By Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein
Right from the moment I first met Cantor Susan Wehle, of blessed memory, I could tell that she was different. She glowed with the light of goodness and love and her joy was contagious, as was her passion. As a newcomer to the area, she welcomed me with open arms and with her trademark smile, effervescent and angelic.
While I do not believe in angels, at least not in the way they are described in popular culture with cherubic faces and small white wings, Cantor Wehle was as close to an earthbound one as I could imagine. Tragically, fifteen years ago this coming Monday, on a quiet night in February of 2009, she, along with 48 others, was taken from us, victims of the crash of flight 3407. It is a loss that even a decade and a half later, we have still not fully recovered from.
In this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, God tells the people: “Behold I am sending an angel before you to guard you on the way” (Exodus 23:20). The rabbis over the centuries have debated who or what this angel actually is. Some like 13th Century French commentator Chizkuni say the angel is Joshua, the next Israelite leader after Moses. Many rabbis have suggested the angel is not a physical being at all, but a reference to the Torah or Ten Commandments. Ibn Ezra, the great 12th Century Spanish commentator, writes that it is most certainly an actual angel, and not just any angel, but the angel Michael, from the book of Daniel, the prince of all angels.
Seeing this comment brought tears to my eyes. I thought of Cantor Wehle, and a song she would often sing in synagogue, “Beshem Hashem.” In this song by Shlomo Carlebach the Cantor included in her “Songs of Healing and Hope” CD, the angels, starting with Michael, are called to protect us on all sides before we go to bed. Here are the words of the song in translation: “In the name of the Divine: Angelic Beings Surround me. Michael on the right, Gabriel on the left, Uriel in front, Rafael behind, and the Divine Presence overhead.”
For many decades, Cantor Susan Wehle was our angel, protecting us on all sides. She was the one who showed up at the bedside of the dying, comforted the bereaved, and offered solace to the downtrodden. We miss her presence on our left, and right, before us and behind us. We thank God for giving her to us, even in the all too brief time we had. Wherever she is right now, she is no doubt still looking down at this beautiful community she helped create and nurture with her trademark smile. To our beloved angel Cantor Susan Wehle, may her name and memory always be for a blessing.
Rabbi Alex Lazarus-Klein is the spiritual leader at Congregation Shir Shalom.