Discover more from Rationalist Judaism
The Value of Participating in a Mishnayos Siyum
A wonderful person that I am privileged to know, Mrs. Mollie Fisch of Teaneck, sent me a gentle critique of the post before last, in which I deprecated the value of making a siyum mishnayos for someone who has passed away. It's a fabulous piece, so I am posting it in its entirety:
Rav Natan, I like the idea of a chesed siyyum, and this is not the first time I have heard of something of this nature.
But back to basics: please consider thinking about the whole tehillim-mishnayot situation from an alternate, and perhaps even a Rambam type perspective.
I think your motivation in dispelling the magical thinking of aliyat haneshama and direct intervention is at least partly propelled by your concern that some "charitable institutions" are convincing others to hand over money so that they will send a team of rabbinical students to pray until the walls cave in, to effect a change in someone's destiny, or push up someone's neshama to a higher realm. Clearly, it is also important to you to present the truth of the matter as a scholar. I sympathize with that effort, but I also think that your battering away at the issue so persistently may cause you to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
From a scholarly standpoint going back to chazal, I recognize that my saying tehillim for a stranger or a friend does not really effect a magical cure or evoke the perfect zivug for a single. Saying mishnayot in someone's memory is not going to cause their neshama to bounce around. (You may recall that I once sent you a poem about the neshama as a pinball.) But it does serve some very important purposes:
1. It makes me more sensitive to the people around me, makes me aware of the struggles we all face in life, puts my own life into perspective, and hopefully builds my character (much as the Rambam says about prayer) in a kedusha-laden atmosphere where I cannot help but know Who is really in charge. It also says "kol Yisrael chaverim." Connection is very important, especially in troubling times. To me, that's the real meaning behind "v'lo ra-iti tzaddik ne-ezav..." - connection leads us to engage in chesed.
2. For the needy person on the receiving end of tehillim, it says "You are not alone, someone cares enough about you to say tehillim on your behalf. You matter, your name is your identity, and even if our only connection is being two Jews, you are part of a community." That's a chizuk giving mechanism in itself, and who doesn't benefit from chizuk?
3. If I commit to learning mishnayot for a friend's relative, or for my daughter in law's parent, it says to the survivor "You are not alone in this dark time. You may have lost your parent/child/spouse, but look at the people who are here for you to support you in your grief." It also commits me to an additional act of "kovea itim" and gives me an opportunity to learn something new or at a deeper level. Again, it helps us both in life, regardless of its effect or lack thereof on the dead.
4. Good people want to DO SOMETHING POSITIVE and to be a part of the process. They cannot perform surgery, turn back the clock, change the history of the moment, but they can do chesed, cook a meal, take care of the laundry or the kids -- and they can also pray/say tehillim/learn/ TO SHOW THEY CARE. Nothing wrong with that, is there? It creates a zone of comfort for the patient/family/survivor that is very reassuring through a difficult process. I have been on the receiving end, and it is indeed helpful..
That's my message to you for today, not really a post, but if you find it of interest, feel free to use it in whole or part.
And here is the poem that she sent me a few years ago:
Is a dead parent’s neshama like a pin ball?
Or a glob of virtual matter in a computer game, that dislodges from a wall
And moves a step higher at our click?
Bounces to higher and higher numbers, setting off flashing lights?
Each time their child learns with intent, makes a Kiddush, gives Tsedaka,
Says Kaddish, performs a special mitzvah ---
Does that cause that neshama to have an aliya?
To reach impossible heights?
Is it a trick?
Do we have that control?
Can we truly enhance the fate of that soul?
Can we send that neshama mi-chayil el choyil?
(Or, perhaps, if we fail, even cause it to fall? )
It seems a bit strange, don’t you think
That we can cause it to rise – and maybe to sink?
That after all those years of parenting, of nurturing
Their final ascent would be cast in our hands?
How can we understand?
Who gave us the right to fly that kite?
Perhaps it is our own neshama that we guide
Perhaps our parent’s neshama will choose to come along on that ride
Perhaps a gentle soul smile will shine upon us in our deed
For nurturing the blossom for which they planted the seed
Our response is important, respect and devotion
To honor our dear ones with deeds and emotion.
We pray those neshamot will not float alone
Ribono shel Olam, please welcome them home