Most of us have heard or read the midrash that explains the Jewish custom of saying kaddish on behalf of the departed. (The story, with quite a bit of background, is here. Please read it first, and then come back to this page.)
There are several versions of the story, spanning several centuries. While they have minor variations, they agree on one thing: that since the kaddish has the power to redeem souls from punishment after death — in this case, a punishment that is both terrible and earned — we are obligated to recite it on behalf of our departed loved ones. But I think that the story contains other important messages that deserve a closer look.
When Rabbi Akiva asks the deceased man (whose name is given variously as Ukba and even as Akiva, the rabbi’s own name) why he is being punished so severely, the man confesses that in life, he was a corrupt tax collector who committed serious crimes including theft, rape and murder.
One might imagine a typical response to the man’s confession: “Well then, this is your just punishment. You did the crime; now you must do the time.” A gentler response might be: “I am sorry for your suffering, but it comes from God, and where God has decreed, what can a mortal do?”
But Rabbi Akiva’s response is entirely different. He focuses on one thing only: rescuing the deceased man from his suffering. He appears to forget his confession as soon as he hears it, seeing the deceased man only as a suffering soul in need of rescue. (Perhaps Rabbi Akiva, who famously opposed the death penalty in the Jewish high court, feels that the man has suffered enough, or that his punishment exceeds his crime.) When the man tells him that his only hope of salvation lies with his son — and since he died before his wife gave birth, he does not even know whether he has a son, or any child at all — Rabbi Akiva sets out to find the boy without even knowing whether he exists.
When he finds the boy living shunned and neglected in his father’s village, he takes a father’s responsibility for him. He has the boy circumcised — the townspeople’s rejection of him was so total that they had not bothered to perform even this basic commandment — and begins raising him. (The story does not make it clear whether his mother was still alive. It tells us that the townspeople loathed her as well, but does not tell us why. Was she Bonnie to her husband’s Clyde, or did she suffer from guilt by association?)
Things appear to go well until the rabbi tries to teach the boy Torah. Then he hits a wall. As the story tells us, the boy cannot learn; his heart is closed to Torah.
This is hardly surprising. The boy has been an outcast from infancy, made to pay for crimes committed by the parents he never knew. He has never known love or friendship. Now this stranger has appeared out of the blue with demands and expectations: Be circumcised. Sit up straight. Sit down and study. What does this fellow want from him, anyway? After everything he has been through in his short life, how can he be anything but suspicious?
But then there is a shift. As I imagine it, the rabbi has been preparing the boy’s food day after day and eating with him. One day, something changes: the rabbi continues to prepare the boy’s food, but waits until nightfall to eat. The boy can’t help but notice this, and after several weeks, he finally asks the rabbi what’s going on.
At first (as I imagine it), the rabbi demurs. He does not want to call attention to himself. But as the days go by and the boy keeps insisting, he tells him the truth: “I’m fasting to ask God to help you learn. It is important to me. You are important to me.”
The boy is stunned. No one has ever taken an interest in him before. Never has anyone shown him the least bit of caring, done him even the smallest favor. And now this stranger who appeared in his life out of nowhere is fasting for his sake, every single day, from dawn to dusk. Forty days. Leaving out Shabbat, that’s almost seven weeks.
He realizes that the rabbi’s interest in him is sincere. Rabbi Akiva earns his trust, and his heart opens.
A brief digression. Imagine Albert Einstein (who had learning difficulties as a child; his teachers wrote him off as a lost cause as early as second grade) working out the theory of relativity and receiving the Nobel Prize... and then dropping everything to search in a remote village for a despised and neglected orphan boy, the son of notorious criminals, and teach him how to read and write.
In this story, that’s exactly what Rabbi Akiva does.
Rabbi Akiva knew what it was to be a despised and rejected outsider. The descendant of converts to Judaism, a shepherd by trade, he remained illiterate until he was forty and began studying only in middle age. At first the children laughed to see the big man hunched on the small benches of their classroom, laboriously copying the alphabet onto a slate. But Akiva persevered, working his way up class by class until he became the foremost scholar of his day. Eventually he was so respected that the deans of the academies — the universities of the time — would not make a move without him.
But he never forgot what his earlier life had been like or how the community’s rejection had hurt him. Later on, when he was a respected scholar, he recalled that as a young man he had hated scholars so much that he had wanted to bite their limbs as a donkey bit — hard enough to crush bone.
The story also shows Rabbi Akiva’s exemplary leadership. We can imagine that when he reached the village, he was disappointed, even appalled, by the villagers’ treatment of the boy. But he doesn’t scold or preach. He doesn’t call a meeting in the synagogue and lecture the inhabitants about judging favorably or caring for those less fortunate. He simply lives in their midst and shows by example. Once the boy is under the personal care of the country’s most prominent and revered scholar, the villagers dare not show him anything but respect.
I imagine that their respect is grudging at first. The villagers, who had suffered from the depredations of the boy’s father (and possibly of his mother as well), may even resent the loss of their scapegoat. But “mi-tokh she-lo lishma ba lishma” — doing the right thing for the wrong reason eventually leads to doing it for the right reason. In time, the villagers treat the boy kindly on their own, not just because he has a revered and beloved protector. By the time he stands up in the synagogue to lead the short prayer that frees his father’s soul from its punishment, he is no longer a hated outcast, but a full member of the community.
In my opinion, it is the boy’s acceptance into the community that frees the father’s soul from torment. The prayer he recites, to which the congregation responds, is not the final goal. The final goal is his integration. The prayer in the synagogue is only the proof of it.
One might also interpret the father’s punishment, terrible as it is, as the anguish that he suffered over the legacy he had left his son. Outcasts make outlaws (as happened to Jephthah and King David in early manhood). Once the man had entered the World of Truth, he realized that the victims of his crimes were not the only ones he had harmed. He had also condemned his unborn son to follow in his footsteps as an outcast, outlaw and criminal. That knowledge, unconscious as it may have been (when he met Rabbi Akiva in the cemetery, he did not know whether he had any offspring), caused him terrible suffering, and he could not rest until he had found a way to undo the damage he had done.
But what are we taught about this story? None of the above... only that it is important to say kaddish for our loved ones who have gone before. Yes, it is important, for a host of reasons. Yet I still could wish that the other aspects of this story were taught as well.