Yedid Nefesh Emet: Remembering Dr. Michael Levenstein

Michael Levenstein passed away one year ago today. He was an esteemed family medicine doctor, a respected community activist, a wonderful family man, an enormous talmid chacham (Torah scholar), and a passionate Zionist.

Dr. Michael (Mordechai) Levenstein z”l

On his first yahrtzeit (today, 9 Elul, August 16-17), I weep over the loss of my close friend at age 60 to cancer. Below is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral one year ago.

I also published an op-ed tribute to Michael in several Israeli newspapers, which focuses on his political views. It can be read here.

Two weeks from now, on August 30, 2021, Michael’s family and friends iy”H will dedicate the Michael Levenstein Memorial Olive Grove in Ayalon-Canada Park in Israel. Contact me for details.

~~~~~~~~~~

Delivered 10 Elul 5780, August 30, 2020, in Maaleh Adumim.

The gemara in Shabbat (31a) says:

אמר רבא: שבעשה שמכניסין אדם לדין, אומרים לו: נשאת ונתת באמונה? קבעת עיתים לתורה? עסקת בפריה ורביה? ציפית לישועה?

Rava says: When the deceased stands in judgement before the court in Heaven, he or she is asked four questions: Did you conduct your business honestly? Did you devote time to the study of Torah? Did you invest in raising a family? Did you anticipate and desire and work towards geulah, the redemption of the Jewish People?

There is not a sliver of a sliver of a doubt in the mind of everybody here, and in the minds of the very many close friends of Michael, Rabbeinu Dr. Mordechai Levenstein, that today he will ace these four tests with flying colors.

Nasata venatata be-emunah? Did he conduct his business honestly? For 30 years Michael was a devoted family medicine doctor here in Israel. And this what the Association of Family Doctors in Israel had to say about him when it gave him a lifetime achievement award last year: “A modest, warm, and supportive doctor, who helped tens of thousands of patients. A charismatic educator, who taught hundreds of students. A caring man, always willing to help his peers.”

And when Michael felt the time had come to do teshuva, towards the end of his life in recent months, what was he worried about? He asked an important Rav how he could recompense patients over the years who he might have slighted by not giving them enough time because of a backlog of patients waiting outside his door, or by being somewhat impatient with the many drug addicts who came to him again and again, and the like.

What kind of tzadik, what level of medical tzadik, thinks like this, and feels that he needs to do teshuva, even when he and all his peers know that he did his very best in all situations?

Kavaat itim laTorah? Did Michael devote time to the study of Torah? The better question is: How many accomplished and busy professionals in the Jewish world devoted more time and love to learning Torah, especially Torat Eretz Yisrael, than did Michael? How many talmidei chachamim remember the Torah they learned and heard from others better than Michael?

Just last Thursday night, he repeated to me the Dvar Torah he gave on Lag BaOmer 1980 at a Bnei Akiva bonfire on Centre Island in Toronto. He quoted Ovadia (1:18):

וְהָיָה בֵית יַעֲקֹב אֵשׁ וּבֵית יוֹסֵף לֶהָבָה וּבֵית עֵשָׂו לְקַשׁ וְדָלְקוּ בָהֶם וַאֲכָלוּם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה שָׂרִיד לְבֵית עֵשָׂו כִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר.

Which basically translates into a prophecy on the victory of the Jews, as expressed through fire that devours our enemies.

Whether it was Torah HaRav Hadari z”l or Torat HaRav Ralph Frankel yibadel lechaim tovim, or Torat HaRav Elisha Aviner, or the Torah of Kol Hator or Aim HaBanim Smeicha – these being passionate Zionist Torah sefarim that he knew nearly off by heart – Michael remembered everything! And he could deliver that Torah to his friends with passion and exactitude.

Asakta bepreiah urevia? Did you invest in raising a family? Hineh muchach lefanecha, Michael’s magnificent family! His indomitable, indefatigable, rock-solid wife Leora, an ultimate eshet chayil and aim habanim smeicha, and his six adult children, each of whom brought him great joy and each of whom has inherited Michael’s passion and personality in their different ways. And each of whom will continue to build this country in their own way, as he wanted.

Leora, you and the family surely know that Michael’s friends, your friends, will stand by you in every way possible, as you all make your forward to great achievements and many smachot, even in Michael’s physical absence.

Finally, and perhaps most of all, tzipita leyeshua? Tzipita leyeshua! Nobody I have ever known anticipated and desired and drove towards geulah, the redemption of the Jewish People, more than Michael! His whole being was gripped with this obligation and challenge!

