The inspiring life, and death, of Rabbi Avraham Meir Levy
When the doorbell rang one Friday morning after I’d given birth, the last person I expected to see was Rabbi Avraham Meir Levy. But there he was, gaunt from chemotherapy, holding out a bottle of 1957 Hiram Walker whiskey. It was a gift for the Shalom Zachor (welcoming the baby gathering) that we were making that night, which of course he would be unable to attend.
I was shocked to see him. While we were former neighbors and I was friends with his wife, I could not fathom what had prompted him to come out to our new neighborhood, walk up the two flights of steps to reach my apartment in his weakened state, and present us with an unusually expensive gift.
Rabbi Levy explained that my father had recently done a kindness for him, and he wanted to show gratitude by participating in our simcha in a meaningful way.
This kind of exceptional action was typical of Rabbi Levy. His sincerity and warmth touched all who met him.
During the shiva, his wife Baila received an early-morning phone call from a nurse at the hospital. “I just want you to know,” she said, “what a tremendous impact your husband had on the oncology ward. It’s a great loss for you, but it’s a great loss for us, too. We really miss having him here. It was an honor taking care of him.”
Everyone who came into contact with Rabbi Levy during his 22-month battle with colon cancer felt the same way.
“I had drivers that would ask me to let them know when Avraham Meir would need a lift,” recalled Marisa Tuchinsky, whose organization helps provide rides for people to hospitals. “Everyone wanted the opportunity to take him. They felt it was their privilege.”
When she would arrange return trips, if Rabbi Levy heard any stress in her voice due to an overload of calls, he would say, “There’s no rush. I can wait here. I’m resting and fine.”
He would often call once he’d gotten home from yet another difficult treatment to express gratitude for arranging the ride. Despite his suffering, his focus was not on his own treatment and needs, but on making those helping him feel cared for and appreciated.
He was this way with all his caregivers and visitors, making sure there were drinks, chocolate, or other treats set out in his room so that he could offer whoever came.
“There was just this overwhelming feeling that he wanted to do something for me while I was visiting,” said Rabbi Yehoshua Bloom, a good friend who spent a lot of time with Rabbi Levy in the hospital. “It wasn’t that we were there for him, but rather that he was there for us.”
Beyond Standard Hospitality
When Rabbi Levy’s close friend Eli Yemini visited after a chemo session, Eli mentioned that he’d been suffering from inflammation in his wrist, but the prescribed medication and physiotherapy weren’t helping.
Despite being extremely weak and exhausted, Rabbi Levy immediately began to search for new solutions. Eventually he contacted a company in the US, and after several inquiries, had two packages of medication delivered to Eli, which helped relieve his condition.
Imagine someone experiencing such pain, suffering, and weakness, going so far to help a friend! But this was so very typical of Rabbi Levy.
Years earlier, he was assigned to take attendance at the yeshiva, marking down which students had not arrived. He did so not to reprimand, but in order to follow up and check that everything was okay and, if necessary, to arrange for medical treatment or other care.
Rabbi Levy’s entire focus was on others, and his family was at the forefront of his mind. Though he spent over 40 Shabbosim in the hospital, he insisted that his wife stay home with their children to give them as normal a Shabbos as possible.
He was very concerned that his wife and children be provided for after his death. They had always lived simply, but now their finances were completely decimated by the expenses of nearly two years of treatment and hospitalization. So Rabbi Levy, between injections and blood draws in his hospital bed, made phone call after phone call to secure financial arrangements (greeting visitors and offering them food while he waited on hold).
Despite his loving efforts, success in this area was limited.
Torah and Adventure
Rabbi Levy was dedicated to the Torah life. Even in his last months, weak and infirmed, he would do his best to trudge to synagogue every day. At times he was so cold that he’d wear gloves in shul, despite the mild weather outside.
A visitor to the neighborhood who saw Rabbi Levy making this trek was so inspired that he said he could not imagine ever again having an excuse for not going to synagogue.
When Rabbi Levy’s oncologist informed him that the chemo was no longer helping and there were no treatments left to try, his response was to call his rabbi to ask what Torah topic he should best spend his remaining time studying.
Rabbi Levy was a man who loved to live, to laugh, and experience God’s magnificent world. Cancer? Why should that hold him back?
The summer after his diagnosis and first surgery, he went water skiing and skydiving with friends. Even in his last months, when he weighed under 100 pounds and was freezing cold in his home with two heaters blazing, he wanted to go skiing. Baila thought it was out of the question, but he bought a new pair of ski boots.
He never got to use them.
On Tu Bishvat one year ago, Rabbi Levy slipped away at the too-young age of 59, leaving a widow and six young orphans.
In his passing, he left his family with something unique: a spiritual will to impart his legacy. He wrote:
Please remember these lessons of being a Torah Jew, that I have tried to exemplify, and bequeath to you with all of my love:
- Gratitude, “Thank you!” Everything is a gift from Hashem. And be sure to thank anyone who does you a chesed (kindness).
- Life is not always easy, but that is when Hashem is closest to us. Speak to Him… ask for big things, and especially small things, every day.
- We don’t always understand God’s calculations. No matter what, we always try our hardest to serve Him with all our strength, and never give up. Remember that we get reward in this world, but the main reward is saved for the next world.
- Good health is a gift. Even not good health is a gift.
- Good character and respect for God are the foundation of being a Jew.
- My children, take care of each other, and especially your mother.
What a gift to his family. And what a gift to us, as well.
Rabbi Avraham Meir Levy may have departed from this world, but to all those who knew him, who experienced the glow of his pure caring, who witnessed how he transformed suffering into joyous triumph, his legacy lives on.
May the memory of Avraham Meir ben Chaim HaLevi be for a blessing.
By: Miriam Gitlin
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