I was recently confronted with the idea that one’s departed parents continue to live in the form of a soul in Heaven, that they are aware of what their surviving children do for good or for bad, and that “Jewishly speaking”, the children’s actions have an effect on their parent’s status in the World to Come. Quite frankly, I find this to be strange and wonder if it’s not an attempt to use people’s love and respect for their parents to manipulate them to observe or to part with their money.
Ancient, authoritative Jewish sources are replete with the idea that a person’s soul, that which animates his body while alive, continues to exist in the spiritual plane after death. And yes, these souls are very much aware of the deeds of their progeny, primarily because they affect the soul’s experience of reward and punishment, i.e., spiritual stagnation or progression.
The reason for this is because while a person’s deeds when alive determine his place and trajectory in the World to Come, after death it’s too late for him to do anything. Nevertheless, those he leaves behind, whose deeds are affected by the influence he had on them, are his continuation in this world, which in turn affect his state in the Soul World for good or for bad.
This is not social manipulation to promote an agenda of observance and alms, but rather a genuine, Divinely-inspired truth which is altruistically motivated to benefit a person and his departed loved ones in this world and the next.
The following Talmudic source (Kala Rabati, ch. 2) is one of many which illustrate this point and is the source for a mourner’s leading prayer services and saying kaddish for his deceased parents:
Rabbi Akiva went to a certain place where he saw the departed soul of a person who was walking with great difficulty carrying a load on his shoulders while screaming and groaning. He asked him, “What did you transgress?” He replied, “There wasn’t a sin I didn’t transgress and now there are watchmen over me and they don’t let me rest.” Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Did you leave behind a son?” He replied, “By your life! Don’t delay me with your questions for I am in dread of the angels that hit me with rays of fire and they say to me, ‘Go faster!’”. He asked again, “Who did you leave behind?” He replied, “I left behind a pregnant wife.”
Rabbi Akiva went to the town of the deceased. He asked the people there, “Where is the son of that person?” They replied, “May his memory be blotted out and his bones crushed.” He asked, “Why?” They replied, “He was a hoodlum who robbed people and distressed the populace. In addition, he had illicit relations with a betrothed woman on Yom Kippur.” Rabbi Akiva besought the pregnant woman and waited until she gave birth to a son. He circumcised the boy, and when he grew older he placed him in the synagogue to pray for the congregation. Sometime later Rabbi Akiva went to the place where he had originally seen the soul. The soul appeared to him at ease and told him, “May your mind be put at ease for you have put my mind at ease”.
In a true story of modern times, there was a very righteous woman who generously supported charities, particularly needy Torah scholars. One day, as she was traversing the streets while collecting funds for these charities, a particular man stopped her asking what she was so preoccupied with. After she explained, he produced a checkbook, appointed witnesses to the transaction, and wrote her a huge sum, instructing her to cash the check at a specific bank branch.
When she arrived at the bank asking to cash a check of such a sum, she was immediately brought before the manager. When he saw the check, he fainted. After he came to, he demanded to know who gave her the check and when. After she explained, he fainted again. When he came to, he explained that three consecutive nights, his father, who had been the bank manager before passing away, came to him in a dream imploring him to correct his ways and to give charity on his behalf. And if not, the family wealth would pass to another. But the banker refused to take this warning seriously.
The banker further noted that the night before she arrived at the bank, his father appeared, admonishing him, and commanding him to honor a check that would be brought before him by a woman on the morrow. When he questioned the woman about the appearance of the man who gave her the check, her description matched that of the banker’s father. But if it weren’t for the witnesses, it is doubtful that anyone would have accepted her version. The story itself was made known by the illustrious R’ Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, who was actually one of the witnesses!