Michael’s entire worldview, indeed, his very personality, was a function of living and breathing geulat yisrael and building Medinat Yisrael. All his Torah too, was suffused with geulat yisrael, focused on our current day revealed miracles in the national renaissance of the Jewish people in this ancestral homeland.

He knew every midrash related to the mountains and valleys of Israel, and reveled in hiking those mountains and valleys, Tanach in hand, alongside his phenomenal memory.

Three days ago, for a few minutes, I had the privilege of learning the shiva’a denechamta haftaroth with Michael – together with Leora, Elnatan and my wife Bonnie. I reminded Michael of his opt-repeated and beloved vort (explanation) of בעתה אחישנה , which is this week’s haftarah, and his even more well-known vort of בכל צרתם לא צר, which is the haftarah for next week.

For his part, Michael, retold his vort on this past Shabbat’s haftarah (Isaiah 54:9):

כִּי מֵי נֹחַ זֹאת לִי אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי מֵעֲבֹר מֵי נֹחַ עוֹד עַל הָאָרֶץ כֵּן נִשְׁבַּעְתִּי מִקְּצֹף עָלַיִךְ וּמִגְּעָר בָּךְ.

And Michael explained this as referring to bnei noach, the goyim in alternate religions who are being rebuked by G-d for thinking that Am Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael had been abandoned by G-d. When in fact (Isaiah 54:10):

כִּי הֶהָרִים יָמוּשׁוּ וְהַגְּבָעוֹת תְּמוּטֶנָה וְחַסְדִּי מֵאִתֵּךְ לֹא יָמוּשׁ וּבְרִית שְׁלוֹמִי לֹא תָמוּט אָמַר מְרַחֲמֵךְ יְהוָה.

Translation: In his infinite mercies, the resurgence of the Jewish People in Israel and flowering of the mountains of Israel – are proof that G-d is with us.

That was one of the last pieces of Torah that Michael had the strength to give over, and he identified with this prophetic message with every fiber of his soul.

Would he/could he sing with us here today, Michael undoubtedly would lead in us Rav Shlomo Carlebach’s tune (Psalms 102:14):

אַתָּה תָקוּם תְּרַחֵם צִיּוֹן כִּי עֵת לְחֶנְנָהּ כִּי בָא מוֹעֵד.

*****

The only reason I have the privilege, the horribly sad zechut, of speaking here today in praise of Dr. Levenstein, is as a representative of Michael’s very many close friends, really close friends.

Our chevra gravitated to Michael and to Leora naturally. Michael was a lodestone around which we gathered, to whom we looked up, on whom we counted; the glue that bound us all together.

For me personally, Michael was the best of friends, the wisest of counsels, through thick and thin. Yedid nefesh emet. I hope that he felt the same about me. We met 40 years ago this month, in Elul 1980 in Yeshivat Hakotel, and enjoyed uninterrupted friendship ever since.

For my wife and kids, Leora and her kids have been the closest cousins. For them and for me, Purim and Yom HaKippurim, those two very different holy days and Yom Haatzmaut too – which we have marked together for 30 years! – will never be the same without Michael. But how very privileged have we been to have had all these years together!

Michael taught me, he taught all of us, the value of kneh lecha chaver, of true friendship. (See Mishna Avot 1:6)

Ariella, my eldest daughter, wrote to me this morning as follows: “You are lucky to have had such a good friend for so long. I hope that I will yet have that. We were so lucky to know Michael and spend so many holidays and gatherings together with the Levensteins – including this year, right before the corona restrictions began. I will miss him so much. We, the Weinberg and Levenstein kids, also made friendships for life. And I’m grateful for that. And that is not over. They are family. I hope that I can relay the importance of such friendship to my kids.”

צַר לִי עָלֶיךָ אָחִי מורי ד”ר מרדכי, נָעַמְתָּ לִּי מְאֹד

Tzar li alecha, achi Mori Dr. Mordechai, naamta li meod. (Compare: Shmuel Bet 1:26).

*****

I began with a gemara in Shabbat, and will close with a haunting gemara in Masechet Shabbat too (106a):

אחד מבני החבורה שמת, תדאג כל החבורה כולה

When a member of a chabura, a circle of close friends, passes away, and in so untimely a manner, and especially when he is the magnet and center of that chabura – we must all be worried. I do not really know what this ominous gemara means in the current circumstance, other than perhaps we weren’t deserving enough of enjoying another 30 years with Michael. But I am sure that in this Chodesh Elul, Michael would want us all to do teshuva and re-double the good deeds we try to do.

“בלע המות לנצח ומחה ד’ אלוקים דמעה מעל כל פנים”

Yehi zichro, zecher tzadik – levracha, amen.

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David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker