Mr. Smith Continued

This is the continuation of Rabbi Stewart Vogel’s article in The Voice – January 2015 issue.


Rabbi Stewart L. Vogel

It was quite strange at Shabbat services reciting Mourner’s Kaddish for Mr. Smith, the apparently restless spirit. As the story went, Mr. Smith died without anyone to say Kaddish for him…no one deserves to be anonymous in death.   As a rationalist, it was difficult for me to believe that reciting the Aramaic words of an ancient prayer could some how effect the posthumous fate of a soul. It just didn’t make sense to me. I had studied the Talmudic section regarding the debate between the famous rabbis Hillel and Shammai over how long to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish and the idea that this prayer helped the soul of our loved ones to transition from this world to the next one.   But I had always preferred the idea that the Mourner’s Kaddish was designed to comfort the bereaved rather than help the soul of the deceased…reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish for Mr. Smith was pushing me out of my rationalist comfort zone. But I had promised this couple that I would recite the prayer, so I did.   I presumed that they would do their part to light the Yahrzeit candle by the phone, that would not stop ringing at night, and so I would do mine.

As days passed into weeks I forgot about my meeting with the couple and saying Kaddish for Mr. Smith, except on a couple of occasions when I shared the story with my closest rabbinic friends. Some humored me and others were intrigued, but none of them had ever prescribed this type of ritual before, but then again…none had been approached about a restless spirit.   Would I ever know about the ultimate fate of Mr. Smith’s restless soul? In truth, the experience more than the end result had freed me as a rabbi. I had been intrigued by the issue of souls and the afterlife for most of my rabbinic life. A friend and classmate of mine even wrote a wonderful book entitled Does the Soul Survive exploring the issue and detailing his personal experiences. But my interest had always been theoretical and now it had entered the world of practical rabbinics. Being freed from my rationalist tendencies was liberating.

About three months later the couple showed up again in my office just as magically as they had first appeared. I had forgotten their names, so when I looked at my schedule for the day, it did not register. Then, like the angels who suddenly appeared at the tent of Abraham, I welcomed them in to my office wondering about their message from “the great beyond.” Had our actions been successful? Had the mischievous activities of Mr. Smith ceased? Was Mr. Smith’s soul finally at rest?

As the couple sat down, my own soul was restless. I immediately asked, “so did it work?”, but they clearly had a story they wanted to tell and weren’t going to share the ending so quickly.

They thanked me for meeting with them months earlier and for giving them the time, especially since they weren’t congregants…tick tock, tick tock. They shared with me how they had taken the yahrzeit candle that I had given them and lighted it next to the phone…tick tock, tick tock…on that night they did not take the phone off the hook as they had for the many previous months…tick tock, tick tock…and they went to sleep praying that the soul of Mr. Smith would be at rest and and his mischievous antics thereby concluded. “We didn’t want to come back right away because we wanted to give it time.” “So did it work?” I asked, my curiosity getting the best of my rabbinic patience. “Well…since lighting the yahrzeit candle that night…the phone doesn’t ring at night, the cuckoo clock no longer chimes at unusual times, and we no longer hear strange noises. Since that night there have been no bizarre occurrences…it appears that Mr. Smith’s soul is now at rest.”

We talked for a little bit longer and they expressed gratitude for everything I had done for them. When they left my office it seemed as if I had just concluded one of the dozens of weekly counseling seesions. One would never know that this would rank up as one of the strangest rabbinic roles I had ever fulfilled.

What do I make of it all? I’m not sure. I’m not quire ready to hang out a shingle declaring “Rabbi to the souls”, but I do know that there is more to life than just this world.

Rest in peace Mr. Smith and thanks.