Passing on Merit
From: Marsha in Ann Arbor, MI
I’m familiar with the idea that our good deeds can benefit the souls of the deceased, especially those of our close relatives. The question is how does it work?
Our Sages taught "A son can accrue merit for his (deceased) father", and "A son is like the leg of his (deceased) father". While the rabbis referred generically to a father-son relationship, what they meant is by no means limited to that. As is well known, anyone may benefit any particular soul, and certainly a daughter’s good deeds also accrue merit for her parents. This is referred to as being like a leg of the deceased because one who does good deeds to merit the deceased extends the soul into this world, enabling it to "perform" mitzvot which it otherwise would be unable to do.
Early commentaries explain that this transferring or sharing of merit occurs in a way similar to the relationship between Issachar and Zebulun. The verse, "Zebulun, succeed in your excursions, and Issachar in your tents" (Deut. 33:18, Rashi), refers to a unique partnership in which Zebulun engaged in commerce and supported Issachar’s Torah study, while Issachar in turn shared the merit of his Torah study with Zebulun. In a comparable manner, they explain, we are able to share the merit of our good deeds with the deceased.
However, the comparison is difficult to understand. Issachar and Zebulun had a two-way relationship in which both contributed an active role, whereas doing good deeds for the benefit of the deceased seems only a one-way deal. The Rokeach (Rabbi Elazar of Worms, Germany 1160-1237) reconciles this by saying that G-d "knows the intention of the living and of the dead". This means that if during the deceased person’s lifetime he or she sought to perform acts of kindness, charity, and other mitzvot, particularly regarding close family, then G-d reciprocates the merit of our good deeds to them.
Actually, not only do we benefit the souls of the deceased, they benefit us. When Joseph went to visit his father Jacob on his deathbed, Jacob recalled how he buried Rachel just outside of Beit Lechem (Genesis 48:7). The Midrash says that Joseph was very upset that his mother would not be buried together with Jacob. He asked his father permission to bury her now in Hebron, to which Jacob replied that he too wanted to bury her there but it was G-d’s will that she be buried "on the way" so that she could help her children. When the Temple was destroyed, the Jewish people were taken to exile on the road past Beit Lechem and Rachel wept and pleaded to G-d on their behalf: "Rachel weeps for her children….your work will be rewarded, says G-d, and your children will return" (Jeremiah 31:14-16).
Another example of the deceased benefiting the living occurred when Rabbi Yechiel, the father of the Rosh, once appeared to his wife saying that there would be a massacre the next day. He urged the Jews to leave town immediately, and only those who left that night lived to tell the story.The Zohar says that not only the souls of the righteous pray and strive for our well-being, but even the souls of ordinary Jews, including our deceased relatives, are also aware of our trials and tribulations, and plead to G-d in our favor. This is particularly so, according to the Zohar, on Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment.
In conclusion, I’d like to share the following true story that illustrates the connection between the living and the dead: The deceased husband of a woman in my family appeared to his wife in a dream. He was in a dark room and was shouting "I can’t see, I’m shrouded in darkness. Give me light, I can’t see". The woman, who woke up very upset, told her son about the dream but neither of them could figure out what it meant. Several days later, the son happened to visit the synagogue to which years earlier they donated the ner tamid (eternal light) in memory of the husband. The synagogue was under repair and the lamp had been disconnected. The son fixed the lamp and after a few days the husband reappeared in a dream, only this time he was smiling and basking in light.
- Succat Shalom, Ch. 2
- Sanhedrin 104a, Eruvin 70b
- Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 621
- Rashi and Ramban on Genesis 48:7
- Chida, Seder HaDorot, entry on Rabbi Yechiel father of the Rosh
- Zohar, Lech Lecha 81a, Teruma 142a