Yizkor, When The Dead Remember Us


The dead are gone but they don’t leave. They populate our dreams, coincidences, illusions, and hallucinations. They show up in hospitals, Sinai battlefields, even in concentration camps where there were no shortage of souls. Survivors say lives were saved through a parent’s instruction even after their mother or father went up in smoke. Sometimes a burning bush is just a burning bush, or can you hear God in the crackling?

Judith Leventhal, co-author with Yitta Halberstam of “Small Miracles From Beyond: Dreams, Visions, and Signs That Link Us to the Other Side” (Sterling Ethos), says that even when she speaks to certain religious audiences she encounters skepticism. She asks in return, “Why do we say Kaddish? Why do we say Yizkor?” The origins can be traced to core Talmudic beliefs, says Leventhal. “What we do here has an impact on them,” the dead. “And what they can do has an impact on us. There is two-way communication,” perhaps muted but always there. Akiba, the Talmudic icon, famously taught how the call-and-response of Kaddish alleviates even a dead person’s worst punishment, elevating a soul in the Other World. Similarly, as will be said in Yizkor at Passover’ end, Yizkor is linked to the giving of charity in that soul’s behalf, to illuminate God’s “remembering” of them and us.

“Souls move on,” says Leventhal, “but souls never stop loving, or sending love. The more you’re open to that, the more your antennae is able to pick the signals.” If your radio is broken, does that mean that the air is not full of radio waves carrying songs and news? If your spiritual radio is picking up nothing but static, does that mean there’s nothing to pick up?

The Zohar, the most fundamental work of Jewish mysticism, write Halberstam and Leventhal, “tells us that if it were not for the intercession of our loved ones residing above, our world below could not endure for even a moment.” Souls “come down” to participate in births and weddings, as in the tradition of visiting a cemetery and inviting the souls to join in the celebration, in that world and this.

A biblical example of the dead taking an interest in the living is the prophecy that our exiles would one day pass Rachel’s grave, where our Mother would cry and intercede for the exiles, comforting them.

“Small Miracles From Beyond” is the eighth book in the series that began in 1997 with “Small Miracles: Extraordinary Coincidences From Everyday Life.” Both Halberstam and Leventhal come from generations of Orthodox nobility, and live in the heart of Orthodox Brooklyn. Yet the books have had even stronger sales outside the Orthodox community than in it. The series has sold nearly two million copies, reprinted in China, Thailand, Turkey, Greece, and nearly a dozen other countries. The “miracles” in the book are not Jewish alone.

The “Small Miracles” series revolve around what might seem as just coincidence, but there is nothing random in the mystical world. Classical Judaism considers everything, even the flutter of a leaf, to be in Heaven’s domain. Like the Purim Megillah, in this book’s brief stories God is often hidden, with miracles best understood in hindsight. Of course, every story of survival is highly personal, a solitary psalm all its own, but no less holy and miraculous for that. In hindsight, meaning is everywhere. As the Polish poet Wislawa Szynborska wrote of the Holocaust, “You survived because you were first. You survived because you were last. Because alone. Because the others. … Because it was raining. Because it was sunny. Because a shadow fell. Luckily there was a forest. Luckily there were no trees. … Luckily a straw was floating on the water.”

Or because your mother — your dead mother — visited you in a Sobibor dream. In a story from the next book in the series, “Small Miracles for Women,” to be published this month, a woman named Esther tells of internment in Sobibor. Her parents and brother were dead. Fearing the inevitable, she joined with those plotting the Sobibor revolt. The night before the revolt, she fell into a restless, hallucinatory sleep in which she saw her dead mother enter Sobibor. In her dream, her mother showed her where to go when escaping, beyond the barbed wire, through the forest to a specific barn near Chelm. “Here you’ll go, and here you’ll survive.” Then her mother vanished. Esther awoke and told the dream to a friend who was unimpressed. Why escape to Chelm, a Nazi stronghold, 10 hours away by foot? Why not go east, or join partisans in the forest?

Part of the reason Jews are skeptical of souls coming to us in dreams is, in the Talmud, our sleep is considered one-sixtieth of death, our dreams one-sixtieth of prophecy, and that fraction is the Talmudic line where reality and illusion blur. The fraction is intriguing but too low to be binding.

Nevertheless, the day after the dream, 300 prisoners revolted and Esther ran into the forest. She had to find the barn in the dream. Many days later, following her mother’s navigation, there it was. She slept in the hay. At dawn she sensed a figure in the barn’s dark corner. It was her brother Yidel, alive.

“And in that barn,” write the authors, “thanks to the loving guidance of a mother who watched over her children from a world beyond, Esther and Yidel hid safely” until the war’s end.

Says Halberstam, “You can say that someone has a psychic ability, or an intuition, but this woman was given specific instructions. How could Esther possibly have known” how to get to that exact barn, 35 miles away, on her own?

One woman told the authors how she was visited twice by her father and once by her uncle, telling her to buy jugs of water. A rather mundane instruction, but not seven months later when a natural disaster knocked out her city’s water supply. Another woman tells of being in Auschwitz, awaiting the selection for life or gas, when her mother, from whom she had been long separated by the Shoah, helped her daughter run off into relatively safe barracks. The daughter later discovered that her mother had been murdered long before that moment. The daughter, Hindy Rosenberg, told the authors, “But I saw her clearly … . If she hadn’t signaled me to escape, I never would have tried.”

Although the Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson is not quoted by name, the authors quote the rebbe’s teaching on “the first law of thermodynamics [that] states that no energy is ever lost or destroyed; it only assumes another form. If physical energy never dissipates and instead is recycled, what shall we assume about spiritual energy, the energy of [life, when its] existence is not limited by time, space, or any of the other delineators of the physical state?” A chasidic text, Ma’aneh Lashon, based on the Zohar, details the power of the dead to assist the living, even a court of appeals-style system, when if your immediate relatives are unable to help, perhaps another elevated soul, or even the Patriarchs and Matriarchs can.

Halberstam says, the soul of a departed “hovers around the home while the family is sitting shiva. And we escort the soul out of the house, when we walk around the block” at shiva’s end.

Of course, much remains a mystery. Why are some souls more active than others? Where do souls come from, and where do they go? Before birth, says the Talmud, the baby is educated in his or her soul’s mysteries by the angels, what Reb Shlomo Carlebach called “the yeshiva of the nine months,” and the soul continues with its mysteries beyond his or her earthly time. In Yizkor, advised Reb Shlomo, “it happens fast,” when the veil between this world and the Other World opens, so “open your hearts.”

And the souls might ask, in the words of the Grateful Dead, “Would you hear my voice come through the music? Would you hold it near as it were your own?”