Once there was a great rabbi named Yekhiel. Reb Yekhiel could discern the deepest truths in a person’s soul just by looking at them. He would gaze at your forehead for a moment, and then tell you the history of your soul in all of its incarnations.
Some people sought him out, wanting to know who they had been before. Others avoided him. Some would pull their hats down over their faces to try to hide from him. Which was ridiculous, because surely a man who can gaze into the history of your soul just by looking at you can also gaze through a bit of leather or cloth!
It was said that Reb Yekhiel turned every day into Yom Kippur. In a good way! Because he was able to see into the depths of people’s souls, and help them understand where they had gone wrong, and how to correct their mistakes in this life.
One year, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, Reb Yekhiel saw an apparition. He recognized the man immediately: it was the cantor who used to chant so beautifully in Reb Yekhiel’s hometown. “What are you doing here?” asked Reb Yekhiel.
“Surely the holy rabbi already knows,” replied the soul of the hazzan. “On Rosh Hashanah, God opens the Book of Life. With every deed, we inscribe ourselves in that book. God looks at our sins and our good deeds, and weighs them both in the balance. Who shall live and who shall die? Who shall be born — and to which family? During this night, souls are also judged to be reincarnated once again. I am just such a soul, about to be reborn.”
“So tell me,” the rabbi asked, “why are you being sent down into the physical world again?”
“The Zohar,” said the ghost of the hazzan, “teaches that when God desires to take back a person’s spirit, all the deeds that person did pass before them. And that’s what happened to me. I looked back on my life and everything I had done was good. When I realized this, I felt tremendous pride! And in that moment, I died. Because of my ego and my pride, the Heavenly Court decreed that I should return to earth.”
Not long thereafter, Reb Yekhiel’s wife gave birth to a son. They named him Zev-Wolf. He was wild and willful. Perhaps he was a bit impish; perhaps he threw temper tantrums when he couldn’t have yogurt pretzels for breakfast; surely he had a good heart.
Reb Yekhiel knew that this was the soul he had seen on Rosh Hashanah night, and that his son’s rebellious ways were connected to the sin of pride which had caused him to reincarnate in the first place. But Zev did not remember.
As wild young Zev neared bar mitzvah, his father commissioned a set of tefillin for him. But he asked the scribe to bring him the little black boxes which would hold the parchments, so that he could pray over them before the scrolls went inside. He took the empty boxes, and as he thought about his beloved son, and about his baggage from his previous life, he began to weep. He wept his prayers and his love and his caring into the boxes. Then he carefully dried them and put the scrolls inside.
From the moment Zev-Wolf put on those holy tefillin, a spiritual transformation came over him. His rebelliousness left him, and he became filled with tranquility and love. Eventually he became a great Hasidic Rebbe, Zev-Wolf of Zbarash, and he is remembered for his deep humility to this day.
I love this Hasidic folktale. And not only because I myself have a beautiful, willful, stubborn son!
When you think about reincarnation, what do you imagine? Maybe your mind goes to Eastern religious traditions. Many Buddhist parables speak of reincarnation, and most of us associate the notion of karma, the impact of our volitional actions which can reach across lifetimes, with Buddhism. But these ideas exist within Judaism, too.
In the oldest forms of Judaism we find belief in the resurrection of the dead. There are frequent references to resurrection in our prayers: the Amidah, for instance, praises God as m’chayyei ha-meitim, “Who gives life to the dead.”
In the early Reform movement, and in the Reconstructionist movement, this was regarded as too supernatural, too far-fetched. Some siddurim changed the words to “Who gives life to all.” Others subtly shifted their understanding of the words: perhaps we praise not God Who enlivens the dead, but God Who enlivens the deadened.
When my son was a few months old and I accepted that what I was suffering was postpartum depression, I began taking antidepressants. The blessing I made over those pills was this same m’chayyei ha-meitim. I prayed for God to enliven that in me which felt deadened. And Baruch Hashem! God did.
But there are other ways of thinking about resurrection in Jewish tradition. One school of thought holds that resurrection is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process. The souls of the righteous are reborn into this world to continue the ongoing process of tikkun olam, healing what is broken in creation.
Some sources hold that reincarnation is routine; others argue that it only occurs in unusual circumstances, such as when a soul leaves unfinished business behind. (The Hasidic folktale I offered a few moments ago takes that latter stance.) One teaching holds that we are each reincarnated enough times to fulfil each of the 613 mitzvot! Reincarnation is one way to explain the traditional belief that we were all present at Sinai when we entered into covenant with God.
