In his May 24 letter, Jeff Bernstein asserts that “we are rewarded and/or punished for our own deeds and not for what anyone else does. My parents’ place in the World to Come does not depend in the least on what I or anyone does on their behalf.” In actuality, while Mr. Bernstein’s first sentence is accurate, his second sentence does not follow from the first, and it is not correct.
When we conduct ourselves in a good and holy way, do good deeds, and yes, say Kaddish for our parents, we demonstrate that our parents were successful in passing Jewish ideals to their children. It is our demonstration of their merit that confirms and raises their place in the World to Come, not what we do on their behalf. In other words, the very fact of our desire to honor our parents by saying Kaddish for them is a sign of their good work in raising their children. And conversely, our neglect or unwillingness to say Kaddish would be a sign of their failure.
So yes, Mr. Bernstein’s parents’ place in Olam HaBah depends strictly on their own deeds; and Mr. Bernstein’s actions in this world are a clear demonstration of his parents’ deeds, at least in the area of child raising and fulfilling the mitzvah of teaching your children.
Dear Rabbi, Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, responds:
My intent in my column is to encourage an open, nondenominational, and non-judgmental discussion of basic Judaic issues. So I am grateful for the Talmudic questions from Mr. Bernstein and Mr. Sutton. Both writers take prayers seriously, and they raise legitimate concerns. I wish I could give Mr. Bernstein a clearer description of how prayer affects God’s decisions. Our great philosophers and theologians agree on the one hand that our prayer does not force God to act. Belief that prayer compels God would be a heresy that equates prayer with magic. Yet our great minds are equally sure that God hears our prayers and takes them into account in determining our fate. Note well that the members of our congregations may have personal beliefs on this matter that are not based on our official theology or philosophy but are to them equally valid and meaningful.
On the second question, the idea that angels sing praises to God is biblical, as for example in Psalm 148. I confess to a lack of further expertise in matters between God and his angels.
Mr. Sutton’s meaningful and personal theological explanations remind me once again that ordained rabbis do not have an exclusive franchise on our theology. Members of the community at large can be a great source of creative insights.
Please continue to write in to Dear Rabbi and agree or disagree. I look forward to reading more of your questions, insights, and challenges.