Once Rabi Akiva, while traveling through a wilderness, was startled to hear a voice crying out in such agony. He immediately knew that this was not a human voice, but rather the cry of one who had passed on.
Looking about, he beheld an old man, carrying on his back a great bundle of wood and bent beneath its weight, moaning in agony.
“Oh, suffering soul, what terrible deeds you must have done in your life to be punished so.”
“What you say is true,” answered the soul. “For I violated all of G-d’s commandments and this is my punishment.”
“Perhaps I can help you,” said Rabi Akiva. “Have you any children?”
“There is one son who was born to my wife but he knows nothing about Judaism.”
Rabi Akiva left the wretched soul and proceeded to go to the town where the man’s wife and son lived.
Stopping before a man he asked the whereabouts of the family. When the man heard the name of the soul, he cried: “I never want to hear the name of that wicked scoundrel! He was the blackest blot on the name of this town with his sins and evil deeds.”
Nevertheless, Rabi Akiva found the woman and saw that her son was indeed ignorant. With the mother’s permission, he circumcised the son and began to teach him all that a Jewish child should know.
When he was old enough, he taught him to say kaddish. He then took him into the beit midrash and said: “Now remember that you are saying kaddish for your father who has departed this world. Through your kaddish your father may be saved from suffering in the World To Come.”
The son then rose and in a small, clear voice slowly said the holy words of the kaddish. The words rose swiftly to the heavens and pierced the iron curtain separating Jews from their Father in Heaven.
Some time later, Rabi Akiva was passing through the same desolate area and whom should he see but the same soul.
How different he looked, however! This time serenity was noticeable on his face, and Rabi Akiva knew that the kaddish that the son had said for his father had succeeded in freeing him from the punishments that his own conduct had deserved.