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The Wind Telephone – Yizkor 5777

Back in the year 2010, a 70-year-old Japanese gentleman by the name of Itaru Sasaki lost his beloved cousin. Finding that he needed a place to air his grief and connect to the one he had loved so deeply, Sasaki developed an unconventional solution – he took an old fashioned, British-style phone booth painted white, installed it in his backyard, placed within it a black rotary phone connected to nothing, and began using the device to converse with the dead. In an interview with This American Life’s Miki Meek, Sasaki explained: “Because my thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on wind.” He named his creation, most aptly, the wind telephone.

Fast forward one year later and, as many of us will remember, a terrible tsunami devastated Japan resulting in close to 19,000 individuals either killed or missing. Sasaki’s small town of Otsuchi, located on the northeastern coast of the country, was amongst the hardest hit areas with over 400 people dead or unaccounted for out of a population of about 12,000. Suddenly, Sasaki was far from the only one seeking a way to connect with those whom telephone wires could no longer reach. Over the last five years it is estimated that over 10,000 people have come to make use of his unusual booth – many traveling for hours on end in order to do so.

In a program entitled “One Last Thing Before I Go,” Meek received permission to record the conversations of visitors to the wind telephone and listeners were given entrée into these most intimate of monologues. Many of the exchanges are quite matter-of-fact: “Hi, Grandpa. How are you? I’ll be in fourth grade next semester. Wasn’t that fast?” “I finished all my homework. Everyone is doing fine.” Many of the exchanges are quite poignant. “[My son,] please let me hear you call me Papa. Even though I built a new house, without all of you it’s meaningless. I want to hear you reply but can’t hear anything. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry I couldn’t save you.” And the vast majority of the calls, according to Meek, contain one of two Japanese expressions which essentially mean “Don’t worry about us” and “I’m doing my best to get by” respectively. Reassurance. Regret. News of the everyday and also – of course – the exceptional. There are so many things we’d like to say to those who are no longer with us. We, too, wish for words carried on the wind.

This afternoon we gather for Yizkor, reciting prayers of honor and tribute for those whom we have loved and lost. While we may wish to be able to speak with our loved ones, now departed, most every day, this feeling of longing is somehow heightened at holiday time when families join together and mark the passing of another year, when we find ourselves back in synagogue practicing the customs they so cherished, when grand-children are a little bit older and we ourselves a little bit grayer, when it’s impossible not to remember sweet days of yore when they sat beside us at shul or around the Yom Tov (holiday) table. Perhaps on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, especially, as we evaluate our lives and our deeds, examining our successes and our shortcomings, we think of them and the various ways they’d be both proud and disappointed, the advice they might give, the encouragements they might offer, the unconditional love that would undoubtedly support us along the way. There are just so many things that we’d like to be able to tell them.

In certain ways, the Yizkor service soon to begin is our tradition’s version of a wind telephone. I mean this not in a supernatural way – I don’t imagine that the heavens are more open at this hour or that a special portal to the dead reveals itself when we begin these sacred words; I believe that we can talk to our loved ones at any time and in any place and I know that many of us do so with some regularity. But just like the visitors to Otsuchi often found closure or healing or release in making this particular pilgrimage, I think that there is a power to Yizkor – in knowing that we’re not alone in our grief, in having designated space to mourn and to remember, in affirming that love and human relationship transcend even the limits of mortality. We come to Yizkor seeking comfort and strength. Most of all, we come seeking a sense of connection to those whom we have loved and lost.

The This American Life program during which Sasaki’s story was told, had as its theme the power of words in the face of death, and this idea – too – seems to me most appropriate as we stand here during these holy hours of Yom Kippur. While the death that we each stand in the face of today is hopefully less imminent and urgent than that which confronted the people of Otsuchi, we – too – are reminded this day that we are all mortal, dressing ourselves in white kittles that resemble burial shrouds, reciting the Viddui confessionals that mirror those to be said upon our death bed, denying ourselves life sustaining food and drink and asking “Who will live and who will die?” As we know far too well, words cannot forestall death nor can they even necessarily forestall grief and mourning. Still, in the face of loss they are not without their merit.

Judaism is a religion that believes strongly in the power of words. God’s creation of the universe was effected by speech acts – “God said ‘Let there be light’; and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). While teshuvah – the repentance that is so central to this season – is complete only once one has made up for any wrongs committed and turned away from improper behavior, it must also be accompanied by verbal confession and an apology to the aggrieved party – action without words is not enough. Finally, a very large number of the transgressions listed in Yom Kippur’s Al Chet and Ashamnu prayers have to do with the misuse of language as we recite “We have sinned against You in idle chatter” and “we have sinned against You in the way we talk.” “We have sinned against You through foul speech” and “we have sinned against You by speaking ill of others.” Words, Judaism teaches, have the power to create and to destroy. They also have the power to bring healing.

In just a moment we will turn to Yizkor, the sacred liturgy provided to us by tradition along with more contemporary meditations offered by the authors of Machzor Lev Shalem. The prayers that we recite connect us through time and space to other grieving Jews and provide us with that which to say when our own words might fail us; articulating the depth and strength of our love for another is no easy task. I believe, however, that the prayer-book is not necessarily a script to be followed but rather a source-book for inspiration, an anthology from which we have the permission to depart. Yizkor is the time to pick up the receiver and let our words be carried by the wind. It is our time to say what we most fervently wish to say.

I do not know if callers from Otsuchi had any particular success in delivering their heartfelt messages to loved ones, but I do know that visiting Sasaki’s backyard phone-booth was transformative for these grief pilgrims in many ways. “It changed something,” one woman reported. “For the first time since he died, we were able to talk about it as a family,” another one shared. Voicing unexpressed regrets can bring tranquility, unexpressed anger can bring closure, unexpressed sadness can bring healing. And sharing the good stuff – the accomplishments achieved and new babies born, the inside joke that only he would truly have appreciated, the fact that everyone is really doing okay much as we miss her terribly – this, too, can bring a feeling of closeness and comfort. In the words of author Mitch Albom, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.” The conversations between us and our loved ones, now departed, can still be carried on the wind.

And so we turn to Yizkor, picking up the receiver and speaking into the abyss. Whether we use the words of the machzor or substitute our own personal ones instead, whether these heartfelt sentiments are in some way heard by those to whom they are directed or remain for our ears alone – we hope that these quiet moments not only honor our loved ones but also return them to us, if just for a short while. “Come back,” said one of the visitors in Sasaki’s booth. “We will be waiting.”

Zichronam livracha – May the memories of those we recall this day be for a blessing. And may our words always be carried to them on the wind.

Date Posted Title Author
Oct 26, 2016 The Wind Telephone – Yizkor 5777 Rabbi Annie Tucker