Conversations on the Wind
Parashat Ha’azinu – Shabbat Shuvah
It’s a weird feeling when you see a rotary phone as part of a history exhibit at a museum. This actually happened to me a few years ago when I took my kids to an exhibit on the History of Communication at the Long Island Children’s Museum, and one of the historical artifacts was a rotary phone. I guess it’s true that you don’t see a lot of rotary phones these days, and you don’t see a lot of phone booths, either. But one man from the Japanese coast has become known around the world for having a phone booth and a rotary phone in his backyard garden.
This isn’t really any old phone, though – not anymore, anyway. The phone belongs to Itaru Sasaki, a 75-year-old garden designer who lives in Otsuchi, Japan. When Sasaki lost his beloved cousin in 2010, he found a unique way to deal with his grief and loss. Having an eye for architecture and design, Sasaki built a glass-paneled phone booth in his garden and placed within it a black rotary phone. The phone wasn’t connected to anything – there was no phone line servicing that phone booth in the middle of the garden – but Sasaki used it for “talking” to his deceased cousin. When feelings of grief and loss would overtake him, Sasaki would go into the phone booth, dial his cousin’s number, and address his cousin over the phone.
Sasaki called the phone “Kaze no Denwa,” “the phone of the wind.” As Sasaki explained, he would speak to his cousin over the phone, and his words would be “carried on the wind.”
Initially, this phone was just for Sasaki to use, to deal with his personal grief. But one year later, Sasaki’s hometown was hit by unimaginable tragedy. In 2011, the town of Otsuchi was hit by the Great East Japan Earthquake and the accompanying tsunami. About 10% of the population of Otsuchi perished in these twin tragedies, including the town’s mayor. After the tsunami, local news outlets began reporting on Sasaki’s telephone. People from all over the grief-stricken region – and then from all over the country – began coming to Sasaki’s garden to talk to their deceased loved ones on his phone. A 2017 article about the wind phone reported that approximately 25,000 people from all over Japan had come to Sasaki’s garden to use the phone.
And the story of the so-called “wind phone” struck a nerve outside of Japan as well. Sasaki’s story has been has been covered by the Washington Post, the BBC, and This American Life, which entitled its piece on the wind phone “Really Long Distance.”
25,000 people have been willing to travel miles and miles to talk on a phone that they know is not connected to anything. Why?
I think that this story speaks to the power that symbols have over us human beings. We’re suckers for symbols.
Sasaki’s phone started out as an ordinary object – but the way that he used it gave it a powerful symbolic meaning. It was just a piece of plastic – an outdated one at that – but by using it as a vehicle for expressing his pain and his longing, Sasaki invested it with deep meaning – and once he did that, other people found meaning in it as well. They found in it a place to put their grief and loss and loneliness, a means for dealing with these painful emotions.
If these people who came to visit Sasaki’s wind phone wanted to believe that their deceased loved ones could hear them speaking over the phone, why didn’t they make a local call? I’m sure they all had phones – why didn’t they stay home in their own living rooms and “call” their deceased relatives from there?
One could ask the same question of us. Why do we need the symbolic objects and places in which we invest so much meaning? Why are we bothering to Livestream this service to you from our Sanctuary? Because this Sanctuary, and the objects in it – the Torah scrolls, the prayer books, the tallitot, the Ner Tamid over the Ark – are all powerful symbols that make our Judaism feel real and significant.
The upcoming holiday of Sukkot is proof positive of how important symbols are in our tradition. It’s not enough for us to thank God for the change in seasons and the richness of the harvest – we have to actually take physical symbols of the harvest – the lulav and etrog – and own them, hold them in our hands, wave them around and march through the synagogue with them so that everyone can see them.
And so, too, for our other holidays. We have a very rich textual tradition, including our Scripture and our liturgy – but words are not enough for us Jews as we recall our history and worship our God. Our holidays would not feel complete to us without the objects, invested with symbolic meaning, that we hold dear – the Seder plate on Passover with its symbolic foods, the Chanukah menorah, the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
The story of Itaru Sasaki has significance for me not just because his “phone to nowhere” is such a powerful symbol, but also because of the very human need it points to – the need to be heard.
At the beginning of this week’s parasha, Ha’azinu, Moshe announces his speech with a memorable statement: “Give ear, O heavens, and I will speak; Let the earth hear the words I utter!”
