It is customary to say to someone commemorating a yahrzeit “May the deceased’s neshama have an aliyah” — may their soul merit a spiritual elevation — as a result of your prayers and mitzvot.
While I say that too, I confess I don’t really believe it. As I once told a good friend on a parent’s yahrzeit after following that custom, his father really earned his soul’s elevation on his own merit, by the stellar way he lived his life dedicated to serving (and loving) his family, community, people, and God. Nothing we do can top that.
So when I recite kaddish, lead services, learn Torah, or chant the haftorah on my parents’ yahrzeits, it’s not to aid their souls; it’s to nourish mine.
It’s a demonstration of my continuing love of and respect for them and their (and my) traditions, an opportunity to reflect on the values they imparted to me, my siblings, and our children, and to remember some of the many lessons they taught us. And that’s what I did recently on my father’s yahrzeit (and am doing on their wedding anniversary, when this column is appearing).
Let me share with you some of those memories.
Neither of my parents believed in teaching by preaching. Rather, they usually taught — and inspired — by action and deed. They epitomized the maxim “The mediocre teacher tells, the good teacher explains, the superior teacher demonstrates, the great teacher inspires.”
Here are two examples.
A good friend once told me that he personally met Rav Ahron Kotler z’l, the renowned founder of Beth Medrash Govoha (a/k/a Lakewood). He was introduced when he happened to be in his father’s office in New York City, where Rav Ahron had gone to work with his father on a project. I was impressed, and when I told the story to my father I asked if he ever had met Rav Ahron.
My father answered that he also worked on various projects with Rav Ahron, and had gone to his office in Lakewood a number of times — it was quite a shlep from Far Rockaway — to discuss them personally with him. My father’s demonstration of the importance of living to its fullest the concept of kibud chachamim — the deep respect owed to wise and learned people — was a tad subtle for my high school self. But as I grew older I realized I had been taught that respect included accommodating the convenience and comfort of a venerable sage. A subtle yet powerful message.
And a maternal story. My mother, together with two friends, volunteered her time on a weekly basis to help care for a young Far Rockaway girl who was one of the first home dialysis patients in the United States. While that might not sound like a big deal today considering our compact and relatively easy-to-use dialysis units, back then it was a very big deal. I learned that one Friday afternoon when my mother asked me to spell her for about an hour.
When I entered the small room, my jaw dropped to the floor. Every inch was crammed wall-to-wall with machines and dozens of tubes filled with blood, urine, and other fluids. And in the midst of it all, my mother and her friends calmly executed all the complicated and messy procedures involved. I wondered how they could almost cheerfully take on and perform this onerous and difficult task, and without professional schooling no less.
As I grew a bit older I understood my mother’s unstated message: know what you’re capable of, rise to the occasion (which sometimes means stretching beyond your comfort zone), and, most critically, do what you have to do.
Sometimes, however, my parents understood they had to hit us over the head a bit. Once, my older brother, now a well-known scholar but then a budding one, wanted to write an article for the YU newspaper on Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose recent books in English translation had received rave reviews. Lawrence wanted to make the article personal and mentioned to my father that he wished he could meet Singer to discuss his books and ask some questions. “So call him and ask for a meeting,” my father said.
Lawrence: “Me? Who am I to call such a famous author and why should he meet with me?” My father: “He’s listed in the white pages.” (Remember them?) “Pick up the phone and invite him to have a glass of tea with you in a nearby cafeteria.” (Remember them?) And so my brother did, and that’s how he shared a glass of tea with I.B. Singer — and wrote a fine essay.
My example of direct parental instruction was with my mother. I had returned from a program run by Yavneh, the 1960s and 70s organization of Orthodox college students, where Rabbi Dr. Irving “Yitz” Greenberg was the featured speaker. (As my kids’ eyes glaze over at the mention of Yavneh, I direct you to the definitive book about it, “The Greening of American Orthodox Judaism” by my classmate and friend the late Dr. Benny Kraut, and my review of it in the Jewish Week.) My mother asked if I enjoyed it, and superlatives dripped from my mouth.
“Did you tell R. Greenberg?” my mother asked. My answer mimicked that of my brother: “Me? Who am I to tell R. Greenberg that his speech was wonderful?”
But I was a dutiful son, at least sometimes, so the next time I heard R. Greenberg speak and had a similar conversation with my mother, my answer was “Yes.” When my mother asked how he reacted, I replied “With warmth, and seemingly very pleased.”
“No one, no matter how famous or important, is ever unreachable or insulted by a compliment,” my mother said, with a gentle pat on my cheek. And wasn’t that the same lesson my father taught my brother?
Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps our parents’ souls continue to be elevated after their deaths. No, not by virtue of our seemingly independent actions, but by virtue of their eternal role as our teachers and inspiration, as demonstrated by our ongoing embrace and practice of the tradition they lovingly transmitted to us.
Our actions truly are their actions.
May their neshamot have an aliyah.