earth. Perhaps what brought so much comfort to Jacob in that dream is that he saw familiar faces of loved ones that encouraged him to continue on his journey, to listen to God, to fulfill his destiny.
The angles that the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel saw sang to one another of God’s holy and sacred presence. When they were called to their prophesy the first vision each of them had was of God’s heavenly abode and the angels that were singing around God. They sang phrases that are familiar to us – “kadosh, kadosh, kadosh” and “baruch kevod adonay” - and they became refrains in the amidah we recite every day.
These angelic beings then take on familiar human form and sing eternal, sacred melodies providing us with comfort, security and blessing. The angles described in the Bible are transformed, by the rabbis, into the souls of our loved ones. Instead of strange beings reciting these songs next to God, they are our loved ones, singing to us, providing inspiration and love.
I still remember the Shabbat I came to Shaare Tefila to interview. I was anxious in a new environment and was nervous as the Shabbat morning service began. But once the service began and Gershon led the “davenning” I felt better. His knowledge of the “nusach” and his strong, passionate voice allowed me to focus on the siddur rather than my nerves. He was soft spoken off the bima, but on the bima his voice spoke for all of us.
Though he has been gone for a year and a half I still feel his presence, as if he were an angel. Every time I lead the mourner’s kaddish I think of him because the melodic way I chant it is the way he did it. Every time I conclude havdalah by singing “shavua tov” I end it his way – “u-mevorach”. No one else I know ends the song that way, but Gershon taught me to do that. Every time I stand facing the ark during the “u-netaneh tokef” prayer on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I close my eyes and listen to him chant that powerful hymn. It is fitting that a portrait has been made of his angelic face smiling as he’s reading from the Torah for that was who Gershon was for our congregation. Gershon brought Torah – all of Jewish tradition – to life in such a powerful and joyous way. He gave us all an entrée into the beauty of Jewish liturgy – whether as a new Bar or Bat Mitzvah student, an adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah student, or anyone else who wanted to learn. His gentle manner and encouraging way enabled all of us to embrace our heritage and take ownership of it.
Like Jacob’s angels on the ladder who encouraged Jacob to continue on his journey, I know that Gershon’s presence is still with us encouraging us to continue living. He’s there in the transition from Shabbat to weekday; he’s there in minyan in the chapel and he’s there on the High Holidays all the time giving us strength and encouraging us to sing loud and strong. And he’s there in the name of his granddaughter Elior ensuring that another generation will be reminded of his life. May Gershon’s presence continue to be a source of strength and inspiration for his family, for all of us and for our congregation for many years to come. Amen.