October 5, 2022
The Wind Phone (Yom Kippur Yizkor 5783)
The Wind Phone
Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, Yom Kippur Yizkor 5783
In a beautiful garden, at the foot of a mountain, just off the coast in northeastern Japan, there is a telephone booth. It’s the old-fashioned British kind -- if you’ve seen Dr. Who, you know what I mean. Inside sits an old, black, rotary phone. This phone never rings. And if you pick it up, there is no dial tone. Yet every year, thousands of people move heaven and earth to travel there, making their way along a steep and unmarked path so they can stand in the booth for a few minutes, lift the receiver, and speak into the silence.
The phone booth belongs to a man named Itaru Sasaki. In 2010, Mr. Sasaki’s cousin died, and he was seeking a way to remain connected to him. So he set up the phone booth in his garden. It was a place where he could go to continue their relationship; to say the things he still needed to say. He explains: “Because my thoughts could not be relayed over a regular phone line, I wanted them to be carried on the wind.”1 He called it “the Wind Phone.”
This was an ingenious and powerful ritual all on its own. But the following year, something terrible and remarkable happened.
First, the terrible. On March 11, 2011, a tsunami struck, wiping most of the neighboring town off the map. 10 percent of the population -- some 1600 people -- died.2 Even today, hundreds remain missing.
And now the remarkable:. Word got out about Mr. Sasaki’s wind phone. People began to make their way to his garden to spend time in the booth and speak with their loved ones who had died or gone missing. Over time, the phone booth became a site of pilgrimage -- not only for those who survived the tsunami, but also for others in mourning. Word spread further and further, and as of 2019, Mr. Sasaki estimates that over 35,000 people from around the world have made their way into his garden to stand there and speak into the wind.
Mr. Sasaki explains: the fact that the phone is difficult to reach is part of why it works. “It is intentional that there are no signs, no maps and no guides telling you how to get here,” he says “It’s in the very act of wandering . . . that people end up thinking about many things, reformulating their memories of the person they have lost.” As a result of the time spent searching, he says, “They get here in a fuller and more aware state. They are ready.”3
Are we ready?
Ten days ago, on Rosh HaShanah, we set out on a journey together along the path to atonement and renewal. It’s been a long haul. The prayer, the fasting, the searching of our souls -- all of these serve to wear down our defenses, and help break our hearts open so that at this moment, at Yizkor, we are finally prepared to stand before God just as we are, and say what it is we need to say.
I think there is a reason that we pray Yizkor not only on Yom Kippur, but also during Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. These are all pilgrimage festivals. Like Mr. Sasaki, our ancestors understood that there is something sacred about taking a journey. Something that transforms us and prepares us to meet the moment.
These festivals were also the moments when we could count on gathering in community. Three times a year, Jews from far and wide would arrive on foot in Jerusalem, each bearing their own offering. As Rabbi Josh Weinberg points out, “In the days when a lit torch provided the bulk of inter-village communication, the pilgrimage was a source of social interaction, a time to share stories of success and failure, and to see those with whom one did not regularly come into contact.”4 Although the commandment to make the journey applied to each person as an individual, the experience was one of connection to something much bigger.
As beautiful as it was for Mr. Sasaki to honor his cousin by standing in his own garden and speaking into the wind, the power of the wind phone didn’t really take hold until others began to use it. Like Yizkor, and like the act of pilgrimage itself, its power is both personal and communal. Each of us walked in here today bearing our own offerings. Some of our hearts are full; some are broken. But in a few minutes, when we pray our memorial prayer, we can look around this room at all of the other people and know that we are not alone.
Some people who visit Mr. Sasaki’s wind phone pick up the receiver and use its old rotary dial, entering a number they long ago committed to memory. The last number at which they could reach their loved ones. Some offer updates on their life -- who got married or got a new job, how their kids are doing in school. And some just stand and listen, blinking away tears or allowing them to fall, as they imagine the voice they most wish to hear on the other end of the line.5
Sometimes, the voices we need to hear may surprise us. This year, the voice that has been accompanying me has been that of my dear friend and mentor, Judge Robert Katzmann, who died a little over a year ago. I only clerked for the Judge for one year, over 20 years ago. And yet, his support and compassion remained a constant in my life. The Judge didn’t have kids, and so his family of clerks came to understand that we were a part of his legacy. He would do anything for us. He wrote my recommendation for rabbinical school. When I began leading the community service here as an intern, he came to hear my sermons and stand with me at the ark for Kol Nidre. And one day, after I had helped him to bury his father, he asked me if I would officiate at his funeral, someday, too. It broke my heart to say yes, but it was the honor of a lifetime to accompany him in his final days.
The Judge had such a distinctive sounding voice, and so often this year, I’ve found myself bringing his voice to mind, imagining him offering me encouragement or delivering wry commentary on the state of our country. Just as I keep a handwritten note from him in my desk to pull out when I need a boost, lately his voice has been the one I want to hear when I need courage, or a gentle nudge to do the hard thing, or a reminder living a life of service, justice and compassion is perhaps the only goal worth having.
Whose voice do you most wish to hear today? Who do you instinctively reach for the phone to call when something important happens? When you’re feeling lost or your dreams have come true? Whose voice do you summon when you need a pep talk? Who do you hear cheering you on, with pride and joy that transcends the border that separates life and death?
Because now is the time.
Whether you made pilgrimage here today just for this moment or were simply swept here by the currents that carry us through this sacred day, your journey has led you here. To this garden of memory we call Yizkor.
So let’s take a deep breath. And if you are comfortable, perhaps even close your eyes. Imagine you are standing in a garden, with the smell of the sea in the air. There is a phone booth there. You walk in, and on a shelf is a phone. Perhaps it is an old rotary phone, or a wall-mounted phone from your teenage years, with an extra-long cord stretched out from hours of talking. Or the phone you keep in your pocket with your loved one’s name still saved in the Contacts. Imagine picking it up. On the other end of the line is the person or people you need to talk to most at this moment.
Take a minute in silence now, to hear that voice or to say what it is you need to say. And if you don’t have any words, just open your heart and allow your love to be lifted toward the heavens on the wind.
1Miki Meek, This American Life, “One Last Thing Before I Go,”: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/597/transcript
2Jessica Hester, “Japan’s Wind Phone is a Site to Meditate on Life and Loss,” Bloomberg, Jan. 10, 2017. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-10/japan-s-wind-phone-is-a-site-to-mediate-on-life-and-loss
3Laura Imai Messina, “How Japan’s Wind Phone Became a Bridge Between Life and Death,” March 17, 2021: https://lithub.com/how-japans-wind-phone-became-a-bridge-between-life-and-death/
4Rabbi Josh Weinberg, “A Pilgrimage for Our Day,” Union for Reform Judaism, October 8, 2014: https://urj.org/blog/pilgrimage-our-day
5Miki Meek, This American Life, “One Last Thing Before I Go,”: https://www.thisamericanlife.org/597/transcript