Dear Ask-the-Rabbi Rabbi,

My father ran away when I was two years old. Disappeared. No child support, nothing. Now I’m twenty-four. Last year I tracked him down. Don’t ask me why. I felt I had to, without knowing what I would say or do when we met. Just to discover he had died two years ago.

Now I’m torn. On the one hand, I figure I have to say kaddish on his yahrtzeit—in two months. On the other hand, what connection do I have to him? I mean, he abandoned me and Mom for all those years. And he never tried to make a connection with me or support me in any way, so why should I say kaddish for him?

Maybe this is not the real sort of situation that kaddish is meant for. Doesn’t saying kaddish imply at least some kind of emotional attachment or respect?

—Yitz Gadal (pseudonym)

Response:

Hi Yitz!

Yes, it’s the pits. It’s the kind of pain that’s so deep, you don’t want to acknowledge how much it hurts. Because you don’t want to have to visit that place inside. There’s something about us that wants—really badly wants—to put our parents on a pedestal. There’s something about us that really badly wants to put our parents on a pedestal.But then you find Dad and realize that he doesn’t belong on a pedestal, because he never had a pedestal to begin with.

Do you have to say kaddish for him? Let’s say Dad was sexually abusive or a relentless child-beater. For such a parent, you probably would have no obligation to sit in mourning for him. Mourning is a way of honoring a parent, and someone so blatantly wicked has foregone that honor.1 Saying kaddish may be another matter, as we will see.

But I don’t think that’s the case here. It sounds more like someone who was just irresponsible. You’ve still got a valid grudge—he never cared to contact you, or make up for all those years of abandonment.

And that’s important to face up to. When we don’t acknowledge the faults of our parents, we end up shifting the blame from them onto ourselves. It’s when that pedestal falls that you free yourself from the burden of guilt so you can get on with life.

So I suggest you first try to acknowledge that grudge, visit the place of that hurt, and then, when you’re ready, get on with healing it. And a kaddish on his yahrtzeit could well be the right place to start with that healing.2

The Prototypical Orphan’s Kaddish

I’ll explain why. This may seem strange, but although it may seem like you are one in a million, you’re not. In fact, the classic Talmudic story of kaddish said by a child is a case of one who never knew a father—and whose father was not worth knowing. There are many versions, but it basically goes like this:3

Rabbi Akiva sees a man running through a cemetery. The guy is naked, black with soot, and burdened with a load of wood.

Rabbi Akiva yells, “Stop! What on earth are you doing?” And, being Rabbi Akiva, he continues, “And what can I do to help?”

Turns out, the guy was dead. In his past life, he had been a tax collector with an important government position who squeezed the life out of the poor to give to the rich. He also committed adultery—on Yom Kippur, no less.

As a punishment, he now must collect wood each day to build a pyre upon which he is barbecued each evening, only to have to run through the exercise again the next morning. (Today, this is called being an employee.)

Rabbi Akiva asks whether this dead man has any clues how he could be granted a pardon.

“Yes,” the man answers. “I heard my supervisors saying that if I had a son, and that son would stand among the congregation and say kaddish and the congregation would answer, Amen! Yehei shmeih rabba mevorach!’4—then I would be off the hook for his sake.”

“No problem!” exclaims Rabbi Akiva. “Let me take care of it.”

“Big problem,” the man replies. “I didn’t leave a son behind.”

“Yes, that’s a problem,” I heard them say that if I had a son who would say kaddish more me, I would be off the hook.Rabbi Akiva says.

“On the other hand,” the man continues, “I think my wife was pregnant when I died. But I don’t know whether she gave birth, and whether it was a boy or a girl. And if she did, the boy certainly wouldn’t have learned any Torah, because the people weren’t exactly my friends.”

“You’ve got me as a friend,” answers Rabbi Akiva. “Just give me your info. Your name, your wife’s name and the name of your town.”

“Name is Arnuniya. Wife’s name, Shishchaya. Town, Ludkiya.”

Rabbi Akiva is immediately on his way to Ludkiya. Once there, he’s asking the townspeople about Arnuniya. The response is worse than he imagined.

“May his bones grind in hell,” they mutter, spitting on the ground and grinding the spit deep in.

“How about his wife, Shishchaya?” he asks.

Not a good question. “May her name and her memory be eradicated!” they answer, spitting again.

So he asks about her child. Good news and bad news. Shishchaya had a boy. But she had never even bothered to circumcise him.

Rabbi Akiva gets hold of this child, circumcises him and sits him down to learn. The kid just sits there blinking. His skull is so thick, nothing can enter.

Rabbi Akiva is a man of love and compassion for every one of G‑d’s creatures—even tax collectors and their children. What does he do? He fasts for forty days. After forty days, he hears a voice from heaven: “Akiva, you’re fasting for who?”

“Master of the Universe!” Rabbi Akiva shouts out. “Just trust me on this one. Open up the kid’s heart so I can work with him.”

As this is Rabbi Akiva talking, G‑d complies. Next thing you know, the kid is reading Torah like a pro, saying the Shema Yisrael, the Silent Prayer and even Grace After Meals.

As soon as he’s ready, Rabbi Akiva stands him before the congregation. The boy says “Barchu” and they answer him.

Finally, he says kaddish and they answer him, “Amen! Yehei shmeih rabba mevorach!”

The end of the story: The father is released from the barbecue business with a ticket to heaven. We know that because he returned to Rabbi Akiva in a dream to thank him.