This announcement gets high points for drama – although it is a little odd, considering that Moshe has already been speaking for about 10 parshas. For a man who supposedly had a speech impediment, he’s been talking up a blue streak. So it does seem a bit strange for him to make a big announcement at this point about how he’s going to be speaking.
The thing is – although Moshe’s speech has been going on for quite some time now, the urgency of his utterance is growing as the end of his life approaches. Moshe needs the Israelites to hear what he is telling them, because they will soon need to proceed into the Promised Land without him and put into practice all the instructions that he has given them.
Rashi points out that Moshe directs the heavens and the earth to listen to his discourse because he wants them to be his witnesses that the people heard all of God’s commandments and agreed to be party to the covenant with God. According to this explanation, the heavens and the earth are good witnesses for Moshe to call upon because they will endure after Moshe is gone.
Rashi explains that after Moshe’s death, if the Israelites fail to heed God’s commandments and God tries to punish them, the Israelites could potentially say, “Well, we never agreed to this covenant you’re referring to” – and Moshe wouldn’t be there to correct them. The heavens and the earth, however, are eternal, and they will be there to testify to the Israelites’ role in the covenant even after Moshe is gone.
Moshe’s reliance on the sky and the earth, elements of nature, to witness his message to the Israelites resonates with the fascinating phenomenon of Itaru Sasaki’s phone. Here, too, the people using this phone realize the limitations of the human life span – like Moshe, their loved ones didn’t live forever. The wind, like the heavens and the earth, is eternal, though – and so they rely on the wind to carry their messages, even though there’s no one physically extant on the other end of the phone line.
Moshe makes a big, dramatic statement at the beginning of Parashat Ha’azinu because what is crucial to Moshe at this point in the story is knowing that he’s being heard – by someone, by something. He has something to say, and he doesn’t want to keep it inside – he needs to get it out, to have it reach its target.
I think that that’s a large part of what’s behind the popularity of Itaru Sasaki’s wind phone as well. For the thousands of people who have traveled to Otsuchi to use the wind phone, what impels them, what motivates them to make this journey and take part in this strange ritual, is that they have something to say. They have a message that needs to get to someone.
For some of those people, maybe what they want to tell their departed friends and relatives is a message of affection. Maybe what they need to say is, “I love you. I miss you. I wish you were still here with me.”
For some people, maybe what they need to express to the departed is a message of anger or regret, borne of a relationship that was unhealthy or that somehow went bad. For others, maybe what they feel the need to share is simply the news of what’s happening back in the land of the living. Maybe what they need to say is, “Here’s what your children and grandchildren are doing. I wish you could see them – you would be so proud.”
Whatever the intended message, for the people driving across Japan to pick up Sasaki’s wind phone, it doesn’t feel like enough for them to say those words in their heads, in their homes. They need something with symbolic power to make those communications feel real. And they’ve found that in the wind phone.
So, as we approach Yom Kippur and we proceed through this holiday season, I have two messages for you, based on what I’ve learned from the strange and fascinating story of the Japanese wind phone, and from Parashat Ha’azinu.
The first is – we love symbols – as humans and as Jews. Lean into that. Find the symbols that are meaningful to you and use them, enjoy them. Purchase a lulav and etrog. Build a sukkah. Take stock of the Jewish symbols you have in your homes and see what needs to be purchased or updated – maybe you need new Shabbat candlesticks or mezuzah for a room where you don’t already have one. Don’t write these symbols off as “just things.” Let these physical embodiments of what we believe and what we hold dear add spirituality to your life and meaning to your days.
The second message is – as we approach Yom Kippur, this great and awesome time of reckoning and soul-searching – take some time to think about who it is that you need to communicate with, who it is that you need to say something to – whether that communication is in-person, over the phone, over email or Zoom – or whether it is carried on the wind.
To whom do you need to make yourself heard? To whom do you need to say “I love you?” Or “I’m sorry?” Or “I’m angry?” Or “Come home – all is forgiven.” Or “Let’s start over.” What do you need to say so that you can start this New Year with a clean slate and an unencumbered heart?
As we begin the New Year, may we all find the courage to speak our truths and to make our voices heard. And may the words that we utter bring peace to our families, to our communities, and to the world.