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Parshas Ki Tisa (Parah) 5773

Come Again? Reincarnation in Judaism

Many people are surprised when they hear that gilgul neshamah (reincarnation) - the religious or philosophical concept that the soul, after biological death, will sometimes begin a new life in a new body depending on the moral quality of the previous life's actions – is part of Jewish tradition. Nevertheless, it's mentioned in numerous places throughout the classical texts of Jewish mysticism, and especially in the main Kabbalistic work, the Zohar: “As long as a person is unsuccessful in his purpose in this world, the Holy One, blessed be He, uproots him and replants him over and over again.” (Zohar I 186b)

As Yaakov Astor writes in a brilliant article titled Reincarnation and Jewish Tradition on Aish.com (click here to read the full article), the Zohar and related literature are filled with references to reincarnation, addressing such questions as which body is resurrected and what happens to those bodies that did not achieve final perfection, how many chances a soul is given to achieve completion through reincarnation, whether a husband and wife can reincarnate together, if a delay in burial can affect reincarnation, and if a soul can reincarnate into an animal.

He writes further: Reincarnation was an accepted belief by numerous of the great minds underpinning Western civilization. Although Judaism, obviously, does not necessarily agree with all their thoughts and philosophies, nevertheless Plato, for instance (in Meno, Phaedo, Timaeus, Phaedrus, and the Republic), espouses belief in the doctrine of reincarnation. He seems to have been influenced by earlier classic Greek minds such as Pythagorus and Empedocles. In the eighteenth century, the Age of Enlightenment and Rationalism, thinkers like Voltaire ("After all, it is no more surprising to be born twice than it is to be born once") and Benjamin Franklin expressed an affinity for the notion of reincarnation. In the nineteenth century, Schopenhauer wrote (Parerga and Paralipomena), "Were an Asiatic to ask me for a definition of Europe, I should be forced to answer him: It is that part of the world which is haunted by the incredible delusion that a person's present birth is first entrance into life..." Dostoevsky (in The Brothers Karamazov) refers to the idea, while Tolstoy seems to have been quite definite that he had lived before. Thoreau, Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and many others acknowledged and/or espoused some form of belief in reincarnation. It should be noted, however, that some classic Torah authorities, most notably, 10th century authority Saadia Gaon, denied reincarnation as a Jewish tenet (Emunos V'Deyos 6:3).

The concept of gilgul neshamah has been used by the great Kabbalists to explain why bad things happen to good people (i.e. they are being punished for bad things they did in previous lives) and many other deep mysteries of life.

It also helps to explain a strange episode in this week’s Torah portion. The Jewish people have just worshipped the Golden Calf and G-d tells Moses that He is so angry with the nation that He plans to destroy them and start all over again with Moses (see Exodus 32:9-10). Moses prays to G-d to save the Jewish people and to forgive them for their sin of idol worship. He then says to G-d: “…this people has committed a grievous sin and made themselves a god of gold. And now if You would but forgive their sin! – but if not, erase me from Your book that You have written” (ibid. verses 31 and 32).

The Bible commentators all have a difficulty understanding what Moses thought he would gain by telling G-d to “erase” him from His book (by taking his life, I presume). How would that help the Jewish people (or Moses) by having his name erased?

The Midrasho Shel Sheim explains Moses’ strange request to have his name erased from G-d’s book based on the aforementioned concept of reincarnation. The mystics teach that Moses was a gilgul of Noach, who had failed to pray on behalf of his generation in order to save them from the Great Flood. He thus had to come back again as Moses in order to rectify his earlier sin by praying to save the Jewish people after they had worshipped the Golden Calf and were in danger of being annihilated.

Moses said to G-d, “If you don’t save the Jewish people, then - mecheini na – erase me from Your book”, and the mystics explain that the Hebrew words mecheini na contain the exact same letters (mem, ches, nun, yud, nun, alef - but in a different order) as the words miNoach ani – which mean “I am from Noach”. Moses was thus saying to G-d that He had to save the Jewish people, for if not, then Moses’ entire return to this world would be for naught and his name might as well be erased!

The concept of reincarnation is the key to understanding many of the events that happen in our lives and the many people with whom we cross paths during our soul’s journey here on earth.

In fact, Rabbi Chaim Vital writes in his book Shaar HaGilgulim (The Gate of Reincarnations) that every interaction that we have in this world with another human being is based on a previous interaction we had in a different life that we need to rectify.

If only we knew exactly the things we did in a previous incarnation, then we would better understand the things that are happening to us in this life, as illustrated in the following story, told by Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman on Ohr Somayach’s “Ask the Rabbi” webpage:

Once, a poor man complained to the Ba’al Shem Tov about his suffering. The rabbi sent him to a certain man in a distant town that might be able to help him. When he arrived and asked directions to the man’s house, one person after another spat and cursed at the mention of his name. Finally he reached the house only to have the door slammed in his face. After pleading with the owner of the house for an explanation, he was told that the man he wants, a terrible miser hated by all, died long ago. Bewildered, the man returned to the Baal Shem Tov and told him what happened. The rabbi looked him square in the eyes and said "the man you were looking for was you!" The man realized the reason for his poverty, and started giving whatever he had to charity. Eventually he was able to give extensively.

Most often we are not privy to the knowledge of what we went through in previous lives, which makes it difficult for us to know what it is that we need to rectify this time around. However, just the knowledge that our soul was here before – albeit in a different body - and that we came back to this world to fix something is an important piece of information that can have a great impact on what we do during our time here on earth.

[I should mention that there were great Kabbalists throughout history who had access to that information, and there are numerous stories over the centuries and millennia about people who were told by Kabbalists important information about their past, and which helped them get through their issues in life. As well, even today there are those who choose to go through “Past Life Regression Therapy” under hypnosis, which they claim helps them discover who they were and what they did in previous lives and what they need to rectify.]

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