The Soul’s Interface

Now, I’m not judging the father who abandoned you. I don’t know the whole story. What I do know is that there are two souls here that need fixing as a result of his parenting, or lack of it: Yours and his. When you fix your parent’s past, you fix your own future.And kaddish is a powerful tool—along with others we’ll get to later—to do just that. It’s a two-way street that runs through the avenues of the heart and mind, right into the soul: When you fix your parent’s past, you fix your own future.

That requires some explanation. Which Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (Tzfat, 16th century), known as the Arizal, provides:5

The first thing you have to know is that we are not like automobiles coming off a factory line. Whatever happens at the Honda plant in Indiana today doesn’t affect my Accord that came off its lines two years ago. But with the people we came from, we are forever connected.

A father can walk out on his kids, but he can’t divorce them. He can’t even truly and completely separate himself from them. And neither can the kids divorce their father. A father is forever a father and a child forever a child, for better and for worse. At the end of the day, the memory of a child is indelibly engraved in the mind of the parent, and the imprint of the parent pervades every cell of the child. Geographically they may be light-years apart, but like entangled subatomic particles, what happens in one immediately affects the other. An essential part of you emerges out of your parents and remains forever connected to them.

The reason for that, the Arizal explains, is because it’s not just chromosomes that you receive from your parents. An essential part of you has not only emerged from out of your parents, but remains forever connected to them. It’s not your soul and it’s not your body. It’s something in a certain way even more important than either of those.

Who are you? In essence, the Arizal taught, you are a divine soul, sent here on a mission. The principal target of your mission is a body of sinews and blood driven by the instincts of self-preservation and gratification. Your soul must enter that body so that it can bring it to realize that it too is divine—and to get it to behave that way.

But how can a divine soul, the ultimate spiritual being, relate to an earthly physical body? The answer is that it’s provided a kind of interface, in the form of a thinking human personality.

Think of the interface between you and the device that’s in your hands or on your desktop as you are reading this. You and that hardware reside in two very different worlds. That’s why companies such as Apple, Google and Microsoft spend billions of dollars designing an elegant interface—a visual and audible means of presenting what’s going on inside that plastic, metal and silicon box—that is meaningful, intuitive and speaks to you, while efficiently driving its hardware within.

As a human being, you have a similar interface, and it’s not just your physical brain. Your divine soul operates through the medium of a human mind and heart that is capable of seeing beyond instinct and immediate gratification, a being that can hear what the divine soul is trying to say and be inspired by it. Yet at the same time it’s a human mind and heart, very much a part of this world. It acts as the go-between, reining in the beast while teaching it to conform to the vision of the Divine soul.

Fixing Upstream

Here’s the hitch: While the body is a product of Mom and Dad’s DNA, and the soul is a forever Divine piece of business handpicked by the Creator to fulfill its particular mission on the planet, this intelligent interface that is at the guts of your personality, this is something, the Arizal teaches, that emerges from the inner mental and spiritual state of your father and mother at the time of conception.

Whoa, you’re saying, that might not be a good deal, because my parents’ mental and spiritual state at the time they were making me might not have been so healthy. No matter how great the divine soul that breathes within you, it’s still needs that interface.Or worse. Yes, that is the problem. No matter how great the divine soul that breathes within you, if it doesn’t have a clear pathway to the human animal in which it is invested, it’s going to be riding a bucking bronco without saddle or reins.

That was the problem of the little child of the tax collector in Rabbi Akiva’s story. His body was healthy. His Divine soul was perfect, as every Divine soul must be, and all its programming was there in place. It’s just that because of who his parents were, how they behaved and where their heads were at, the interface between that soul and the body was a disaster. Torah could not enter, and prayer could not come out.

But there’s a fix. Because the personalities of child and parents remain networked. Which means that the direction you take in life affects your father’s state. And vice-versa: Once the things are fixed upstream, the water runs downstream crystal clear.

Kaddish is one way of accomplishing that. People assume that kaddish is a prayer for the dead, or some way of honoring them. Read the words, and you’ll see it has nothing to do with that. When you say kaddish for a parent, you are leading the community in declaring the greatness of their Creator. By doing so, you’re picking yourself up to a whole new level.

The same with learning Torah, giving charity, or any other mitzvah you now do. You’re not doing it for him—you’re doing it to illuminate your own inner self, you’re doing it to lift up your entire world. And by doing so, you’re affecting your father, fixing the problem at its source.

That’s what Rabbi Akiva was out to do with this boy. He had to extricate him from the pit of thick, gooey mud in which he had been born. He had to be circumcised, taught Torah, and become a leader in prayer. In the place of all the darkness his father had brought into the world, he had to bring tremendous light. He had to become a different person, the opposite of who his father had been—and through that, automatically, his father’s soul was able to find respite.

Because the two are really one. Just as the son was messed up by his father’s life, so the son was able to fix up his father by changing that life his father had given him.

Do It Now

Everything in this world, the Arizal taught, is a two-way street. Everything in this world is a two-way street. And that’s something to celebrate.Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until a parent is gone to know what you’ve got—and to do something about it.

Yitz, your father may be gone, but your mother is still with you. When you provide her with the most valuable things a child can give to a parent—respect, honor, love and dignity—your own persona rises higher along with hers.

There are those who feel their parents don’t deserve that respect—and, in some cases, they may be right. Some people have abusive parents. Some need to stay far away from home. Some even have to avoid all communication.6

Yet despite all that, we’re never passive victims of this universe. The same One who deals the cards is the same One who gives us the opportunities to win. We may not be able to change the people around us directly, but we can do our best to fix ourselves, our attitude and how we treat others. When we do that, all those connected to us move up a notch, in this world and in the next. And it all bounces back to the place from which it came.

There’s a lot to celebrate. The whole universe is in your hands.