Here is a prayer which sits on my bedside table. This is part of the most traditional bedtime Shema liturgy; the translation is by R’ Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
Bedtime Prayer of Forgiveness
You, My Eternal Friend,
Witness that I forgive anyone
who hurt or upset me or offended me –
damaging my body, my property,
my reputation or people that I love;
whether by accident or willfully,
carelessly or purposely,
with words, deeds, thought, or attitudes;
in this lifetime or another incarnation –
I forgive every person,
May no one be punished because of me.
Help me, Eternal Friend,
to keep from offending You and others.
Help me to be thoughtful
and not commit outrage,
by doing what is evil in Your eyes.
Whatever sins I have committed,
blot out please, in Your abundant kindness
and spare me suffering or harmful illnesses.
Hear the words of my mouth and
may the meditations of my heart
find acceptance before You, Eternal Friend
Who protects and frees me. Amen.
I don’t manage to say these words every night, but I try to. And I try to mean them.
If I can think back on my day, and honestly let go of whatever baggage I am carrying — that guy who cut me off in traffic, that woman who sent me an angry email, that thing which angered me — then I can go to sleep feeling lighter, without karmic baggage. It’s like the old adage about not going to bed mad.
And if I should die before I wake, I’ve made my peace with my actions and the actions of others. And if I should live until morning, as please God I hope to do, then I can wake with a clean slate.
Yom Kippur is a rehearsal for the day of our deaths. Today we wear white, like our burial shrouds. (Some wear a white robe called a kittel, in which they will someday be buried.) Today we abstain from food and drink; the dead need neither. And today we say the vidui, the confessional prayers, as we will say on our deathbeds. As Rabbi Shef Gold has written, “For the whole day of Yom Kippur, we act as if it is our last day, our only day to face the Truth, forgive ourselves and each other, remember who we are and why we were born.”
Today is our chance to release all the karmic baggage we haven’t managed to let go in the last year. To set ourselves, and everyone we know, free. Not so that we can die at peace — but so that we can live at peace, with ourselves and with one another.
Rambam, the great medieval philospher and synthesizer of Jewish law, had a great deal to teach about teshuvah. He wrote that teshuvah is only complete when we find ourselves in exactly the same position we were in when we went wrong before, and we make a different choice.
The objection was raised: what happens if the circumstances don’t repeat themselves? What if I can’t make full teshuvah because I never get the chance to re-do that act, those words, that choice?
But Rambam said, ahh, Heraclitus was wrong: you can step into the same river twice. Indeed, we all do, all the time. Teshuvah is possible because we are always returning to the same circumstances in which we previously went wrong.
Rabbi Alan Lew writes,
The unresolved elements of our lives — the unconscious patterns, the conflicts and problems that seem to arise no matter where we go or with whom we find ourselves — continue to pull us into the same moral and spiritual circumstances over and over again until we figure out how to resolve them.
Spiritually we are called to responsibility, to ask, What am I doing to make this recur again and again? Even if it is a conflict that was clearly thrust upon me from the outside, how am I plugging in to it, what is there in me that needs to be engaged in this conflict?
We are always slipping into alienation and estrangement. From God, from our parents, from our children, from what we love, from the source of meaning in our lives. And it is always possible to make the shift of teshuvah, and to make a different choice.
Rambam was a rationalist, not a mystic. But I think it’s possible to read his teachings on teshuvah through the lens of gilgul, reincarnation, the “transmigration of souls.” Perhaps one of the ways in which we bring ourselves back to the same circumstances time and again is through reincarnation. Maybe the mistake I keep making in this lifetime is one I’ve made before, and only when I stop making this mistake will I be ready for whatever’s next.
What do you think your soul might be here to learn, this time around? What is the work you are uniquely here on earth to do? What are you here for?
And now that you are here: what is the karma that you create with your actions, your words, your choices? Our liturgy tells us that we write the book of our own life with every action we take. What kind of book are you writing?
There’s a teaching in Talmud that “One who doesn’t build the Beit HaMikdash in their own time, it’s as though they themselves had destroyed it.” If we don’t rebuild the Temple, it’s as though we had been the ones who tore it down. Pretty harsh stuff.
But the Hasidic rabbi known as the Bnei Yissachar offers a beautiful way of re-reading that teaching. He says, that Talmud passage is talking about someone who doesn’t know what Torah they’re uniquely meant to learn and to teach. Such a one, he says, is as though they had destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem. But one who figures out what Torah they’re meant to learn and to teach, that one contributes to the cosmic rebuilding: not with bricks and mortar, but with heart and soul.
Torah can mean not only the Five Books of Moses; not only the depth and breadth of Jewish text and tradition; but also the embodied Torah of human experience.
What is the Torah of your life which you are meant to learn and to teach?
What is it that you want your heart and soul to help build?
What are you here for?