Thank you for printing the stimulating exchange between Rabbi Zahavy and correspondent Jeff Bernstein (Letters, May 24 and May 31).
Mr. Bernstein’s comments reflect a major tension inherent in modern religious life. There is an impressive intensity that he invests in solving the mystery of what to believe. However, his need to go beyond the emotional position – which, I submit, is a spiritual position – expressed in prayer, to an urgent need to find a factual type of reality seems misplaced.
The issue is not really whether the angels pray in Aramaic, or whether God needs our prayer, or indeed whether we really do intercede with God when we say prayers in memory of the departed.
There is a deep beauty and need that we humans experience when we try to give to others. When we remember the dead, and when we believe that they might actually need us to help them by doing so, in a way that they are unable now to help themselves; when we think of whatever they have given us, and how can we really express that to them today – religion gives us a means of expressing that. Others may believe they have found more meaningful ways of expressing that gratitude and debt. However, religion gets us started in the right direction, and provides a real reminder that we need to give something of ourselves to remembering those we owe to ourselves to remember on a recurrent basis.
What Judaism and prayers offer is an opportunity to adopt a posture toward life that is ultimately helpful for ourselves. A favorite image I have, on family yahrzeits: they are depending on me to remember them, to “do the right thing,” that just might help them. They’re cheering me on from the silent grandstand. Knowing that I might be doing something for them and that they need me and that actually I need them to need me makes the occasion and the observance “make sense,” which Mr. Bernstein insists upon. Perhaps these thoughts and imaginings will help.